Baltimore: a rich literary venue The region: A welcoming home to both writing and publishing.


January 07, 1996|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

This home to hairdo stylists and hardcrab malleteers, to lacrosse gunners and once-more-unto-the-breach shortstops - is it also friendly country for a writer? This Baltimore, this Maryland - does the region invite and nourish careers in literature? Does it earn more than a pro rata share of publishing glory?

Yes. Certainly. The proof is in stores, libraries, homes - and the intellects and performances of a wide array of resident writers.

Some writers will dispute this confident assertion; but writers - insecure, on deadline, their rejections mounting - can be doubtful witnesses. Better to weigh the evidence.

Immediately relevant are the 1995 National Book Awards, with their row of three Baltimore finalists, and 1994's $40,000 Lincoln Prize, which went to the editors (largely from the University of Maryland College Park) of "Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War." Better of course to have won an NBA, and that did happen in 1973 when the award went to John Barth for "Chimera."

Thus far into the '90s, the Pulitzer Prize juries have

bestowed their wreaths and checks elsewhere. But still in Maryland ears is the echo of 1989 and its ringing pair of Pulitzers, to Anne Tyler (fiction) and Taylor Branch (history). Fainter - because the title then was "consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress" instead of today's jazzy "U.S. poet laureate" - yet still audible is the echo from Josephine Jacobsen's 1971-73 tenure of poetry's top honor.

Right now, the pot bubbles. The New Yorker and Richard Avedon singled out a Goucher College faculty novelist, in that magazine's winter fiction issue, for its Showcase (full-page head shot, with adjoining text): Madison Smartt Bell.

Last fall, Mr. Bell put one over on the critics, many of whom had pegged him as the prolific but rutted portrayer of grunge-level lives in nowadays America. "All Souls' Rising" turned away, to Haiti, and back, to the blood-soaked ouster of its French colonial overlords, in the 1790s. Bell's "passionately engaged opus," only the start of a trilogy, also has its detractors - always a good sign, when people care.

Of course, Baltimore and its environs do have a few literary-standpoint drawbacks. Always, as in other cities, there is passthrough: the young Poe didn't stick around; neither did, latterly, Karl Shapiro, Russell Baker, William Manchester, Robert Kotlowitz, Robert Ward, Sidney Offit, Murray Kempton, Roger Zelazny, Frank Deford, et al.

But that is all history. Detractors should look at the present, at Lucille Clifton, the poet with a second strength in children's books, at David Simon, still keeping vigil over the homicidal streets. Look at Tom Clancy. Reviewers eat him for breakfast, him and the horses of war he came in on. Mr. Clancy's prizes and awards are sectarian. But he has more hardback readers than anybody; and, smiling, he writes on.

Is Baltimore a good place to be, when someone feels a book coming on? Many of the submissions for Clarinda Harriss' New Poets Series are national; a plaintiveness marks some of the cover letters: it must be nice living in Baltimore, they say, where so much goes on.

Another positive indicator is the level of oncoming activity. It's high: Jean H. Baker's family biography of Illinois' Adlai Stevensons; Rob Kanigel's biography of Frederick Lewis Taylor; David Simon's next take on inner-city crime and drug-high death; the 100th novel by Nora Roberts, queen of the happily-ever-after shelf.

For what it's worth, Josephine Jacobsen, Madison Bell and Stephen Dixon, 1995's three local short-list candidates for NBA honors, weren't Baltimoreans to begin with. They came here, have written fine books while here and, writing ever on, remain here.

Gold and groupies

So much for the realms of gold, for the celebrity author with his or her agent and publisher, advances and royalties and residuals, lecture fees, groupies - and the freedom to settle or to move. What of the lower-down life, the writer seeking to struggle up from obscurity?

But how does the aspiring writer break from the pack? Beyond the Great American Novel, today's young writer dreams of the killer TV or movie script, the anthology poem, the syndicated humor column, the Mencken chair in punditry. Or, something in cyberspace. Reality keeps intruding: the hard work for a poem that is simply publishable, the failure of publishing houses to hire readers for over-the-transom material, the presence out there of thousands of other TV-generationists, busily polishing their brilliant scripts.

(As for their elders, whose careers have been in money, not by-lines, when at last they have the urge to put incidents and insights into the record, several local publishers, for payment, turn manuscripts, even oral history into books.)

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