MOLLY MCQUADE | late 1970s – early 1980s

[Fiction Staff, 1979-80; Nonfiction Editor, 1980; Business Manager, 1981; Co-Editor, 1981-2]

I was lucky enough to show up at the University of Chicago and to work for the Review while and after I was a student in the College. CR was one reason for my appearance on campus: I realized that by working for the Review, I might be able to decide whether or not I should be an editor later. But to make the observation in those words sounds too professional. I went there because my nose led the way. Whatever my reasons, the experience of editing soon controverted them, as all good experiences do. It was a madcap time; I slept little. There was too much to be awake for.

What stays in mind about the Chicago Review and still sometimes wakes me up now are two parts of my Review experience: my time served on the fiction staff in an era when it attracted better and more volatile brains than mine was to consider and reconsider the possibilities of literary vanguardism; and, at the manual opposite extreme, those ritual events known as mailouts, when the CR staff would gather for several hours over beer and coffee and label and bag a new issue of the magazine for distribution by mail around the country and the world.

The fiction staff was where I first landed at CR. We met upstairs on Monday evenings in the rear of Wilder House, bringing with us unsolicited manuscripts that we had been assigned to read at home during the previous week. The good manuscripts would be handed over to another reader, with oral or written comments made or attached to the manuscript; serious contenders would usually be discussed at length and on the spot. John Morse, Giudi Weiss, Sarah Lauzen, Janet Deckenbach, and Mitchell Marks were the main presiding critics. They herded the rest of us.

We would write down our comments about the most likely candidates for publication on the backs of their respective manila envelopes. I wish I had saved some of these. What I recall of the commentators’ animal energy may be inaccurate: a learned, sometimes vituperative scrawl; or, on occasion, a decorous hand that offered haphazardously insightful observations. All the disquisitions seemed a notch or two above my own; I wonder why their authority so impressed me. Oh, I know. Here were these people, most of them graduate students bound in deference to professors whom they really would have liked to regard as their peers. Yet they weren’t supposed to. They were smarter than the smart, cooked up, corked, and ready. The upstairs back-room table gave them their chance to tilt at the upper echelons, week after week.

I felt intellectually adopted. In fact, I felt glued into place. I liked the dust underfoot. I even liked the meanness of some of the rivalry and the recondite, erudite put-downs. The juice of the lash. Our evolving definition of taste thrived on competition of mind, even if (especially if) we all disputed what taste was. This was a useful license.

Self-consciousness prevailed at fiction meetings, but it wasn’t a shroud or a net. To be rational and judgemental didn’t mean to deal a blow to literature. It didn’t mean an end of passion. Judgment was not intended as an ongoing salute to critical egotism. Most of the fiction that made it to publication at the time was experimental in nature, and so the countless manila envelopes were especially mettlesome to would-be critics and scholars of the emergent now. The work invited us to engage in forward motion, forward thinking, even to anticipate the next literary experiment, or to conduct parallel critical experiments in a jaunty, rakish game of tag. But as we played critical tag, we did not neglect literature.

A game of reckless marathon tag, really. I remember, though not too well, writing my first whole-hearted “yes” comment for a short story called “A Series of Missed Epiphanies” by a writer named Gene Santoro. It was declined by a narrow margin and returned to the author. Could I have done more to advance its fortunes? Impossible to say. And maybe irrelevant. I learned raggedly with my nerve endings that one could write about writing in a way not only useful, but akin in metabolism and stylistics to the writing being written of. In this sense, if not in others, the critic was a writer. We all wanted to be critics, and yet didn’t feel obliged to be writers, though some of us changed our minds later. But at least we weren’t frustrated writers, nor romantics who secretly demeaned criticism. No. We merely saw a place within criticism for vanguard entrepreneurship and sparky writing. The live act of consensual criticism was the focus. And, equal to that, the picaresque lurches of the work we were reading, almost none of it canonical, almost all of it offered to us by writers whose names were unfamiliar. Oddly, I don’t remember much anxiety about the situation on the part of anyone.

If ingenuousness gave us some of our license, then cynics, theoreticians, and critics should be going for ingenuousness now. It would improve everyone, I feel. But I doubt they’re likely to indulge in such a retrograde emotion. They would more likely think, this isn’t worthy of us.

Speaking of the retrograde and ingenuous: those mail-outs. It may seem funny in retrospect to envision high-minded graduate students putting adhesive labels onto envelopes, closing them, and sorting packages by zip codes, but we all did this four times a year, no matter how bright we were. And the pragmatism of the Review is part of what may have helped to redeem us as critics. In the course of our work, we had to visualize (and serve) post offices and provincial college libraries where copies of CR had accumulated over the years, thanks to the hands of generations of students before us. Our subscription list was small; by tradition, it nearly always is with nonprofit literary magazines like CR. But in mailing out the issues, we were compelled to face our readers—in effect, compelled to shake their hands. The dirty gray mailbags with their cumbersome, tricky clasps, the classification system based on zip codes, the idiosyncratic scores of destinations (Tokyo; the Hague; Provo, Utah) were like a fantasy of destiny, or the vital statistics of a literary futurology. But there was a campsite aura. We knew our job so well that we might have done the job just as well on a highway shoulder.

I’m not sure the same could be said for most critics or literary theorists, professional or would-be. The profession itself somehow makes this difficult. Informal communal aspiration shrinks from the touch of academia, as from the slap of “professional” publishing and journalism. And I regret it. Fellowship does not seem to matter (rivalry does); readers are abandoned (except for like-minded professionals); the book becomes an afterthought, dominated by the critic’s militancy. Criticism and theory have lost their subject. Chicago never let me lose it, or forget it.