AWP, or the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (that’s actually AWWP, but we’ll let that slide), is billed as an annual celebration of authors, teachers, writing programs, literary centers and small press publishers. Every year these bibliophile masses descend on a North American city (Chicago, this year) to promote, mingle, fraternize, frolic, freak out, fight, deal, dole and drink. The book fair is the centerpiece, the polestar of the conference; a nerve-jouncing nerve center of tables and stalls and booths tucked away in the belly of the Chicago Hilton hotel on South Michigan Ave.
From early morning to early evening you navigate, or try to navigate, the lower levels of the hotel. You spend half the day in line for coffee. You spend the other half trying to find the restroom, and the following day trying to find it again. You scan, you probe, you hover. Major magazines and prominent publishers nonchalantly beckon, whereas the dregs of the fair — the print-on-demand poets, the chapbook anthologists, the self-help self-publishers — rope you in with homemade cookies and boxed wine before capsizing you with a 500-page eco-thriller set in an imaginary region of Northern Virginia … in the future. At the end of the day, weighed down by all the free goods you’ve amassed, dreading for the state of your mailbox once all those new subscriptions start coming in, you return to your hotel and take a deep breath and upend the minibar. Then you go back out to the bars and parties and off-site dances. Rinse, repeat.
Chicago 2012 was my first AWP. This is worth noting; it meant I hadn’t yet assumed the jaded demeanor of some of the AWP-vets. “I’m entering my jaded phase,” one editor told me. It was his third time. Others will speak of conferences past as one might speak of lost youth (“Ah, you should have been to Atlanta … ”) or debauched conquests (“You think this is crazy? This is nothing. Vancouver! Now that was wild … ”). I spent my days manning a table for a literary magazine, hustling and haggling, enticing new subscribers, making polite conversation with wild-eyed nutjobs (every literary event has them; dragging all their worldly possessions in a mail sack or duffel bag they sit in corners flipping through books and magazines, on the prowl for subliminal messages and encoded government secrets). Every now and then I wandered off or got lost. Occasionally I attended panels or readings.
What struck me there were the slightly deluded notes struck by conference organizers and officials. At one of the readings we were given some rather predictable spiel about “the beauty” of 10,000 litterateurs flying in to participate in this celebration of the nation’s literary culture. We were encouraged to take a moment to consider this fact — as though it were an anomaly and not a routine turn-out for a conference that has been taking place annually since 1978. And as for the culture? Well, look at it. It’s probably seen better days. Reluctantly it shows up, dragging its feet, jackknifed by coughing fits (“Jesus, are you OK?”), complaining of all the time it spends in hotel conferences and creative writing classes. “Try to imagine,” it says, hacking every few words, “Nathanael West in a booth, smiling under a banner for Octopus Books, or Mary McCarthy chatting to a self-published sonneteer from Dubuque.”
The culture — rough beast that it is — probably begrudges AWP its necessity. Like any other major industry conference, it’s about doing business, and literature, these days, needs business. Like a bunch of dentists or automotive dealers, the litterateurs spend four days ensconced in flashy hotels in cities away from home, hustling and scheming for the sake of Art. Accordingly, there is much fraternizing and self-promoting. Equal thought and effort is devoted to planning and promotion as is to figuring out which party to go to at night. Oh, but in this last department, how instantly we become aficionados! Slumped over tables the next day, avoiding eye contact with last night’s squeeze, there is much gainsaying and outdoing of one another.
Gradually, the fair begins to feel like a prelude to the real business of the evening, which is pleasure. It begins to feel like college, maybe even high school. On the fourth day this was laughably apparent: the exhibit halls were paper-strewn and coffee-stained; sallow pubs and eds and interns sat meekly in nooks and corners; banners and displays wilted in the heat of human proximity. The morning after the prom.
Actually, what the fair really began to resemble was a casino: the noise and clamor and boozy camaraderie; the swift exchanges of currency; the exit signs that lead you anywhere but the exit. And like a casino, the house always wins. I imagine the Hilton did pretty well that weekend, whereas the rest of us left Chicago a little poorer, our wallets a little lighter. (Unlike car-dealers or dentists, we don’t have any practices or dealerships to return to). Cabbing out to O’Hare early Sunday morning, I had only two things on my person: a compound hangover and a razed forest-worth of leaflets and flyers and business cards. “Just carry-on,” I told the clerk at the check-in counter, wishing I’d brought the Advil tablets generously provided by room service.
Queuing up for security, who should I see out of the corner of my eye but that hairy-limbed rascal, the literary culture, looking more haggard and smashed than usual, jetting off to fight the odds another day. But that’s OK. As Frank Zappa pithily put it, “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” Sell on, brave litterateurs.