18 Feb AWP in Chicago

I’m the president of AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Every year we bring our members together for a 3-day conference. Last year we were in New York City. It was our biggest conference ever – 8,500 attendees – and we didn’t think we’d break that number. But we did break it at this year’s conference in Chicago, where, just last week, we drew 8,700. We were surprised and gratified. The nation’s tanked economy has all of us worried, naturally, and we writers are hunkering down for hard times.

The AWP represents about 30,000 writers, 80 writing centers and conferences, and 500 writing programs at colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, and England. Our aim is to make creative writing – novels, stories, poems, and plays – a vital part of everyday life. We encourage young people to read, for example. We also advocate for writers’ rights and lobby for arts funding. Our culture, you may have noticed, celebrates anything that makes money and often looks with suspicion on endeavors, like writing, that don’t. There’s so little money in writing poems and plays and stories that most writers in this country make their living doing something other than writing. Most of the money made in writing novels, for example, goes to a handful of writers like Daniel Steele and Stephen King. That’s the marketplace.

At the AWP conference, you’ll find some very high-powered writers—names you’ve heard, like E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Lucille Clifton. But mostly you’ll find everyday writers like me. Still, it can be intimidating walking those crowded conference hallways where, at any moment, you might see a writer who is very successful. In some ways, the conference is an unnatural, even unsettling, experience: where else can you find yourself surrounded by 8,000 writers? But it can be comforting too, surrounded by others who are doing what you’re doing, especially when your work is, in many ways, isolating.

You’ll find two kinds of events at the AWP conference: readings and panel presentations. The presentations cover all aspects of the writing world, from teaching to website building to book promotion. One of the most exciting developments in the writing world, as far as I’m concerned, is the increasing use of mixed media – illustrated novels, graphic novels, e-novels. It used to be that publishers scoffed at writers who would attempt to illustrate their work, for example. It was thought that the use of illustrations in “serious” works was condescending to the reader, who could envision things well enough on his or her own; and so illustrations were limited to children’s books (though you’d think that children themselves could well imagine all they needed when reading).

Another development we’ve seen is that the big presses – the ones you’ve heard of, like Simon and Schuster, Random House, Knopf – have consolidated so much and limited their scope in so many ways that small presses — the ones you may not have heard of, like Sarabande, Autumn House, Dzanc — have taken on the hard work of promoting literature that does not fit easily into the mainstream marketeers’ categories. If you’re pitching a book to the big presses, for example, you’re supposed to describe how your book is like (and better than) a similar book that has made lots of money. But what if the book you’ve written isn’t like any other book the big presses are publishing? What we see is the big presses increasingly playing it safe. But, really, no one can predict what will or won’t be a hit.

The most common lament we heard in the hallways of the convention is that it’s harder to publish now than ever before, even though publishers are producing more books than ever (about 200,000 a year). The majority of those books are informational, like cookbooks. The small presses keep the majority of America’s novelists, poets, and story-writers in circulation. There were 500 small presses at the AWP convention’s book fair. How they will survive in these hard times is hard to predict. Which is why it’s important to support your local arts organization and to ask your senators to do the same. The good news is that the Obama administration is showing support for the arts. All of us at the convention we relieved when we heard that the National Endowment for the Arts got an increase in funding this year.

Here are a handful of small-press books that came to my hands during the recent convention: Poema by Maurice Kilwein-Guevara, Slipping the Moorings by Susan McCallum-Smith, The Last Predicta by Chad Davidson, Elephants in Our Bedroom by Michael Czyniejewski, and Riding Shotgun (Women Write about Their Mothers) edited by Kathryn Kysar.

By the way, you don’t have to be a member of AWP to attend the conference. Next year we will gather in Denver to compare notes and talk about the state of writing (and reading) in America. Maybe I’ll see you there.