AWP in the Time of Plague

A dispatch from a half-empty conference that was already in trouble

This year’s installment of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference, held in San Antonio during the first week of March, was supposed to draw around 12,000 creative writers to the Henry B. González Convention Center to buy books, gossip, and drink. But it dn’t happen that way. At all.

The saga might have started in 2018, when the AWP fired David Fenza from its leadership team. It might have started when that first coronavirus patient in the U.S. sneezed on a stranger. Or when tweets about other conferences’ cancellations materialized in the writing community. I really don’t know.

I can only begin with what you definitely need to hear about AWP 2020: the directors and board of AWP had no good choices this year, trying to figure out whether or not to cancel the San Antonio conference in light of the fast-spreading coronavirus. On the side of going forward, many small presses would have no operating budget for the year without the sales they achieve at AWP; on the side of cancelling, the risk of 12,000 writers bringing coronavirus back to their homes across the world is difficult to countenance. The board elected to go forward, incurring anxiety, wrath, and self-righteousness across all sectors of the community.

Photos of AWP courtesy of Kristi Coulter.

I’d guess, unscientifically, that at least half of the writers and exhibitors with AWP plans cancelled them. The convention center was empty. Exhibitors abandoned so many booths that presses and magazines moved around and spread out (without reprisal), and random writers sat at empty tables with their laptops. The lines for food and bathrooms were so short as to be bearable, and I had no trouble connecting with long-lost pals and editors at virtually any table I wanted. All of this lent a friendly, positive air to the conference. Everyone who attended had decided to make the best of a bad situation, which meant that almost everyone was friendly and cheerful, even on the last day (when everyone is usually fried and miserable). Plus, under-attendance lessened the upset and overwhelm of 12,000 writers milling around in one place.

Even less scientifically, I think that the cancellations of many major exhibitors (Tin House, Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s, W.W. Norton) forced attendees to spend more time at the tables of little presses they might not have heard of, or might have otherwise missed in the noise of the conference. Some of the small presses with which I’m affiliated did well, even as well as they might have done under normal circumstances. (Others did not, alas.) Throwing the spotlight onto presses that really need it was a fabulous unintended consequence of this weird AWP.

Further, #AWPunk was in full swing everywhere I looked. Panels substituted most or all of their intended presenters, leading to a looser, perkier atmosphere in which anything could happen. Individual authors set up displays at empty booths, selling their books on the barrelhead. Offsite events went awry, but plucky, quick-thinking writers (ahem) saved them. We depended on our wits and the resources we could scrounge up, rather than well-laid plans, to make this conference fun and meaningful. It was kind of great.

Serious questions linger about the future of the conference, and its sponsoring organization. The leadership problem at AWP is not going away, and in fact seems to be worsening. The way the organization handled the conference’s potential cancellation—promising an announcement all day long and delivering it in the final minutes of business hours on the East Coast—drained a lot of faith that it could ill afford to lose from members and affiliates.  And the very choice not to cancel the conference infuriated many members with disabilities (i.e. those at greater risk from coronavirus), topping off significant complaints from that subset of the membership over the last several years.

AWP 2020 had a cool, wacky vibe, and I’m glad I went. But the cost was high. So many vibrant writers, editors, and readers skipped the event, at great personal expense and at incalculable cost to the overall value of the conference, as well as to San Antonio’s economy. Goodwill among writers sank to an all-time low as we argued on social media about AWP’s choices and our own. As an organization, AWP may not recover from this, which would be the highest cost of all. But, just as the spotlight shifted to smaller presses at the conference, the (potential) fall of AWP may make room for a more agile, less troubled, punker organization to rise in its place.

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Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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