Let’s start with the Associated Writing Programs Conference, since that’s the one most US writers are familiar with. It’s the biggest, the glitziest, with superstars like Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell giving keynotes, and–so one is told–it’s a great place to ‘network’, which actually means, as far as I can gather, to behave like a salesperson, using sycophancy, your natural oodles of charm (it’s well known that fiction writers are captivating extroverts, isn’t it?) to sell–well, yourself. Hmm… isn’t that a teeny bit like, well (am I still allowed to pronounce this word?) prostitution? Not that there’s anything wrong with prostitution, of course! But in fact, for most writers, AWP is an utter waste of money (especially) and time. It is, to use a British expression, rubbish. Why?
Firstly, it’s just too big. You may find it thrilling to share the conference venue with another thirteen or fourteen thousand writers or wannabe writers, but the massive crowds mean that your chance of actually talking to anyone who might be in a position to help your writing career is probably small. As for meeting the superstars–the Atwoods, the Russells, the Oateses–unless you are famous yourself, you can probably forget about it. You can’t even be sure they will deign to sign a copy of one of their books. There was a lottery for places to meet Margaret Atwood for a few seconds when she was book-signing at AWP Chicago in 2012 (a conference I attended, although I did not join the scrabble.) You might exchange a few words with a presenter after one of the sessions, although again if they are famous there’s a likely to be a queue of dozens ahead of you, or they will be whisked away, as royalty and rock stars are, as soon as they’ve finished speaking.
Many people say that the book fair, which is enormous, and often does display work by new and interesting magazines and indie presses, is the best part of the conference. There you do get a chance to peruse their work, and might get a chance to talk to an editor about what they’re seeking. Actually meeting the people in question can tell you in an instant, sometimes, what you’d never have guessed from the submission guidelines. That said, although I’ve attended the conference a number of times, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a concrete chance to publish anything come out of talking to anyone at the fair. Still, it’s certainly a way for smaller presses to publicize their work, and for the increasingly corporate MFA programs to sell their wares too.
Other writers will tell you that the real business of the conference takes place in the evenings, when all good writers and editors are soused, and you may strike up acquaintance with the famous, the worthy, and so on. (If it sounds hierarchical, it is: in spite of the fact that nearly all writers claim liberal leanings, there’s a strict caste system. Famous writers at the top, of course, followed by respectable mid-list writers who’ve won prizes, followed by authors published by indie presses and professors–most of whom are not famous–with graduate students near the bottom and undergrads as the lowest of the low.) You may also have the chance to meet simply interesting writers who are not famous. You may. But because in fact as a writer you are probably introverted, socially-anxious, poorly-dressed, and lacking all social skills, you probably won’t. There are exceptions, naturally. If you are beautiful, elegant, and charming, these social events might work for you. So I’m told. (You can see which kind of writer I am!)
Yet more writers claim that they learn so much from the sessions–especially when they are writing their grant proposals to get their universities to fund them. This is mostly–how can I put this politely? Bullshit. Yes, that’s the word. You may indeed attend an interesting session or two. However, in general you’re unlikely to attend one that covers topics in a wholly original way, unless you are a completely ingenuous person and/or an ignorant one (if, again, such a descriptor is still permissible.) Here’s the thing: you probably are liberal, everyone else at the conference is liberal, and most of them are committed to propagating liberal views–that indeed is why most of them write–so you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything. Any writers who have genuinely polemical or provocative opinions will have been weeded out in the selection process. So, as with social media, you’ll find that the conference is, to a large extent, an echo chamber. Expect many sessions on the value of diversity, inclusion, underprivileged voices and so on. Expect to be reassured that you are a kind, caring intellectual and that you belong to ‘the tribe’. (Many people actually use the term, without irony, using such phrases as ‘I discovered my tribe at AWP/grad school, etc’ without realizing how dull and collectively-minded that makes them sound).
Plus there’s the expense. It’s going to cost you somewhere north of $1500 for four or five days, unless you can persuade some dumb university to pay for it for you (in which case, you get a free holiday–not exactly ethically, if the taxpayer is paying for it, but many writers can find a way to salve their conscience). I’d recommend, instead, spending the money on a writing retreat where you actually get some writing done. Or maybe going to a smaller, more worthwhile conference–they do exist. (More on that in part two of this essay). But AWP is nothing but a celebration of the corporatization of US literary culture. I have been on several occasions because my old university expected me to–but I’ll certainly never go at my own expense. Don’t be taken in by the hype.