The Book World is Small and Also Large

I recently returned from AWP, the conference held by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which took place this year in Los Angeles. It’s a crazy big conference. Something like 12,000 people attend, so even though LA is huge, I could spot writers everywhere. All over the place I overheard conversations about manuscripts, blurbs, journal submissions, lit mags, MFA programs, and writing workshops. AWP is the kind of conference where there are so many panels and readings happening at once that just trying to decide which one to go to at any particular time is anxiety-inducing. Do I go to a panel on “Writing around the Block: How to Keep the Words Flowing” or “Queertopia or Bust: Thoughts on Intersectional Queer Poetics”? Or maybe “Out of the Cradle: Writing Our Children”? There’s also a book fair, with rows and rows of publishers and literary journals hawking their wares. On the last day of the conference, this book fair is open to the public, so if AWP ever comes to a city near you, you might want to check it out.

AWP is so, so big, so full of books to buy, discussions to hear, people to meet, and writers to learn about. And yet I kept feeling that it made the book world seem small. I know this isn’t true, but everyone seemed to know everyone else. Insidery conversations took place all around me. Long-distance friends met up at late-night parties. Instagram was flooded with pictures of writers partying hard (really!). Every writer I follow on Twitter was either at AWP, or made a point to tweet about not being at AWP. The conference seemed like a defining experience for everyone there – it was something they loved and looked forward to, or dreaded and went to only because they felt they should.

It was exciting to be in a place where everyone loves books and writing, but it also made me wonder: how much variety is there in the literary world? Everyone there seemed to have the same hopes and dreams, the same goals, the same desire to publish with the same presses. We all wandered around going to the same panels and asking the same questions.

But then I thought about all the people who weren’t at AWP. The conference is mostly for a certain type of writer, after all: its focus is literary fiction, the writers there come largely, although not entirely, from MFA culture, and the publishers participating were mostly small presses. There wasn’t much evidence that people write and read genre fiction in huge numbers. I saw no romances or science fiction for sale, no comics. Very few people talked about young adult novels or children’s literature. There were panels on these subjects, but not many, and not nearly in proportion to the number of readers devoted to these genres. The panels were mostly about helping people publish their literary fiction and poetry in order to get a job in an MFA program in order to teach young people who want to get MFAs.

All of this is fine, of course. AWP doesn’t have to be all things to all people. It is its own world, one that meets the needs of a lot of writers. But it by no means represents everyone out there who loves books. AWP brings together a lot of people, but it is a specialized conference just like conferences for mystery or romance writers are.

It’s easy to forget just how large and varied the book world can be, and to talk in oversimplified terms about what publishing is like, or what writers are like, or what kinds of people readers are. I hear vast generalizations about books and reading all the time. But more often than not, when people make claims about the book world, they are talking only about a small section of it.

In a sense, the book world IS small: the number of people who call themselves serious readers is smaller than the number devoted to movies or music or sports. Readers, booksellers, and publishing people do have a lot in common. But let’s not forget all the variety out there too. My experience at AWP was a glimpse into only one part of the book world. There are so many other corners of that world where wonderful readers and writers exist, and for that I’m very grateful.

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