Well Read: Karen Long Looks at the Literary Landscape in Cleveland

It feels appropriate that Karen Long, former Plain Dealer books editor and current manager of the Anisfield-Wolf book awards, has met us just outside Loganberry Books on Larchmere Boulevard, the trendy, frayed edge of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. The award ceremony was last Thursday at Playhouse Square and Long is still recuperating from several hectic weeks. But we use the Anisfield-Wolf Awards as a launchpad to talk about writing in Cleveland and the importance of literature in society:   

Sam Allard: So the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award is this major award in the literary world, and yet not many people even know about it.

Karen Long:  I'm praying for the day when that won't be the angle. It is perplexing and paradoxical because we had church on Thursday [at the awards ceremony]. The room was electric. There were four different college classes—there's now an Anisfield-Wolf college course at Case, which I'm so delighted about, and one of the students went to high school in Lakewood, one went to Magnificat, and both were indignant that they'd never heard of it. They'd taken classes in social justice and had never heard of this thing right on their back steps. So I said give me your teacher's names. It's one conversation at a time. One church group, one library at a time. But it is an uphill slog capturing the attention of people in the 216.

So what is your job, exactly?

I'm paid by the Cleveland Foundation. They took this prize on, per Edith Anisfield-Wolf's instructions in her will, which she drew up in 1963. One aspect of Edith's prescience is that she figured out that a community foundation would handle money astutely and keep the award moving forward in perpetuity.  

And just for the record, the award honors works about racism?

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize is judged by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove,  Simon Schama and Steven Pinker and every year they pick the books—fiction and nonfiction—that best examine racism and diversity.

And is that panel permanent?

It has been since '96.

Quite the lineup.

It's what makes our writers most excited. That, and looking at who else has won.

Cleveland has had a couple of hometown winners, yes? Langston Hughes?

He won, yes. Hart Crane grew up here, but didn't win. Toni Morrison is local. And what I like to say when I talk to groups is that life is about where you look. And because the Anisfield-Wolf Award came before people had heard of Nadine Gordimer or Gwendolyn Brooks or Derek Walcott or Martin Luther King, they had Anisfield-Wolf prizes. Five years before his "I Have a Dream Speech," Martin Luther King had an Anisfield-Wolf for his very first book, Stride Toward Freedom.  He laid out his game plan in '58 for anyone who cared to have a look for what remade the life of not only everybody in the country but, some scholars would tell you, everybody on the planet. The books winning Anisfield-Wolf prizes now are setting the table for conversations your children will be having.

This year included?

Of course. [Nonfiction winner] Andrew Solomon said on Thursday that we who are in the rights movements cling to whomever came before us—so gay people cling to African Americans for example—but at the same time, we distance ourselves from those trying to come behind us, in the autism rights movement or the disability rights movement. That's just human nature. But what Andrew said was until we're all free, nobody's free.

The award is a vital part of the Cleveland lit landscape, but it's not the only part. As Books Editor for the PD, did you see any changes in Cleveland as a place for writers?

I think there's been an explosion in creative use of words. Kristin Ohlson, who wrote Stalking the Divine, said she can remember when there were only three writers in town: Sarah Willis, [Mark] Winegardner and...she probably wasn't counting herself. But now, they're like grapes clustered through Cleveland Heights. You can't throw a rock. It was Michael Ruhlman who pointed out to me that because of the Internet, you don't have to live in New York anymore. Mary Doria Russell has never met her editor at Random House. They do all their editing online. If you want to live in a place that costs one-fifth of what Manhattan costs, you have family here, or you just love Cleveland, you can be at the center of the literary life and prosper.

Flannery O'Connor loved writing in the South because she was tapped into her life experience there. There's just so much more recognition and history writing in a place you're from.

Not to mention Catholicism.

True that. What do you think Cleveland writers are tapping into? Any common threads?

Well, Anne Trubek's working that terrain with Rust Belt Chic. Is there a Rust Belt sensibility? Should we be telling our own stories? I see a lot of diversity in content—children's poetry, horror stories, comics—Harvey Pekar is probably the best known writer to come out of Cleveland in 50 years. But Anne said something that made sense to me that might be applicable: She said it used to be that everyone was from the Northeast. Now, when you move around the country, you find out everyone is from the Midwest. They might be living in Santa Barbara, but they grew up in Cleveland Heights. What that means to who they are is hard to put your finger on, but it means something.

I know you're reading a ton of stuff for Anisfield-Wolf, but do you try to keep up with local writers' work?

Oh yeah. I still do a lot of book talks, and I always hold up local books. It's important to fight that provincialism that if it's from the outside, it's magically better.  

As books editor, did you ever feel like you personally were introducing a writer to Cleveland or a wider audience?

Well, that's the vanity.  But then you move out into the world and realize that most of the world isn't listening, starting with your own children. But of course. There's nothing greater than to say 'Dan Chaon is an essential writer for anyone who wants to understand the fracturing of identity' or 'Mary Doria Russell did something in The Sparrow that nobody's come close to doing again.'

They're a really great group, these Cleveland writers.

It's really remarkable. Julia Kuo did the illustrations for Justin Glanville's book New to Cleveland, which is genius. I love that book. She grew up in L.A. and she said she never would have gotten her art hung in a restaurant there. Here, you can talk to the owner of the cafe and they'll give you the place for the night, so your friends can have music and look at your stuff. There is an intimacy and a warmth that she said she could be a superstar in L.A. and never experience. It's so gratifying.   

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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