AWP15: A Librarian-Writer’s Con-thnography

Last weekend I attended #AWP15, AKA The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, which this year was in Minneapolis. I’d never attended before, and the last time I was in Minneapolis aside from the airport, it was for ACRL in 2015. The city’s lovely, though the weather was colder this time (wind! snow!) than in 2005. My tourist activity was limited to visiting the American Swedish Institute, where I saw many lovely and interesting things, including a Nordic Ware exhibit.

What did I make of AWP? It felt big, which is kind of funny, in so far as the annual conference of the American Library Association can swell a city by 25-30,000 people, and I think AWP was about 12-13,000, if that. The library comparisons are significant (for me, at least) here because I was attending with both my writerly and my work hats on, with the support of my employer, VCU Libraries. I work with creative writing students and faculty in various contexts at my university, and I have a research/publishing interest in the research practices of creative writers.

That said, what did I get out of AWP?

411. I scoured the internet for advice about AWP in advance of going, and the best I saw was from Daisy Hernández: one reading, one panel, one friend, one nap. Two of the three days I tried to do everything I possibly could, mostly panels about or tangent to research. It was fruitful but exhausting. On Saturday I used the 411 method, and I felt best of all. It really worked. (But, I also spent a lot of time on Saturday at the bookfair, which is full of people paneling, sleeping, socializing, and reading, so…)

The Bookfair. Many things are exciting, interesting, or useful about AWP, and others have covered them better, but if I could recommend one reason to go, it would be the Bookfair. Yeah, concentrations of panels, readings, etc., are useful, but I’ve never attended anything quite like the bookfair. Misleadingly, it looks not unlike other such fairs I’ve seen at ALA, ACRL, World Fantasy, etc., etc. Wrong. It’s an absolutely fascinating socio-cultural environment where people in writing, editing, publishing, marketing and other areas try and sell each other things, gauge status, and perform their literary personae. I’ve seen some of this before in one context or another, but I understand now why people buy bookfair-only tickets. (Aside: I planned to buy no books, because I’m a librarian and have enough, but I failed miserably; see below.)

Yes, Virginia, people love libraries. In a city full of writers, nobody cares if you’re a writer. Say you’re a librarian, however, and everyone tells you how much they love libraries. Not the first time I’ve encountered this, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

They do travel in herds. As in the rest of human endeavors, the writing tribe definitely clustered by genre, publisher, etc., etc. The urge to classify rises up much quicker in conversation than it does at library conferences. (An aside for the folks who write in the same nook I do: nobody has a damn clue what the phrases “literary horror” or “literary fantasy” are. Nobody.)

Whoa alcohol-fueled parties. I didn’t go to a single actual party at AWP, apart maybe from the reading for Phantom Drift, which was held in a bar one night, and more party-ish than most everything else I did. Hangovers were obvious every day of the conference, both in a real and a performative (“haw haw! we drank so much!”) sort of way.

Small > large. For most of my life I’ve been a fan of smaller groups than larger, and AWP was no exception. The most interesting and productive interactions I had were one on one or in small groups. In the bookfair I finally had the pleasure of meeting Nick Mamatas in person, whom I’ve read for years, and he was as thoughtful, humorous, and straight-talking as I’d have expected (buy his books). I also had a very nice lunch with Laura Confer, a local (RVA) writer I serendipitously bumped into on Twitter as the conference was starting. Last but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Graham Jones, who was both friendly and kind, and took a few moments to give me some thoughtful advice.

The unexpected ending. I like occasional chit-chat on a plane, but I generally dislike extended conversation while flying. On the first leg of my trip home, however, I had a truly delightful conversation with my seatmates on either side, Christopher X. Shade (Associate Editor at Epiphany) and Laura Kleinbub, both of whom had been at AWP. It was an unexpectedly meaningful conversation, and it left me well and truly energized.

More subject librarians should attend subject area conferences. I don’t blog about libraries qua libraries very much because there are already too many unread library blogs in the world, and I’d rather spend my energy on other efforts. Having said that, I will say that I’ve gotten many and interesting things from attending conferences like ICFA and AWP. I always enjoy and get a lot out of attending ALA, ACRL, or related events, but similar content and questions show up year after year. We work through important issues there and have valuable conversations, but I urge you (if you are a subject librarian) to find a way to go to conferences in your area. Not a library conference in your area, but a straight-up mathematics, geology, sociology, etc. conference. If you are in library management or administration, I urge you to send your subject librarians to conferences in the areas they serve. There is no substitute for engaging with the patrons in “your” area of service, on their own turf, for getting a good, solid look at what they are doing and thinking.

#AWP15, you were great. My only complaint is that next time I need to budget a little better. I said before I left that I didn’t think I was going to buy any books while there, and, well…


AWP Book Haul

2 thoughts on “AWP15: A Librarian-Writer’s Con-thnography

  1. Nice summary, John. For librarians, especially those involved in collection management, I don’t think you can beat Bookexpo however. After so many years in of ALA,I discovered BEA and for pure love of current publishing it ranks very high- and the books are free, though they ask for contributions to the city’ s literary fund.

    • Thank you, Beth. I think you’re probably right about that — or maybe Frankfurt, if folks are looking internationally. I would love to go to BEA sometime, but collection development is definitely a smaller portion of my job than the outreach/research stuff. I will keep BEA in mind, though, as a possibility down the road.

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