SARAH E. LAUZEN | late 1970s

[Fiction Staff, 1977–80; Co-Editor, 1980; Editor, 1982–83]

This short memoir has been difficult to write.

I joined the fiction staff in 1977, became coeditor in 1980, and finished as editor for the special section “{In/Re}  novative Fiction” in 1982 and 1983 (33:2–3). There were remarkable people there—charming, exasperating, opinionated, brilliant. We met Monday nights, seven to ten (or later, as long as it took), in a building on the University of Chicago campus called Wilder House—top floor, back—from which all good taste filtered down, we believed. I remember someone on the fiction staff saying, when a manuscript didn’t make the cut, “Give it to poetry, maybe they’ll like it.” A playful rivalry.

From the piles of logged manuscripts, we drew armfuls like presents: they were marked “new,” “in consideration,” “one more reader,” or “reject.” Manila envelopes had handwritten or typed comments on the outside, which were read aloud, discussed, debated—sometimes with great passion and force—and voted upon. Most manuscripts, of course, never made it beyond the “one more reader” slush pile. “No good,” one staffer was known to scribble on the small, yellow rejection slips. (We caught most of those before they went out.)

This was a vital, intense time. Those years were full of vigor, heightened energy, passion. (Personal reflections? I could write pages on the capricious inter- and intra-staff romances alone.) We were convinced that we were part of something larger than ourselves. We had a mission. Above all, we were fiercely committed to publishing innovative, experimental work that could not or was not being published elsewhere. We knew what we wanted and determined to get it. We were good at this.

Yet at some point I felt that the staff was changing, tending toward a more traditional realism, more established names, greater cultural relevancy, and away from non-linear narrative, unknowns, art for art’ s sake.

Enter: “A Special Section on {In/Re}  novative Fiction in Two Parts.” From my introduction: “The call for ‘fiction with a formal interest, or what has variously been known as avant-garde, experimental, disruptive, anti-, sur-, super-, post-realistic, para-, meta-, post-contemporary, postmodern, and the new fiction’ went out beginning in January 1981. Roughly 1, 000 manuscripts and eight months later, one special section had become two, and we had at least 31 provocative additions to the house of fiction.” The section included both fiction and nonfiction, with a subsection on “Beckett & the Literature of Ruin.”

Imagine having an almost Ceaușescu-like control (or feeling that way) over the entire process: from initial concept, solicitation of manuscripts, and correspondence with authors, to copy editing, design, and layout. To accommodate more work in the same number of pages, I chose a smaller than usual sans-serif typeface, Optima 9/10 × 25 pi. “Try Pessima, Printer!” objected regular contributor John Mella when he saw his galleys. As I struggle to read this tiny print, I now see (or rather don’t) that he was right. I extend my apologies to him (RIP) and to all the others for my youthful miscalculation.

The cover was translucent vellum, revealing the question, “Is the Text Opaque?” on the table of contents. (I had wanted to do a Christo wrap, but it proved financially prohibitive.) Inside was a subscription order form offering a free decoder ring, printed in the form of the nutritional information label on a cereal box. As a percentage of the recommended dietary allowance: verisimilitude, 4%; obvious symbolism, 100%; sanctimonious drivel 55%; etc. Did I really write, “If you are not satisfied with the quality of the Chicago Review in this package call ‘Saul’ at… .” and include my own phone number? Yes, apparently I did.

As the story goes, I was taking my prep course for the graduate language requirement. I hadn’t realized I actually needed to study to pass the exam. Repeating the class, I got to know the instructor, Charles Krance, who just happened to have an interest in Samuel Beckett—and his Paris address.

I solicited Beckett to see if he had anything to contribute. He wrote back, “I have nothing worth having in your special issue. I am sorry to disappoint you.” Dr. Krance happened to know of the short text, “As the Story Was Told,” which had not yet been published in English. Beckett said sure: “A few small corrections. No note to add from me.” With an original photo of Beckett by Raymond Federman, another contributor, we had the core of our subsection. A gracious “thank you” followed his receipt of contributor’s copies.

During a particularly dark period of my life, in a (regretfully) impulsive attempt to reduce the volume of books in my life, I tossed my four or five feet of CR back issues (including at least one issue of Big Table).

Then why do bits of prose, titles, authors—even issue covers—remain surprisingly vivid in my mind? Perhaps because I used so many of these texts in my Modernist Creative Writing Workshop as “live exhibits”—stunning examples of this or that technique or treatment. In addition, as part of the Chicago Review Speaker Series, we invited some of our authors to give readings, among them Raymond Federman, Beth Tashery Shannon, John Mella, and Stephen Dixon. While they were visiting, I invited them to talk in my workshops. Two of them in turn extended their own extra-literary invitations for experiments of a more lascivious nature.

Some of my colleagues are gone: Brian Stonehill, Ted Shen, John Mella, no doubt others. A few of us remain close and in each other’s lives: Mitchell Marks, Giudi Weiss, Janet Deckenbach. Most, I imagine, are scattered to the professions, or nestled in English departments (where I wished I were, where I believed I should have been), tenured and trailing their bibliographies toward retirement.

I look up and I am suddenly old.

But not dead yet?

Not dead yet.

How many of us secretly thought it was the end of an era when we left? I was fortunate to join CR at a time of very passionate, authoritative, admirable, and sometimes intimidating editors and staff. My personal trajectory shifted toward decades of disease and depression. Even though I wasn’t able to continue to teach and write and publish back then, those years at CR proved to be pivotal for me, defining my development as a reader, editor, and critic. And I hope my contribution helped cement CR’s position in the late 70s and early 80s as hawker of the avant-garde. (Short version: I wore boots. I got laid. I fought for work I believed in. I learned from the best. It was good.)

Doesn’t matter how it ends. Perhaps it is just this.

Words remain. CR continues.