From March 4, 2013
An excerpt from my series of Ether for Authors columns on publishing at Publishing Perspectives, appearing Tuesday officially and usually late Monday on the sneak.
At roughly this time each year, the calendar on the North American continent plunges us into a fray known as AWP.
It stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. As in university programs.
Although its voluminous brochure copy never, ever says so, this is a college festival. It is the writing departments of our universities from sea to What’s-A-Tolino?-Shiny sea.
AWP calls itself “the largest literary conference in North America.” Some 11,000 are anticipated, I’m told, in and around the Hynes Convention Center in Boston this week. So dense are these growing appetites that last year in Chicago, it was hard to get something to eat at times during the conference. The area’s restaurants were simply overrun, inventories consumed in the hunger of the quest-academic.
It’s impossible to explain to those who haven’t been to AWP before how hard it will be for them to attract any attention to their own faculty reading or panel discussion on one issue or another. There are thought to be more than 500 such events in the main three days — Thursday, Friday, Saturday — of the event. Here is Thusday’s listing of sessions. You’ll be scrolling for some time. These events are proposed by the various campus programs and are selected or rejected by the conference administration, which is seated at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
The event is held in a different city each year. Normally an extremely cold city at an extremely cold time of year. The huge southerly and warmer part of our nation’s topography appears to have no appeal whatever to the halls o’ frozen ivy.
— Latino Writers (@LWCKC) March 3, 2013
A labyrinth of tables (called booths) forms the Book Fair, always a cavernous feature of this thing. The backpacked ones roam its miles of aisles, eyes glazed by the time they reach the D’s or the E’s of university presses and assorted parasitic companies shoving bookmarks, posters, refrigerator magnets, ballpoint pens, and T-shirts at the kids-who-would-not-be-called-kids. They may talk of Seamus Heaney, but they are, as people, very YA.
And tote bags. It is all about the tote bags.
This time of year, our general lament — the industry! the industry! — is replaced most truthfully by another cry: the cluelessness! the cluelessness! Writerly ambition in the world of campus programs seems rarely a thing of this year’s business upheavals or even last year’s screaming matches.
You can find a lovely, robust excitement among the collegiate attendees at AWP, graduates and undergraduates choking hallways to move from one session to another. The problem is the naïveté so frequently found in tandem with this excitement, ignorance rarely relieved by the sessions they attend.
One session on Saturday, for example, numbered S144 in the mystical designations of the program guide, promises to be about “Agents, Editors, and the State of Publishing.” In the event’s description, that “state of publishing” is defined by “the closing of Borders and the growing influence of Amazon.” These are the touchstones for these folks of “the state of publishing.” Borders closing. Amazon growing.
In her interview with Jerry Waxler at All the Write Stuff—ahead of her keynote address at The Write Stuff conference in Pennsylvania—Virginia Quarterly Review online and digital strategist and editor Jane Friedman describes where writing sees its key transition:
The biggest change by far is the growing voice and footprint of the self-publishing and e-publishing community, and the associated explosion of services for the independent author. While some of these services are much needed and welcome, it’s difficult for a new writer, without a history of experience, to distinguish between a service that’s worth her time or money, and one that is not… Also, there’s been a greater polarization of attitudes—or more strident attitudes—associated with the revolution…This creates the confusion for any writer walking into the current environment. Should you self-publish or traditionally publish?
So, presented with thousands of writers and would-be writers at AWP, wouldn’t you want to look extensively at what is probably, as Friedman notes, the most essential effect of the digital dynamic?
The agent Rachelle Gardner writes in Author Rights and Responsibilities that an author has “the responsibility to educate yourself about your options” in terms of agency representation and what type of publishing you pursue.
So, wouldn’t AWP be the perfect forum in which to focus less on the esoteric vagaries of poetry and literary analysis and more on the options its young charges will face as soon as they step off the campus curb into the peculiar traffic patterns of publishing today?
AWP’s governance, presumably reflecting its campus-program membership, seems not to agree.
- On Thursday at AWP, I count roughly some 175 sessions planned. The phrase “self-publishing” turns up in the descriptions of those sessions how many times? Zero.
- On Friday, another 175 or so sessions. Mentions of “self-publishing?” Zero.
- On Saturday, yet another 175 or so sessions. “Self-publishing?”—it’s mentioned. Once.
And even mentions of things “digital,” in fact, appear in only three sessions each on Thursday and Friday, of a total 350 sessions. On Saturday, I see five sessions with mentions of “digital,” my favorite being this line: “As the best way to gather writerly information, interviewing is being lost to its shady digital cousins.”
I hope you’ll consider me your “shady digital cousin,” won’t you?
I’ll be at #awp13 Thursday – Sunday but I intend to spend most of that time hiding in my hotel* room.*not the conference hotel — elliott holt (@elliottholt) March 3, 2013
So if not what’s going on in writing today, just what are they talking about, you might wonder, at AWP? A few session titles here:
- “Women in Crime.” (They mean female writers who “build a crime series around a female protagonist,” apparently, not a roomful of lawbreaking ladies.)
- “The Whole Megillah: The Jewish Experience in Children’s Books.”
- “Lower Your Standards: William Stafford in the Workshop.” (“Overcoming writer’s block through lowered standards can help students become fluent practitioners.” Great.)
- “Poets Out Loud Prize Series: A Reading.” (Because readings are so hard to pull off if they’re not Out Loud, don’t you agree?)
- “Arab Women Writing in the 21st Century.”
- “Translating Slippery Dreamers: French Surrealist Poetry in the Hands of American Authors.”
- “On Labor: Junior Women Faculty in Creative Writing Programs.”
- “It Could Always Be Verse: Books in Verse for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers.”
- “Women and The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.” (That’s Harold Bloom. 1973.)
- “Progression by Digression: Multiple Narrative Lines in Creative Nonfiction.”
- “What’s That Book About, Anyway? or, The Stealth Memoir in All Its Guises.”
Look out for those stealth memoirs.
You get the idea. There’s a handy at-a-glance (a very big glance) look at the three days’ offerings in a page-turning graphical interface, if you’d like, located here. In this online edition of the conference program you can see the many, many ads for MFA programs vying for attention and announcing their sponsorship of this and that.
AWP is primarily a glimpse at how profoundly separate from commercial publishing interests is the academic world’s concept of book-ly interests—and the way it peddles those interests to the young scholars who will, after all, finally live in our world, not at the Hynes Center. Literary concerns seem to override most of the events. It’s hard to spot much comprehension of the fact that Bowker shows us more than 32 million active titles now bursting its Books in Print’s listings. That tsunami of genre writing in the marketplace (Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women, for example)? We’re whistling past it in parkas and mittens and knit caps, mortar boards with ear muffs.
Watch for the hashtag #AWP13 to follow things this week. I’ve also opened an Epilogger account to aggregate things on the fly — more than 700 tweets were waiting as soon as I set it up, days ahead of the event. Did I mention it’s very large?
It’s in Boston this year. But it sure looks like the other years.
Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.