In Which I Complain About the AWP Conference

Sure, it's a good time, but that doesn't mean it couldn't be better.

February 24, 2012

Several days from now, I will be attending the Associated Writing Program Conference for the second time.

Given that I’m a 1997 M.F.A graduate and have taught in higher ed for almost a dozen years, and written “professionally” for longer than that, it seems like I should’ve made at least a couple more appearances over the years, but the truth is, when it comes to this annual gathering, for the most part, I am not a fan. I’m going this year because I was honored to be asked to be part of a reading featuring one of my mentors and another writer whom I’ve come to greatly admire. Stealing some of their glow reflects well on me.

It’s also in Chicago, which is home, which means a free place to stay and a bundle of oatmeal cookies from my mom for the road back to Charleston.

Part of my ill feeling is the crowds, which I avoid as a general rule. Part of it is the passive-aggressive jockeying for status and position amongst the assembled creative writers. The increasing professionalization of our trade is not to our credit. My previous AWP experience (also in Chicago), I remember Charles Baxter walking through the hotel lobby not realizing he was being trailed by a good dozen hopeful acolytes looking for a moment of the man’s time.

I also majorly overspent at the book fair and practically dislocated a shoulder lugging my wares home.

Don’t get me wrong, I may be a curmudgeon before my time, but I’m no hater. For a group that must often feel beleaguered and marginalized, even (or particularly) within academia, it’s nice to get together among the like-minded and affirm to each other that we’re not alone and that what we’re doing matters to someone else. Old friendships are re-struck. Some fresh ideas exchanged. I believe alcohol is involved.

Any gathering that treats Charles Baxter like a Kardashian can’t be all bad.

Most of my qualms are because I can’t help but see a good portion of the activities as a waste of time, human capital, and money, or if not a waste, exactly, a non-ideal distribution of these finite resources.

Ten thousand people have signed up for this year’s events. Over 450 panels, readings and talks are scheduled over three days (more than 20 per time period), and that’s just on site. The fold-out poster of the featured presenters looks like a murderer’s row of contemporary literature. If you want to say “what’s up?” to Margaret Atwood you need to be chosen in a lottery.

That’s a lot of literature and writing-related energy gathered in one spot.

What bothers me is that this energy is primarily concentrated on each other, a collective, boozy self-hug followed by some thunderous mutual backslapping, ending in sloppy wet kisses. Don’t get me wrong, I like feeling awesome as much as the next guy, but if there is a crisis in creative writing, anyone will tell you it’s not a shortage of writers, but of readers. In the immortal words of former President George W. Bush, what if instead of spending all our time talking to each other, we worked on “growing the pie”?

Obviously, these ideas are too late for this year and what I’m about to propose is easier to say than do, but let’s think of them as conversation starters, possible models for the 2013 convention in Boston.

To put it another way, just spitballin’ here.

  • Instead of opening the book fair to the public on the last day of conference, let’s move it out of the basement and into (heated) tents on Daley Plaza for the entire duration. Every 10 minutes we’ll raffle off free books from attending publishers. On the final day, one lucky citizen will win an entire library’s worth, one title from every exhibitor.
  • Friday afternoon, in packs of twenty, we shall ride Chicago Public Transit, everyone very prominently reading the same book, marketing, stealth-style. Since it’s my idea, let’s make it my book.
  • Or, how about taking that group of writers with the full-color head shots and offering them free to 50 law firm conference rooms across the city for a lunch time reading? Every lawyer’s got a novel in a drawer, right? Let’s deliver some novelists. We can even do a lottery for which law firm gets which reader. Better yet, an online auction, with the proceeds going to charity. Baker & Mackenzie can battle Kirkland & Ellis for the rights to Jennifer Egan or Marilynn Robinson.
  • Wikipedia tells me there are 400,000 students in the Chicago public school system, a 40 to 1 ratio of students to conference attendees, a ratio that looks a lot like an average class size, which means we could cancel some of those panel discussions and put a creative writer in every single classroom in the city for half a day.

I’m certain there’s other, better ideas to be had and you should feel free to share them in the comments. The goal, I believe, should be to direct all that energy outward, rather than spending so much time preaching to the converted, we could become a kind of supernova of art, exploding out of the conference center in order to destroy hearts and minds in the best of ways.


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