Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Sun-Times Adds Insult to Injury By Dropping Book Coverage

A Q&A with Henry Kisor, former editor of the Sun-Times book section (and before it, the Chicago Daily News), on the demise of his old section and the future of book coverage.

As of this Sunday the Chicago Sun-Times kills its pages devoted to books and the entertainment-focused “Show” section in which they appeared. There was a time in the ‘80s and ‘90s and into the 21st century when, some weeks, I thought the book coverage in the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times superior to that in the then-separate, much richer, Chicago Tribune book section. The Sun-Times editor back then was Henry Kisor, who started as the book editor of the late, great Chicago Daily News in 1973 and, when that paper folded in 1978, moved over as book editor of its sister paper, the Chicago Sun-Times. Kisor kept the job until 2006 when he took a buyout and retired.

(I often wrote reviews for Henry and he paid attention in print to books I wrote. I also wrote reviews for the Chicago Tribune and my books were also reviewed in its pages.)

Since retiring, Kisor, 72,  and his wife, Deborah Abbott, the former Sun-Times children’s book editor columnist, spend summers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,  and Henry has written several nonfiction books and a string of mystery novels set in the UP and featuring Porcupine County Sheriff Steve Martinez.  When I read that book coverage and other entertainment reviews/news will now appear in the Sunday Sun-Times celebrity/society-heavy section Splash, I emailed Henry and asked him how he felt about the sacking of a section he’d edited for almost 30 years. 

An edited, slightly condensed version of our email conversation appears below:

CF: How are you feeling about the demise of the section you edited for so long?

HK: Sad. But I am sadder about the larger calamity that has overtaken newspaper journalism. (Kisor has lamented on his own blog, not only on the death of the book section, but also his old paper’s sacking of its entire crew of photographers.)

CF: Have you been a reader of the section in recent years? Your opinion of its virtues/defects?

HK: Yes. It just grew too small, its reviews and articles too short, but that wasn’t the editors’ fault. For the last 15 or 20 years in the industry, book editors in general have had to do more and more with less and less, and in the main their bosses have forced them to stress the shallow and popular over the literary and thoughtful. Long-form reviews and articles are almost dead. 

CF: Do you read the Chicago Tribune books coverage on Saturdays? 

HK: Occasionally. 

CF: Do you subscribe to and read its subscription-only Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal?

HK: No. Can’t afford it. Neither can my branch library. (Subscriptions range from $99 a year to $29, the latter digital-only access.)

CF: You have written that the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal is “probably doomed.” Why do you say that?

HK: “Mene, mene tekel upharsin” is all around us. The Journal is a brave and often brilliant effort, but we all know what’s coming in the newspaper industry. I really hope I’m wrong.

CF: The New York Times Book Review. Do you read it?

HK: Every week.

CF: Any on-line book coverage you read and/or admire?

HK: Occasionally. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Arts & Letters Daily website. Bookforum, The Browser and Salon.com.

CF: The Sun-Times is hardly the only paper to ditch its book sections. Of those still published do you have a favorite?

HK: The Times Book Review, of course. The Washington Post book pages.

CF: Anything to say about Sun-Times book coverage being folded into Splash, which seems to me about society parties, stuff to buy, stuff to improve your looks and your wardrobe.  I can’t imagine how it will work; unless the point is to cover books related to celebrity. Your thoughts?

HK: Exactly what yours are. 

CF: When you retired in 2006 did you see what was coming or were you just ready to retire?

HK: By 2006 it was clear that newspapers faced a financial super storm, but I was surprised that the hurricane made landfall so fast and with such force. I can’t claim any real foresight, though. I was almost 66, growing weary and facing increasing physical challenges, so I was more than ready to go out to pasture. Lucky for me that I was able to take a buyout.

CF: You were book editor of the Sun-Times, 1978 – 2006; book editor, Chicago Daily News, 1973 - 1978. How did the coverage of books change over those 33 years?

HK: It ebbed and flowed, ebbed and flowed, and in the last years mostly ebbed. Oddly, the best years for me as an editor were when Rupert Murdoch owned the Sun-Times. He threw money at the paper and some of it washed up in the book section. I was able to travel far and wide to interview authors.

CF: You were known for your author interviews. Any anecdotes you remember about interviewing particular writers?  Who were the most fun to meet? 

HK: William Styron, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, Edward Abbey, Ved Mehta, Eric Ambler, Jonathan Raban, Scott Turow and Tom Wolfe come to mind as authors who worked hard at providing the press with thoughtful and readable material in their interviews. Abbey and I drove out into the Sonoran Desert for some photographs and he didn’t laugh when I fell into a cactus. Joe and Valerie Heller conducted a mock and very funny marital squabble behind my back, knowing my cassette recorder would pick it up. 

CF: The least?

HK: Anthony Burgess, hands down. He was so distant and inattentive during our luncheon interview that his press minder repeatedly had to rap his elbow to answer my questions.

CF: Looking back over the many interviews with authors and reviews you’ve written, did you ever get an  author really angry with you? If yes, describe.

HK: Bernard Malamud was outraged when I wrote that he looked like a grocer. I was trying to make the point that great writers often look like ordinary people and are unrecognizable in public. He did work very hard at the interview.

Eric Ambler blew up not at me but at Tony Suau, the punky young photographer who rapped him in the shin with a tripod. I thought the interview was blown but Ambler was by God going to make it a success and calmed down. Tony went on to the Denver Post, where he redeemed himself with a Pulitzer Prize…. Kurt Vonnegut once sent me a blistering letter after I printed a pan of one of his later novels, by another writer. Jay Robert Nash came gunning for me, fists clenched, in the office for having had the audacity to run a negative review of one of his books, but I was fortunately absent that day.

CF: What are  you reading now?

HK: I’m bingeing on the novels of Jo Nesbo, a very good Norwegian mystery novelist.

CF: Do you read fiction, nonfiction both?

HK: Far less literary fiction than I once did. I do read a lot of nonfiction, mostly biography and history. Since I became a mystery writer I’ve soaked up a lot of whodunits.

CF: Do you read e-books?

HK: Yes. About 90 per cent of my reading is in e-books. I’m not a particular lover of books as objects and don’t really care what form they come in. To me, text is the thing. E-book readers are the most convenient for consumption of texts.

CF: Where do you get your books—library, store, Amazon? 

HK: Amazon, mostly, and in the form of e-books.

CF: During your career and currently, who are the best writers writing about books?

HK: Haven’t formed any conclusions about that. I would say, however, that writers under review are usually more interesting than their critics. John Updike was a notable exception. Elmore Leonard, too. Dutch [as Leonard is sometimes called] wrote a lot of book reviews to put meat on the table, and when he finally became famous and financially secure, declined review assignments with thanks. 

CF: Are there magazines whose book coverage you admire, depend on? Which ones?

HK: The New Yorker.

CF: Are you writing a book currently? 

HK: I’ve been pushing a fifth Steve Martinez mystery around my dinner plate, but it’s still stuck between the potatoes and the peas while I wait to see how sales of the fourth novel go. Not much point in finishing a new novel if the publisher’s not interested.

CF: Which, if any, of the book awards are most meaningful: National Book Critics Circle, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes?  

HK: In my day the NBAs, closely followed by the Pulitzers, were the most meaningful. I haven’t kept up, though.

CF: Cities used to be informally  rated as “book towns”; Chicago was not at the top of the list, ever, but some years came close to it. What do you say about Chicago as a “book town” today?

HK: It always has been a lively town for books and authors. Many good writers still prowl the joint, especially younger ones, but I belong to a bygone day and in any case my heart and interests today lie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

CF: Are either of your sons in the journalism or the writing business?

HK: My older son, Colin, is a Justice Department attorney in Washington and a commander in the naval reserve. He is my go-to guy for questions about criminal law. My younger son, Conan, is in corporate communications at Boeing. Conan was a City News Bureau reporter for two years and still talks about being under live fire in the projects when the Bulls won their first championship.

CF: Who was the best of the Sun-Times book editors who followed you?

HK: You really think I’m gonna answer that?

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