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AWP’s Role in the Short Story Bubble

PUBLISHED: February 16, 2009

Looking through the 340-page AWP conference guidebook, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth and variety of panels, readings, lectures, and tributes. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference covers everything from the minutiae of craft to the nuts and bolts of finding a creative writing job or financing a literary magazine, a diversity of events that reflects a wide range of members and constituencies. As the former employee of a membership organization, I can imagine the endless discussions that went into creating a conference that would best serve AWP’s various members, from MFA students to creative writing professors, program administrators, literary magazine editors, and writing conference directors. And so I was surprised to find that the majority of the fiction panels and readings were oriented towards the short story, rather than the novel.

Man Reading in Bathtub
By Eric Brown / CC

This tilt, I would imagine, has nothing to do with bias and everything to do with the structural realities behind the two most important institutions in the world of AWP: the MFA program and the literary journal. MFA workshops and literary journals are both perfectly suited to short stories, poems, and essays. The unwieldy size of novels, however, make them difficult to workshop in MFA programs and almost impossible to publish in literary magazines. As an organization that serves MFA programs and literary magazines, it makes sense that the AWP conference is oriented less towards novels and more towards short stories, poems, and essays. And one might argue convincingly that it makes sense for an arts organization like AWP to support genres and forms that don’t do as well in the marketplace. However, I fear that the aforementioned structural constraints (compounded by the AWP conference) have created a Short Story Bubble not unlike the housing bubble that recently brought our economy to its knees.

House with Books
By liz_com1981 / CC

All around the country, thousands of young fiction writers are scribbling furiously, focusing their creative and psychological energies on producing and publishing short stories, not necessarily because the short story is their favorite form. But, rather, because it’s the form best suited to the workshop, because they think it’s the easiest way to get published, because it’s what everyone else is doing. All the while, the literary magazines these young fiction writers hope to publish their stories in are supported largely by their own tuition, subscription, and contest entry dollars. It doesn’t take John Maynard Keynes to see that this is not a sustainable market. As long as MFA programs continue to grow, as long as short story writers are willing to pay $25 to submit to a contest, this closed feedback loop will continue growing. But, as a lover of the short story, I fear for the day when the bubble bursts. The global economy may not collapse, but I won’t be surprised if a few literary magazines do.

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