Last week Rachel Shteir’s review of The Third Coast, Golden, and You Were Never in Chicago appeared in the New York Times Book Review (though she claims it is actually an essay). Proud Chicagoans quickly responded: every city has problems, Chicago has a lot going for it, and Shteir can go back to New York if she misses a “real” city so much.
I followed up with a bit of reading on Shteir, including an interview that made her views a little clearer. Her argument is more that Chicagoans are prone to boosterism and ignore the very real problems that their city has. (She also says that the personal remarks against her are a “sad commentary on the state of criticism.” As true that sounds, it makes me think of her as the huffy old person pining for the good old days when debate held to a high level of decorum and no one ever said anything untoward). As she said that she viewed it as an essay more than a review, and as I’m someone who’s taught about writing essays here and there, I’ve got a few humble bits of advice for the esteemed professor.
1) Beginning your essay by quoting a conversation with your friend in which you list Chicago’s problems makes it sound like you’re thesis is that Chicago sucks. If you state your actual argument (that Chicagoans are so prone to boosterism that they don’t admit to/address their problems) at the outset and people will A) know what the charges against their city are and B) be forced to reckon with those charges on your terms.
2) You wonder how many times Milton Friedman passed by the projects on his way to Lakeshore drive from the University of Chicago campus without entering them… and then admit that you rarely left Hyde Park as an undergraduate at same. I’m not saying that students need to venture into unsafe neighborhood to have cred, but to accuse Friedman of a something you yourself didn’t do isn’t really fair.
3) The only book of the three that you like is Dyja’s The Third Coast. It sounds quite like you find Chicago’s history as a place for radical art and architecture to be the most interesting bit of everything you read, but then you bury it in a justifiable but unconstructive complaint about Chicagoans’ inability to take criticism (and no, I don’t buy it when you suggest that ruffling feathers is in and of itself a good thing that contributes to the debate). If you’re interested in that part of Chicago’s history, and I am interested in that part of Chicago’s history, why not tell me about that and relegate the stuff about Chicago boosterism somewhere else?
All that aside, what I really think is going on is linkbait. Shteir is obviously a smart woman, and the editorial staff at the Times has, you know, a little bit of experience, but one wonders if they’re really just stirring the pot to get hits on their webpage. After all, I wouldn’t have found out about all this if it wasn’t for the criticism Shteir was taking for trashing Chicago as she does. If I’m going to imply that I’m smart enough to identify poorly constructed arguments, I should also be smart enough to recognize the fact that I get my news through filters that favor arguments that are built to inflame more than edify. Such are the modern media.