Days At AWP
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/12/06
I just spent three days at a convention that came to town, in Austin, Texas. I was not looking forward to it, for the writerly types that attend these events are usually the dross of Academia, with a few annoying hipster wannabes tossed in. It was the annual conference of the Association Of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), and it was basically an event designed to let small presses and publishers network. The event ran from Thursday, March 9th through Saturday, March 11th. On a cynical side, this is the very worst thing that can happen in any profession- the blatant fostering of cronyism, but it is hardly unexpected in the arts, where loyalties are even stronger than in Mafia families.
I was merely hoping to make five or six contacts, minimum, for my wife Jessica’s and my work. Since we are actually quality writers, in an era of mass pap in even so-called literature, it is difficult to get presses or agents to notice you strictly via email or mail. Over the years I have found that a good 20% or so of entries sent come back with the wrong information in them. That is, the note will not have the correct name of the writer, the piece, or it they are correct, they will claim they did not love your tale of the Nazi invasion of Poland, even if you wrote a tale about a dachshund puppy and a little boy. There is an active disdain that many agents (who were wholly absent from the conference) and publishers have towards good writing. This is because the publication of really good work will show up the bad crap that previously was championed. More on this oblivious disdain in a bit.
Like any convention, there were booths and tables, several hundred, and I actually got perhaps eight to ten times as many contacts as I hoped for. Given that I had to spend $175 for the three days, as well as $7 a day to park at the Austin Convention Center’s parking ramp, the more contacts the better. More on this money factor later.
It’s always good to speak with someone in person, rather than write a summary of a piece, or a book, and then hope the person gets it. First off, leaving a physical image in someone’s mind concretizes you to them- you are no longer merely a name, but a real person they’ve met, and they are less apt to assume you are a wacko, an enemy, etc. Also, explaining something in person assures your ability to gauge their interest level, as well make sure they are paying attention, and being honest. Then, if they say your idea or piece sounds interesting, the chances are they will actually look at it when sent, rather than having it hit the round file when a pimply-faced coed pre-reads it and is bored because it’s not written in too comic booky or hipster a style.
The best way to approach someone at an event like this is to ask about their mag or press. I would ask for a history, where they’re located, and what they seek to publish. I would be detailed. Even if I knew their publication was generic and crappy as the next- a very good assumption even if uncertain, this querying shows interest, and leaves an impression. For example, I would ask, ‘What separates your magazine from the other few hundred here?’ or ‘What niche are you looking to serve?’ I would end my talk with something like, ‘Where do you want your publication to be a decade from now?’ This is not game playing, but allows you to see how quick on their feet the publisher/editor is. Most are not quick at all. But, most people love to talk about themselves or their children, and magazines and books are the publishers’ children. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the folk I spoke to either hemmed and hawed, said they had no idea, and had never thought of it, gave the glib ‘Doing the same thing,’ reply, or said it was a good question, and took a few minutes to ponder it. Again, this engagement allows one to not be confrontational, yet leave an impression in someone’s mind, for you have provoked them to think. This is a rare thing nowadays, and they will recall it when they see your name, and you refresh their memory as to your conversation. I then ended each conversation with a polite ‘good luck.’ When I follow up and send my or Jess’s work to them, I will note the little vagaries of the conversation, and this will again increase the chances the piece(s) will actually be read, thus published. That they will recall my intelligent provocation will also make them less likely to dismiss the complexity of works that go over their head, and think, ‘Well, he was a bright guy, so I’m gonna take the chance that the flaw is with me, not the piece.’ This sort of rationale is absent when the work arrives naked.
Of course, if one does not know why one is working at a press, nor what the goal is, it hardly comforts another to think that this clueless boob is editing even a bumper sticker. The only time I actually gave a physical manuscript to someone was when I gave a piece from my True Life memoir to the editors of the new Wayward Couch/Ellipsis magazine devoted to reviving the serial format of fiction. They seemed intrigued, but we’ll see what happens. One of the things that would strike an outsider as funny is how, despite the airs of camaraderie, most of the little journals really loathed each other, even as they refused to state they are in competition for readers. I heard badmouthing, on the sly, of course, of mags by other mags, at about every four tables I spoke to. Of course, virtually all of the publishers published books and magazines with really bad poetry and fiction. Just skimming the poems for images, line breaks, and ends, and reading the short stories’ first and last paragraphs revealed a frighteningly similar and banal mindset. More on that, as well, in a bit.
I did see some old faces at the conference. As I spent all my time on the floor of the convention, (with one exception) rather than going to the fora, I only saw one well known poet that I knew from my days in New York, at the West Side Y, in the 1980s. That was poet Gerald Stern (unless it was his doppelganger), he of the mediocre career, but Einsteinian mess of hair. From my days up in Minnesota I saw some familiar dross, such as Water-Stone Review’s infamous doggerelist Patsy K. (Patricia Kirkpatrick), lesbian poetastress Juliet Patterson (pushing a book of book of doggerel, blurbed by a poetaster, and reading at a queer poetry reading in front of the ten or twelve other people who came with the other readers- in other words: a pointless endeavor), and Janet Holmes, who used to teach in St. Paul, but has since moved out to Idaho, presumably to infect the Rockies with bad versifying. I spoke with her husband, a man at least twenty-five years her senior. Of course, what would a contingent of bad Minnesota writers be without the ever slack-jawed and fellatio-grinned Eric Lorberer, editor of the horrid Rain Taxi magalog. None of them recognized me, though, as we stood at the same tables. Lorberer, most of all of them, seemed to be glad-handing his way with a frenzy. What amazes is that, after a decade or more of such deep throating, in person and in his magalog, he has not realized that he will never get published by a major press. The folks at these events are out to use deluded whore-inclined souls such as him, and are far more ruthless about it than he will ever be capable of.
Of course, there were a few people who had fingers up their asses and chips on their shoulders. There was a guy named Kevin Walzer, from WordTech Communications, a private publisher that has spent the last few years pushing doggerel only. Walzer, an obese thirtysomething with oily hair, thick eyeglasses, and a droopy mustache, was there with his wife and two unruly children. He was the only man wearing a formal suit and tie, and he looked about two sizes too large for it. When I was at his table he was constantly yelling at the little hellions. Whether their behavior was behind his dark attitude I doubt. I got the sense that there was a real inferiority complex going on his cranium, for when I asked my standard queries of his aims, origin, and goals, Walzer got very testy. I asked if his press was a business, or a sidelight, and he snippily declaimed that he pays his mortgage with it, and crossed his arms defensively. When I tried to ask him aesthetic questions, or questions on the business side, he got even more defensive in his posture, and I felt like I was dealing with a petulant little boy reliving an episode where a good looking kid pulled down his pants in front of a pretty girl he was sweet on, but who loathed him.
Another person who had a chip on their shoulder was a woman who edited the Dos Passos Review. I didn’t catch her name, though. It’s a fairly new magazine and when I started querying the coeds who were at the table, they seemed lost, as if they did not know a thing of the magazine, nor its aims. This editor, a fortysomething woman, seemed perturbed that I was asking such specific questions, and often evaded my direct queries. Instead, she seemed determined to politicize our conversation. When I simply stated the obvious, that Dos Passos was known for becoming a reactionary Right Winger after a falling out with Hemingway over the Spanish Civil War, she upbraided me that before that he had been a lifelong Communist. I countered that that was irrelevant to my queries of the press, which also included wanting to know if Dos Passos’ politics were reflected in the magazine, which she had declaimed sought political writing. I also ran afoul of her when I stated another obvious fact, that most writers and artists are Left Wing. Oddly, she stated most of her family was Right Wing, and she was a Democrat. I was puzzled as to her reply, since that only seemed to reaffirm my statement. Then she accused me of stereotyping artists, and squinted at me. She had a pattern of assuming things I was going to say, then when I did not say them, accused me of being facile. Yet, when I stated that this sort of accusatory behavior was all too typical of Left Wing artist types, well, I was the stereotyper. I denied the charge, as it was silly, for an easily provable generalization of most writers being Leftists was borne out by the proud claims of everyone I spoke to, many of whom openly loathed President Bush and viewed their art and magazine as a political weapon against him, and said I merely was trying to find out the magazine’s purpose, and, if political, to what degree the slant would be. She then non sequitured to asking me if I had ever read Dos Passos. I said only a few tales, years ago, and a handful of essays. A palpable look of disgust came over her face, and she stated that I was wrong to even converse of Dos Passos without having read the USA Trilogy (for the record, I do have one Dos Passos book- Three Soldiers- which I hope to read by year’s end). You know that someone is grasping at straws when they claim one cannot argue about something unless you know everything about the thing. Imagine not being able to argue religion without having read every holy book out there cover to cover. I countered that my reading the man, or not, had nothing do with wanting to know about the magazine. I was getting the distinct feeling that an agenda was certainly afoot at her magazine. She then stated that Dos Passos was the greatest experimenter of the 20th Century, and traced a lineage from him, through several writers, and down to David Foster Wallace. I stated, ‘Well, that line of descent is not exactly something to boast of.’ She then repeated a line that I heard several times at AWP, and is always uttered by Wallace’s apologists: ‘Well, he was trying to….’ without acknowledging that, even were one to accept that he were actually trying to do something different literarily (rather than merely score coed poon with hipster posturing), he manifestly failed in his aims. She then countered that he ‘blew apart narrative’ in the 80s, without recognizing that a) that might not be a good thing since readers like to follow stories with narrative (again touching on why less people read so-called ‘literary fiction’ these days), b) he did not blow it apart well, and c) his fragments are still trite pieces of the least poetic language, larded with clichés and cardboard cutouts, as well as stereotypes. My pointing these facts out was the last straw, as the woman audibly sighed, shook her head, said she was going for coffee, and left. A young black student looked at me as if to say, ‘It’s that time of the month.’ I smiled at him and left.
Perhaps the nastiest of the folk with ‘tudes was a young marketing representative from W.W. Norton. Houghton Mifflin and Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, were also there, only with marketing reps. This seems kind of silly, as the event is not really to sell books, but foster connections. I told the fellow that a number of the small presses resented his mere presence at the conference, and he knew it. I asked of submissions guidelines, as I surveyed the displayed dreck he bore, and he seemed to resent that I was not interested in buying a book, but in finding out if they take unagented submissions. I know they don’t, but, as he was a bit of an ass, I wielded my innocent queries as a weapon. He knew utterly nothing, and accused me of screeding, even as it was he who raised his voice. I departed as he seemed frustrated.
The only book I bought a the conference was from a man named Peter Anderson. It was a book of nature essays called First Church Of The Higher Elevations. He was a big Loren Eiseley fan. He seemed very interested in reading Jess’s Eiseleyan Ghost Continents manuscript, and also was poetry editor for a mountain and outdoor magazine. We conversed quite a bit I’m hopeful he’ll have an interest in her book. A book published, even by a small press, can lead to a big New York press’s interest in a following book. This happened to K.L. Cook, whose book Last Call I recently reviewed. Jess’s work, though, is far better than that book.
On the final day, I finished up early, but decided to stop in on a forum about the decline of grammar. It was hosted by the editor of the Georgia Review, a man who never revealed his name, a trait that many writers do, in their arrogant assumption of their own presumed import, and two other panelists participated. He was an older man I later found out was TR Hummer (* see below for correction)- a poet of no distinction, with a hard on for grammatical correctness, while the two other panelists were the editor of Harpur Palate, a fey voiced twenty-something male named Jeremy Schraffenberger, and an obese woman from Arkansas, Melissa Morphew, who teaches at Sam Houston State. While neither was a sterling panelist, both did far better than the stiff Hummer, for Schraffenberger stated an ambivalence about the rigidity of language the host was endorsing, which was more apt for a course on business letter writing, and Morphew started on a diatribe against illiteracy, of course, pinning the fault on George Bush. Apparently, she and the Dos Passos Review editor did not interact. Some good points were made, but Hummer seemed quite dense, and drearily showed why Academics are so out of touch with the reading public. In giving examples of bad writing he resolutely refused to name the names of the famous writers he quoted from, nor the mags he selected them from, thus furthering the decline of writing he ostensibly lamented, by not having the balls to ‘name names’ for fear of his own doggerel being blackballed. He even started his presentation with some very inapt quotes from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Quotes are always a crutch for inferior minds to try to siphon import from. He then argued against his own case by quoting from a New York Times article, claiming that there was non-clarity in a sentence that had two clauses that referenced opposing groups, and a subordinate clause that used the word they, which could mean either group. The problem was that Hummer read the piece so quickly that the audience could not tell if the quote was two sentences or one. If two, he was correct, but if one then the confusion would have been cleared up if there was a semi-colon after the first clause. Failing to give punctuation, or be clear in his reading, Hummer failed in his demonstration.
Predictably, in the Q&A session, an old Beatnik type fellow stood up and ripped the panelists for their elitism. He made some good points regarding the fact that many rules of grammar were willy-nilly, but missed the point that, in issues of clarity, grammar is essential. In short, he was as myopic as they were, only on the other end of the stick. When he finished, I was called on next, and delivered one of my ‘classic’ moments.
I started out by stating that the first fellow made some good points, and that the rules for split infinitives or dangling participles were indeed silly, and not in any way based upon issues of logic nor clarity, but the old Beatnik had missed the import of the issue of clarity Hummer had made. I then said, ‘But, issues of grammar are perhaps 1-2% of the reason writing is bad. The main reason is lack of depth, a lack of tackling larger issues, solipsism, bad characterization, clichés, and writing oriented at writers rather than readers. For example, in the last three days I’ve perused dozens of the journals on hand, and seen at least three dozen poems, and 7-8 stories, that ended with the metaphor of coming out of darkness and into the light. Such use of horrid clichés is far worse an issue than mere bad grammar.
Now, unlike the moderator, who fears being blackballed, I’ll name three bad writers who have grammar issues, but are bad writers even were their work to be grammatically correct. David Foster Wallace, a very bad writer; Dave Eggers, a horrible writer; and James Frey, who writes like a retarded ten year old- yet no one on that Oprah show that depantsed him brought up that fact.’
The moment I mentioned Wallace’s name the room’s low hum of gossip stilled entirely. When I said Frey’s name there were audible gasps and snickers. I doubt any of these people had ever heard a person actually state that big name writers were, or even could be, bad writers. I then stated that worrying over grammar issues was akin to, in the old Soviet Union, worrying over the dreary fashion choices of the Red Army while millions were being liquidated in the Gulags. ‘For every grammar solecism that contributes to bad writing there are 99 trite ideas that editors cannot or do not correct,’ I stated. The fat woman then tried to change the subject, but I stated that the very fact that they are debating grammar, rather than the homogenization of thought that MFA programs confer, is why writing is so out of touch with the masses.
This point was aptly demonstrated by the fact that AWP charged $105 for single day passes for the public to get in. This was a policy that kept out interested people who might have bought some of the books- most of which went unbought. Granted, all but a few are total crap, but if the conference were truly interested in popularizing writing, they would have charged a nominal $5-10 a ticket per day, so that many of the other people in the Convention Center, which was filled with artsy types attending the SXSW Film Festival, could go browse for new writing. This fact rankled many smaller exhibitors, especially, as many of them, like me, heard of interested parties who were not going to pay the outrageous cost to go buy books. Many a film fan was interested in attending, but shook their head at the elitism- especially absurd considering the films cost only a few bucks to see. On the final morning I explained this to some AWP representatives, but they seemed oblivious. You see, events like this are mostly scams, to allow a few people of position to network. The outrageous fees I, or the exhibitors, paid, is used to fly in big ‘name’ authors for free. Such ‘luminary nobodies’ as Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, or Naomi Shihab Nye, whom no one outside of Academia knows of, nor reads, benefit by these elitist policies based not upon quality of writing, but years in the Academy.
There is this active disdain for the masses that these effete elitists feel, so they charge these unconscionable fees, to further distance their bodies from the hordes as they do their minds with their writings’ solipsistic and masturbatory obsessions, written for themselves and not a neutral audience. These writers want to live on the public’s grant money without having to produce anything the public might want. They believe quality and mass appeal are always mutually opposing. They sneer at large reach as political suicide, or the like. And, yes, these were sentiments expressed many times to me at the conference, despite the willful obliviousness of the Dos Passos Review gal and her ilk. Of all the complaints I heard from exhibitors (amongst many floating conversations- such as James Frey’s ‘lying’ and resentment toward the big publishers), there was only one fellow who actually preferred the status quo- the nebbishy publisher of Orchises Press, Roger Lathbury, who went into an actuarial defense of not allowing the public in, lest he would have to charge sales taxes and ruin his orderly dust-gathering books.
Thus, protected from the subhuman deliterates outside the Academy, as opposed to those deliterates inside, the miasma of sub-mediocrity that passes for literature nowadays is safe once again from quality and readership. Yet, I hope something good comes of my $196 spent, and that I can have a bit easier time cracking away at its foundations. Thankfully I did not have to fly in and then hang out with these types after the main floor closed. It only takes one writer to change a culture, and I know I can do it. The work is there. It just needs to be put out there. It’s just wading through all the crap one finds at an AWP that’s so difficult. At least the old Beatnik guy had his doobies to fall back on.
I received the below email from TR Hummer informing me that it was not he who moderated the program, but a man named Stephen Corey. While I apologize for the mix up in names, as apparently several of the people who later told me what the name of the moderator was were in error, I stand by assessment of both Hummer's writing, and the behavior of the man who moderated; as well the other panelists and Beatnik. Neither is slander, nor libel, nor remotely close. To assert such is silly, and shows a lack of familiarity with legalities, something I possess. However, I had some qualms about naming the person, as I had had my catalog from AWP swiped at the event, and could not be sure of the name, but since more than one person there, and in later conversations with people familiar with Georgia Review told me the name and moderator was, and had to be, Hummer, I went with that. For the mix up in names I apologize.
Sun, Mar 26, 2006 at 12:57 PM
Terry Hummer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dear Dan Schneider:
I just ran across your article called "3 Days at AWP" on the Cosmoetica web site and saw my name taken rather in vain there. In response, I only want to point out that I was not on the panel you describe; the person in question was Georgia Review associate editor Stephen Corey. Check out the AWP program and you'll see that, while I was indeed at AWP and was on two other panels, the panel with Morphew et al did not include me. You're quite entitled to your opinions and to say whatever you like in print as long as it does not take liberty with the facts, but you have an ethical responsibility to be accurate. What you have on your site amounts to a kind of slander, since it is patently untrue. I hope you'll do something to correct the error.
T. R. Hummer
Again, I admit I probably could have gone to the AWP website to check, but, as others were assured of the ID of the moderator, I lazily accepted their certitude. Of course, any assertion that any person's getting bested by a Beatnik in a public argument, or speaking too quickly and causing a run on sentence, is damaging to their reputation is ludicrous. Oh well, there goes the Georgia Review as a future resume sweetener! In the name of transparency, though, I include this last exchange between Hummer (not the moderator) and myself. Mea culpa:
Dan Schneider wrote:
I was going to mention the difference between libel and slander, but did not want to make you feel any worse in your misdefinition.
As for why I didn't change your name, and had a correction. Well, I erred, and online, if you ever read blogs, many bloggers are constantly changing posts, and denying they ever erred. I don't. I like a record of my fallibility, and others', so, that, if and when accused of something, as I often am- usually it's crazed Bukoswki fans like the Beatnik fellow I mention in the piece, or a PoMo nut, no one can accuse me of lying nor distorting; what too many in Academia do. That's why I also forward such messages around to folks on my regular emailing list so that there are witnesses to claims and threats.
Ah, transparency. Try it, it does a body good....and leaves no semeny looking mustache on your lips!
> On 3/26/06, Terry Hummer < email@example.com> wrote:
> That's fine, I suppose. Note that I said "a kind of slander," not slander per se. Technically, I suppose I should of said "libel," as it is an invidious untruth rendered in "print."
> 1. A false publication, as in writing, print, signs, or pictures, that damages a person's reputation.
> 2. The act of presenting such material to the public.
> I don't care what you think of me or of my writing (any more than you care what I think of you or yours, though actually I never heard of you before), and you have the right to publish your opinions, but I don't want to have my presence invoked where it was not; surely truth is truth and a lie is a lie, even if it's committed out of what can in the very kindest of assessments be called carelessness. Your correction seems a sort of half measure to me, since in the electronic medium you could go in and change the incorrect name to the right one; and you ought to do so, since the error only makes you look bad, inasmuch as you did not bother to check your sources. Sorry the somebody ripped off your catalog, but I got the information I sent you online in about 45 seconds.
> Since you and I have never crossed paths, why give the impression that we have? There are readers who will never make it all the way to the bottom of the web page. Still, it's your site, and you will do what you do.
> Thanks anyway for the intervention, and peace be with you.
> Best, Terry Hummer
Final: In finding an old AWP copy buried amongst my things I note that there were six people noted to appear at this function, yet only one of the six who showed, with the other five being replaced by two others. Given the moderator never mentioned his own name, and none of the other folk showed, it's not an unusual thing to be confused over the lineup. Even looking at the scheduled lineup, therefore, would not have helped, and there was no way to get the correct lineup afterwards, online or by other means. DAN
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