The closer you are to something the more you may be inclined to stay away from it. Some relationships are like that, including the relationship writers have with their craft and creativity. That sums up, to a large extent, why I vacillated about attending the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) held last week in Tampa, Fla., which is right here in my neck of the woods.
Other writers might understand my reticence to attend, given the battleground, littered with vagaries, seemingly insurmountable challenges, and internal controversies, that is the contemporary writing and publishing world. In fact, I did get sympathetic signals from writers who are perhaps even more cynical about attending a writer conference than I was. On the other hand, friends outside this circle were all, “Of course you need to attend! Just think of all the contacts you’ll make!”
Well, let me address that issue first. Anyone accustomed to attending a business conference knows how people at those can’t want to shake hands, talk about their company, product, or service, and collect business cards or whatever it is people collect these days. But that’s not writers. Writers tend to be, if not secretive, protective of their writing projects, and more often than not insecure about them. They’re not eager to make contacts, especially when one is not an agent, publisher, or writing program official. Among all the thousands of people attending the Tampa AWP event, I can’t say that I made even one solid contact, whereas at a typical business conference I might have made more than I would have known what to do with.
True, I did get to meet a few panelists whose work I admired, or who had great things to say in the course of their panel discussions. I even got to briefly share a query letter and get useful feedback from an agent (which, I might note, didn’t necessarily agree with feedback I’ve gotten from other agents on the same letter). At the end of the last day, roaming around the huge hall dedicated to the event’s book fair, I ran into a number of journals and publishers with which I was unfamiliar and learned of some open to submissions, mostly for contests they sponsored. But that was about it for contacts. The one time I opened up to a fellow attendee about how I resolved the thorny problem of an ending for my most recent novel, she smiled politely, but clearly was uninterested beyond that. In retrospect, why should she have been interested? It was more for my own ego that I felt compelled to share my story with her.
I can’t say I got any huge epiphanies out of the couple of days I spent sitting through lengthy discussions and hearing, in detail, different views on a range of subjects of concern to writers (I use the term “writer” to encompass poets, too, of whom there was a prodigious number in attendance). A lot of what I heard just reminded me of things I already knew, though some also addressed some of my chronic concerns and helped me answer some of the questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time. At a number of panels I almost raised my hand to answer other attendees’ questions, but in each case I reminded myself that I wasn’t there to answer the questions, the panelists were, so kept my hand down and my mouth shut and avoided committing a major faux pas. I did get to ask my own questions at several panels, but as often as not my questions were really comments, which in a way was reassuring that I could make a comment that might make sense and someone else might be interested in hearing.
In the course of debating whether to battle traffic and early morning cold to attend the event, I noticed that Alissa Nutting, author of the novel Tampa, was a panelist at one session. I loved Tampa, as off-beat and controversial as it is, and the chance to meet its author was too much to resist. So that finally tipped the balance in favor of attending, which I did, on that day and the next. It was great meeting Alissa, who spoke a little like a teenager in her presentation, and even looked and dressed like one as I could see when I got up close to her, and she rolled her eyes when I mentioned that I admired her courage for writing and publishing the book. “Well, what some people said . . . “ she replied, allowing the sentence to drift off. Clearly she had been berated multiple times by those who didn’t approve of her work, something I had noted in reading reviews and comments of the book. Too bad, their loss.
I was disappointed, as I told her, that her agent for Tampa had left agenting, since my own works tend toward the controversial and I’d love to find an agent like hers. This conversation and a couple I had later with other published authors revealed something else that I probably should have expected more than I did, which is that authors are very protective of their agents. They won’t go out on a limb to recommend their own agents, especially to someone they don’t know and whose work they’ve never seen. Again I realized, in retrospect, why should they? Maybe I could be the best writer in the history of writing (spoiler alert: I’m not), but I could be an absolute hack, too (I’m not that either, but these authors didn’t know that). A bad recommendation that started with a query letter mentioning how I was introduced to the agent by one of her authors would not reflect well on the author. Okay, I get it. They were kind enough to suggest ways of searching out who might be the right agent, but there weren’t any magic codes or answers I didn’t already know.
The very size of this gathering and some of the numbers one heard at it would deter anyone but a mad person from pursuing fame, or even the chance to get something published, in the field of books and letters today. It’s a bit like the odds of winning the lottery, but instead of dropping a dollar or two at the corner convenience store and checking the winning numbers later, one invests years, even decades, of one’s life and then hopes for that very elusive win.
I don’t know the exact number of people at this year’s conference, but I’ve seen a figure that an average of 12,000 people attend AWP annual conferences. Even given the severe winter weather in the Northeast that snarled flights and kept some attendees away, there still was a huge number of people in attendance, maybe close to the average of 12,000. If that number represents 1 percent of writers in the country – I’d be surprised if it was even that big a percentage, maybe it’s one-tenth or one-one-hundreth of 1 percent – and then if each writer has three or four or 10 works in progress or they want to publish . . . well, you do the numbers, since I don’t count that high.
In one session, provocatively titled “What Agents Want,” one of the panelists had moved over from being an editor at a big publishing house to being a literary agent in the past year. Someone asked her what the numbers looked like at the publishing house where she had worked, and she said they would get 400 – 500 agented submissions – not over the transom, mind you, but submissions via agents – of which they’d publish three or four in a year. You’re reading that right – three or four books of 400 to 500 agented submissions.
Given those kinds of odds, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many writers have chosen to self-publish in the online age, and some of those have found the kind of success they might never have pursuing the more traditional publishing route.
Another number that stood out is the number of MFA – Master of Fine Arts, for the uninitiated – programs that have spring up like a crop of mushrooms around the country. In 1972 there were just three such programs, following the lead of the University of Iowa’s initial program, begun in 1939. By 2016 the number had exploded to 244, plus another 152 Masters programs in creative writing. And that doesn’t count all the zillions of undergrad writing programs and degrees. Many of the attendees at the AWP conference were students at these programs, and many of the panelists and exhibitors taught, headed, or represented these writer programs. Are you starting to get the picture?
One of the things that has troubled me in recent decades is how much of what is published seems to follow familiar stylistic patterns, with overwriting and excessively literary descriptions and phrases holding sway. And I have held this to be the result of all these writers being molded and encouraged and cranked out by these academic writing programs. That’s just a hunch on my part, but the numbers don’t dissuade me from it.
Just based on informal observation at the conference, I’d say the contemporary writing and publishing world is about two-thirds female, one-third male, which also shows up in authors published, gender make-up of agents, and probably readers, and reader preferences, too. In the publishing feedback loop, that also reflects on the gender make-up of published authors.
The average age at the AWP conference looked to be somewhere around 30, give or take a few years. One of my writer friends from many years speaks of the discrimination against older writers. I can’t prove that such discrimination exists, but neither would I be surprised. I don’t like to think of my age as an impediment – it does tend to propel me forward to write more and faster – but it did get me a substantial discount on AWP’s notable conference fee. Hey, I’ll take it, if I can get it, but I hope my age doesn’t keep me out of the game, such as it is.
Running down the schedule of discussions, questions of race and ethnicity and sexual persuasion and handicap and environmental angst seemed to be almost pervasive. With some of the discussion descriptions I had trouble even grasping what the hell they were talking about. This also seems to be a trend in writing, but honestly, to my observation, a wide range of races, ethnicities, and sexual persuasions were well represented, as they should be, both among attendees and presenters.
This conference had things like 12-step sessions for alcoholics (the old stereotype about writers might have some truth to it), a lactation room, and yoga for writers (I wonder how that differs from any other kind of yoga). There even was an “All Gender” rest room, over at the Hyatt where many sessions took place. Now there was a women’s rest room, at which a line would occasionally form during session breaks, but the men’s room had been turned into this All Gender rest room. Hey, I’ve lived in Greece so it didn’t particularly phase me, but I can’t say that was the case for everyone, including at least one woman who recoiled in horror when she saw the sign and began to run away before she realized there also was a regular women’s room.
Going to the book fair at the end of the event had some perks, not the least of which were the books some exhibitors were giving away for free so they wouldn’t have to drag them back with them to Toronto or Indiana or wherever they came from. Just as well, looking at the prices even small or university publishers were charging for their books. I suppose people were buying them, too, and lots of things I saw, like the number of people partaking in grossly overpriced salads and mini-pizzas and drinks, led me to believe that the stereotype of the starving writer was far out of date.
That’s the city, not the book. I feel compelled to add a little bit about Tampa, which hosted this year’s AWP conference. Tampa, Florida’s third city, has many attractive features and a lot to offer. Catering to visitors does not seem to be among them. Despite having an airport that consistently is top-rated among North American airports (though the old, more compact one was even more convenient and efficient than the sprawling new one), the city seems to miss the mark when it comes to catering to out-of-town visitors.
Signage on the highways is deficient, at best, which doesn’t help ameliorate the incessant traffic congestion or motorists wandering about trying to find their way. But the sign issue extends down to the pedestrian level. For reasons that are unclear, the Tampa Convention Center’s cavernous parking garage is located across a street from the actual center, and one has to follow breadcrumbs out on a public sidewalk to find one’s way to the center. On the way back to the garage, though, there are no signs, and it took me several frustrating attempts to find the almost secret entrance to the garage. It also struck me as insensitive that there are massive concrete steps to get into the convention center, but I didn’t see any obvious signs leading handicapped people to find an alternative way into the building. It’s like things are designed for people who already know their way around, not newcomers to the facility or the city.
The other issues sprang up on Saturday, the last day of the conference. I rushed down to attend a session of particular interest to me, only to find the convention center parking closed off. Already a pricey $9.50 to park in that garage, the other lots in the area – most of which are billed as public parking – were charging $20 or $30 to park. I mean, this is Tampa, not New York, and it seems almost criminal for the city to permit this. Apparently there was a hockey match and a music event that day all in the same area as the convention center, and the city sees fit to allow its parking concessionaire to gouge everyone on parking. Additionally, I wonder what kind of bone-headed planning would place major, but unrelated, facilities all in the same area. Each of these facilities and events draw thousands of attendees, but they have nothing to do with one another and don’t need to be co-located. All this does is create congestion and provide a (feeble) excuse for ridiculously over-priced parking.
I finally found a free space to park on the street, but it was many blocks away from the convention center and caused me to miss most of that session. On the way back to the center I saw a couple of $9.50 garages, but they were so well hidden you’d have to be a pedestrian, as I was at that point, to see the signs and rates. It strikes me as a hostile act that the city allows and probably even encourages this kind of thing to go on, and it would make me think more than twice before scheduling an event in Tampa, or even attending one there.
Okay, now that I blew off steam about that, I’ll sod off and start going through this huge bag of stuff I brought back from the conference and plan my next writing and publishing moves. And trying not to let the numbers freak me too badly, or steer me off the chosen, if rocky, course I’m on.