I Don’t Know What BEA is Like but I Want to Know

Post-AWP, blogs are getting filled with post-AWP entries. AWP stands, originally, for Associated Writing Programs. It’s like MLA for writers. Or the APA. Or whatever it is historians have. The organization throws an annual conference where, originally, other writers in the academy would hold panels on writing and the teaching of writing.

AWP now stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, so’s to open up its membership to writers not affiliated with a university. This was a sound decision financially, I imagine. Maybe also it helped drain the moat a bit surrounding the ivory tower. But when it comes to books and writing, literature or commerce, it’s not as though the ivory tower has ever had some kind of tight, enviable purchase. Publishers having the business models they now have, the academy’s become the way the US subsidizes its writers, but if you are a reader and not a writer, odds are you read the work of writers not affiliated with universities. You read the work of writers who don’t have teaching salaries to fall back on, and thus have to produce a book every year or two to pay the bills.

In terms of sales and reviews, it might be an enviable position. In terms of health insurance and retirement accounts, I imagine not.

What I’m saying is that the only way I in nine years of attending this conference have found a way to make it palatable is to remember that this is an academic conference organized by and for academics. It’s not a place to find an agent, or to network. There’s a whole bookfair, filled mostly with tables of small journals that make nobody any money, and while stopping by such tables will give you a sense of the very real people who publish writing, it’s not going to launch your career.

Because it’s not Book Expo America. It’s not the Frankfurter Buchmesse.[1] In the post-AWP blog posts I’ve read, the absence of Big Publishing has been lamented. Strategies for networking have been shared. They’re symptoms of a confused conference with a confusing acronym. Inviting writers like Don DeLillo to speak doesn’t help clarify matters. You can comment below if your experience of AWP is otherwise, but for me the conference is a chance to talk with other teaching writers about the teaching of writing. It’s a weekend for me to catch up with the writing friends I made while in a graduate writing program together. It’s a place to subscribe to the journals (academic in form and feel if not strictly in content) I’ve meant to subscribe to, while putting faces and voices to people who’ve previously been just names on a masthead.

But of course, George Saunders was there.[2] And, weirdly but delightfully, Mike Birbiglia. Ditto a lot of teaching writers with heavy Twitter followings. It gets people excited, the proximity to seeming fame and success. Or maybe it gets prose writers so excited. If you go to AWP, and you don’t have a list of old gradschool friends to drink with, go with and spend time with poets. The finest ten minutes of my entire weekend in Boston had to’ve been watching my friend Mathias read his poems to a room full of rapt people in the back room of an Irish bar in Somerville. I was proud and swoony. I was made to laugh and feel. Mathias killed, stole the whole evening of 13 readers. It will do nothing for his career, is what this whole post is trying to come to terms with, but I’ll get to hold those ten minutes close for the rest of my life.

Thanks, Mathias.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I know this reeks of pretension, but I argue that because it looks like The Frankfurt Book Mess this reads better than writing it in English.
  2. Not that I saw him. This fact was reported to me in the form of a complaint that he shouldn’t get to walk through the bookfair for the traffic jams his open presence was causing.

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