The most striking thing about AWP is the simple fact of having so many writers in one place. For one long weekend 8,000 or so lonely souls come together in a really nice hotel to talk about the minutiae of their craft, geek out over ekphrasis, and do their best to schmooze with the editor of their favorite lit mag. Perhaps it’s like any other conference, and only the panels and the minutiae are different, but it feels profound to have so many people used to working in relative solitude and obscurity come together in one place.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Bookfair. Housed in the lower level of the Hilton Chicago, the Bookfair is comprised of four massive exhibition halls, all of them stacked with representatives of literary magazines, publishing houses, MFA programs, writers’ organizations, and the like. It’s kind of like a human slush pile in reverse. After the guard inspects your badge to make sure you aren’t some yahoo sneaking in off the street, you descend into a sea of tables and banners, stickers and sample copies. It took a bit more than two hours for my friend Jonah and I to tour the entire place and we only stopped a few times to schmooze with editors. You could easily spend all day there. And in fact, I spoke to someone who did just that, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, going from table to table trying to get a sense of the lit mag landscape.
After maxing out on the Bookfair, I headed upstairs to the panels, which seem to be the meat of the conference. “Is There Balm in Cyberspace?” a panel about online creative writing classes, was a bit boring, though in retrospect I’m not sure what I expected. Any disappointments, however, were washed away by the University of Michigan alumni reading I attended next. The reading featured the always great Rattawut Lapcharoensap (reading a story inspired by Leonard Michaels), as well as Jason Bredle, Nami Mun, Tung-Hui Hu, and Patrick O’Keeffe.
I have to admit I was not expecting much from the evening’s keynote. I read Maus in high school and I like comix as much as the next guy but, I thought, what is Art Speigelman going to talk about for an hour and a half? It turns out he has a lot to say, about the history of comix and his role in their development. Although he sped through his presentation and skipped over a few slides, he is quite an entertaining guy, telling a story about chastising Paul Auster and Don DeLillo for not paying attention to their book boards. But the line of the night (about reading online) was probably: “When I’m on the web I’m always one click away from Porn Tube or The Huffington Post, depending on my mood.”