Rachel Shteir: A Midwestern Scandal in the Age of the Internet

An ex-New Yorker sets a new Chicago fire by lovingly criticizing the Windy City

Fournier drawing of ShteirLast Sunday, a piece of mine, “Chicago Manuals,” was published in the New York Times Book Review, a round-up of three—well four actually, if you count the reprint of the 1893 guidebook due out in May–books about Chicago, where I have lived for the last thirteen years since I left New York. It was a provocative piece about, among other things, the city’s sadness and violence.

The piece went viral, with analysis of the piece and analysis of the reaction to the piece and reactions to my reaction. When a book review becomes the subject of editorials on local news, I knew that “struck an exposed nerve” didn’t quite cover the collective anger my adopted hometown had displayed.

Some early attacks treated a literary essay as a piece of reportage. Many people, including one of the writers of one of the books I reviewed, took the role of armchair analysts, writing that in my perilous mental state I clearly needed “help.”

That could not be truer. Cleaning the snow off my car in the winter—that always takes way too long. Also, I wish I knew how to bake. And I never mastered eyeliner.

It was striking to learn that complete strangers responded to a piece in which I talk about the look of Chicago with emails, Facebook posts, and blogs about my looks (I resemble a vampire “with black dead eyes”); my sexual preferences (lesbian!); my character (“deceitful” (now, hold on there, wasn’t that the former corrupt governor of Illinois, one of the subjects of one of the books I reviewed, who was deceitful?). Also, that I should leave Chicago and go back to New York.Shafer tweet

By the end of the week, the backlash had been picked up by the national media and meta pieces ran in the New Republic and on All Things Considered and the scandal was reviewed—like a play–in the Sunday arts pages of the Chicago Tribune.

“Why Squander Shteir?” was one of my favorite lines.

Cultural critics far smarter than I have written about the Internet as an assault on civility and about how Facebook makes it impossible for the individual to exist outside of the marketplace.

Thankfully, I’m not going to repeat those indictments here.

But I would like to take the opportunity to recite a brief prayer for the man who has inspired me more than any other.

I’m talking about Steve Bartman.

Oh, sorry, I forgot. Writing for a New York newspaper, a reference to a guy who received death threats after catching a foul ball at a Cubs game just is not going to play.

Okay, then, I’m talking about Christopher Hitchens, the man who attacked Mother Theresa.

But seriously, as the week dragged on, I thought many times about how being a critic, a job that LA Times theatre reviewer Charlie McNulty recently referred to as “antediluvian”—does something that, despite the efforts of educators, politicians, and Tedtalks, has less than zero value in the marketplace today—namely, it makes people think.

And I wondered (as Carrie Bradshaw used to write on the TV show that was created in these pages) why I do it.

Well not because I luv being attacked (last week, some people asked if I was having ‘a blast’ as if we had all just gone to the amusement park) or because there’s even the remotest possibility of my capitulating to any of my critics’ ideas (there isn’t). I do it because I actually believe ideas and arguing are important.

And, also, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of female critics, which, let’s face it, has just not gotten as much play as “having it all” or being a “tiger mom.” Or gay marriage or day care. Goooooo Female Critics!

The thing that kept pissing me off last week—besides the fact that I had to wear a blond wig–was the total irrelevance of Sheryl Sandberg to my situation. I mean, I tried to lean in. And look what happened!

Women should not be leaning in as if life were some sort of coffeeklatch from the Mad Men era. Instead, they should not be backing down or allowing themselves to be sidetracked by arguments that are irrelevant to the points they’re trying to make.

What women should not be doing is worrying so much about being liked.

In fact, whether I “like” Chicago was the theme to the backlash against my piece, as if I nursed some kind of secret grudge against the city. Or as if we were all trapped on Facebook.

Does being liked have to count for so much? Especially for women? Is it a zero sum game?

One intrepid reporter wanted to know if I liked Chicago hotdogs. And one person I actually didn’t like reassured me that he still liked me. Despite everything.

Isn’t that always how it goes?

And countless people asked: “Are you happy here?” as if my elation would diminish the infamous murder rate.

Then there was the ultimate piece of Freudian analysis–that I needed to get laid.

I just don’t see how my sex life has any bearing on the problems of the city.

It was impossible not to notice that so many of the journalists asking me somberly if I regretted writing the piece were men. (Would male journalists be asked about their regrets, I– to use the word again– wondered? Regret is just such a delicate, feminine emotion, unlike big, macho, bravado.)

And it was also interesting to see that several male, um, frenemies inquired, in the tone that my mother used to adopt when she would tell me that something I had on for school was inappropriate: “Didn’t you know that the piece would provoke this kind of response?”

I will just say what I used to say to my mother: the answer to that question is no. I didn’t think, while I was writing the piece, gee, I’ll take out the word “bloviate” because if I don’t, readers will call me names. Nor did I imagine, while sweating over my laptop, that the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, would tweet: “read the book, don’t read the review”—now there’s a triumph for the beleaguered publishing industry– or that some entrepreneurial soul would set up a fake twitter account in which “I” say things like “Chicago Eats Dick.” Or that anyone would actually believe that “I” was me.

I didn’t sit around thinking that if I went on television to defend a book review—yes, that actually happened—and under pressure, conceded that one thing I liked in Chicago was walking along the lake, I would receive death threats. “Maybe you should get a dog. A big dog. Or some mace.”

I didn’t think about these things because when I wrote the piece, I wasn’t thinking about being liked.

Lest you get the impression that everything that happened last week condemns me to an existence as a pariah, that’s not true! Hundreds of supportive emails poured in, from my students, former students, strangers, and friends.

I also received invitations to do activism and a man with a European accent left a message on my voicemail saying he had files on political corruption that he thought I should see.

Someone even emailed me telling me I would look good in a cheerleader outfit.

Now that is the kind of compliment that makes me appreciate living here.

Because to paraphrase Nora Ephron on bikinis, you can only wear cheerleading outfits until you’re 34.

And by the way, New Yorkers, I once a few years ago muttered Ephron’s line in the upscale lingerie store, La Petite Coquette, where I did happen to be browsing the obscenely priced two-pieces against my better judgment.

The salesgirl looked at me in horror. I had committed the unthinkable sin in New York: I had said I was too old.

“Oh, no,” she said, in an optimistic voice. “You can wear a bikini anytime.”

As Ms. Ephron might say, Sister, not if you want to be liked!

Rachel Shteir is the author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting