Monday, March 11, 2013

AWP -- Why the absence of the mainstream publishing industry matters.

The Associated Writing Programs annual conference brought 11,000-12,000 writers in one place -- in this case the habitrails of one of the most expensive malls in America (Boston-based) and we were forced -- as it should be? -- to run the gauntlet of excess many times a day -- denying Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo or having them deny us -- to get to American Literature. But with one notable exception: the mainstream publishing industry was largely absent.

Some relevant background: I was on a panel with Ed Falco, Benjamin Percy, and Lise Haines. We talked about literary writers writing commercial fiction. Lise beautifully warned about the response to commercial fiction in academe, as well as discussing the boundaries of young adult and adult novels. Ed talked about how writing for a readership is new to him, how and why he'll pursue it -- for now. Ben talked about his childhood spent thrilled by genre and then being discouraged to write it in college and then learning from all the literary giants and then getting bored -- and returning to his genre roots. I talk about storming the gates of genre to find the beautiful architectures on which to drape poetry. (And how the compression of description in commercial fiction actually encourages more spare and arresting -- and therefore poetic -- imagery.)

Our panel didn't seem subversive because so many of the people who showed up were like-minded. But if you picked our panel up and mistakenly shoved it into another room down another hallway at AWP, it would have been sacrilege, an outrage. Percy calling the greats of literary fiction boring? How dare he?

And yet, he was speaking his own truth -- and he's not alone.

[I should note that just using the terms "literary" and "commercial" makes some people -- on both sides and between the aisles -- apoplectic. I don't really have time to write an entire piece just on my definitions of these two words. I simply don't. I can only say that when I write entertainment, art happens; and when I write art, entertainment happens. And so the two are all a blur anyway... Let's just move on.]

My spouse Dave and I noted how, for a writers conference two-hours from the epicenter of the publishing industry, the industry was notably absent. Whereas nearly all of the poetry industry is present, there's a divide in prose. It points to a serious risk -- the breaking off of literary fiction from mainstream publishing.

I do not want this happen. I do not want literary fiction to get sawed off from the publishers with the greatest reach and most robust marketing muscle in the nation. I don't want this to happen for personal reasons -- I still write literary novels and I blur literary and commercial in ways I alone can suss out -- and I want it to still be robust because I'm the sole breadwinner for a family of six. I don't desire Hugo Boss and Jimmy Choo, but I would like to pony up for my kids' college educations. Moreover I want literary novels to remain in the faces of American readers. I don't want literary novels to slip off of the opening tables of the New Release section of bookstores and bestseller lists and inside round-up reviews in glossies...

Of course, there's great freedom in being sawed off or choosing to unfasten yourself from mainstream publishing and that is clear in the blooming niche marketing of an indie publisher like Press53. (I don't have the space in this piece to incorporate ideas about the self-publishing landscape.) Press53 stopped publishing novels and have moved to the short story, where, they've found, they have a market of loyal readers who return to their titles, perhaps because the publishing industry is putting out so few collections these days. While I was at the Press53 booth, Kelly Cherry walked up to talk to Kevin Watson about what Press53 is up to. You've also got the new pub house, Slant, started by Greg Wolfe -- their first book is by veteran Erin McGraw. You've got your Engine Books, your Tin House -- publishing the likes of Keith Morris and Chrisopher Beha. You've got your Graywolf -- who've just taken on one of the best publicists in the business, Michael Taeckens.

Before I dig any further, I want to circle back to why this is relevant to AWP. How are the young emerging writers to read the absence of the mainstream publishing industry at the conference? Most likely, they don't notice unless someone points it out. The conference felt a bit more like a bubble floating apart from New York City publishing, which is fine in that it is, in fact, an academic conference -- it's world is the world of BFA, MFA and PhD programs. And, to be clear, I'm not suggesting -- cajoling or encouraging -- young writers from writing anything other than what their own voice and experience demand. I sure as hell don't want anyone to write anything that they don't want to. (I said in the talk that writing for readership and writing for respect are both handcuffs, both traps.) But I think the young guns who arrive need to be told -- Listen, hear that distant drumming? Oh, young novelist, dear memoirist, don't forget to lift your head.  

It needs to be noted, and I'm noting it.