They came, they saw, they picked up 6,000 AWP tote bags.
The annual conference of the Assn. of Writers & Writing Programs took place in person in Philadelphia last week. For thousands of writers accustomed to meeting every year to talk shop and stay up late to drink, it was a long-delayed reunion.
After the demise of the long-running BookExpo, this MFA-centric gathering represents the greatest opportunity for a writer to network, browse journals, attend panels on literary trends, and get together for bookish gossip.
The AWP 2021 conference was virtual, like so many others, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, bucking the trend of event and concert cancellations, AWP took place in San Antonio and was essentially a ghost town. There hadn’t been a real gathering of these writers from across the country since 2019, and those who came to Philadelphia were genuinely excited to be there. The atmosphere was good.
For those unfamiliar with the traveling literary carnival, here is an overview of AWP in numbers (more or less).
Philadelphia 6,000 in-person attendees were about half of the pre-pandemic AWP conference average. (An additional amount of 800 people participated virtually.) The youngest in-person participant was 3.5-Iggy (Ignacio) Johnson-Valenzuela, one month old, with her mother, Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, an award-winning writer and musician who lives in Philadelphia. Iggy was remarkably cool, even at the festive and boisterous cocktail party hosted by the Whiting Foundation and Bomb magazine.
Calling the convention a “book fair” is an understatement. In a large hall, 500 exhibitors set up booths for their writing programs and magazines, independent publishers and regional literary organizations. The slots numbered above 1,000, and although some exhibitors occupied several adjacent booths – including the popular Iowa Writers’ Workshop, flexing – the layout was spacious. People could circulate without hurrying; I needed 114 steps to go from one side of the room to the other.
The busiest booth was about halfway through, where Electric Literature had set up photo stations and had a nifty following of loot. Executive director Halimah Marcus said she wanted it to be “interactive, playful and fun”. AWP is a chance for the publishers of Electric Lit, which has 3.5 million readers per year, to meet its distant contributors.
The people who had traveled the furthest to attend were from the University of Cambridge, the one in England, 3,500 miles away – which launched a low-residency creative writing masters program. Novelists Nick Bradley (“The Cat and the City”) and Joe Mungo Reed were among those at the table chatting with attendees. “There’s nothing like it in the UK,” said Reed, whose book ‘Hammer’ has just been published in the US by Simon & Schuster. “We watch with jealousy the vibrant scene of writing.”
All day in the exhibition hall, people remained masked. Vaccinations were compulsory and masks were compulsory at the signs. I witnessed zero anti-mask tantrums.
Like many conferences, the AWP is partly for professional development, scheduled from dawn to dusk with panels (approximately 300 of them) for a variety of authors and interests. This year’s conference was generally jargon-poor, but there were still notable moments of turbidity in the conference guide: Podcasts in the creative writing class could prove invaluable, especially as many workshops fail to serve a significant portion of students who do not feel welcome or capable. This panel will discuss how podcasts exist in an a priori cultural space, almost as if they were tailor-made to address these issues. You do not say.
A panel about to call attention – “Freedom is just another word (for nothing to lose)”, on what should and should not be said in writing workshops – does not was followed only by ten people in a large room. Much more popular was “Book Tour Revolution: Strategies for the Current World,” (counting, 100+), where YA author Chloe Gong, early novelist Priyanka Champaneri, children’s book author Kwame Mbalia, journalist Tim Herrera, and financial writer Erin Lowry approached post-pandemic book promotion with an optimistic focus. and technology driven. Cancel culture issues didn’t find traction with this crowd; new ways to reach readers did.
Lectures are also about socializing, of course. After hours, AWP teems with offsite parties and readings and, inevitably, late-night get-togethers at the conference hotel bar. I met what might be AWP’s ultimate couple, writers Emily Maloney and Ori Fienberg. They briefly dated in Iowa, but it fell through. Living in different cities, they got used to connecting to AWP year after year. Finally, Fienberg suggested they try dating again; they married in 2015 and lived happily ever after.
the first The AWP conference was held in 1973 in Washington, DC, and I couldn’t find anyone who attended. The most seasoned AWP veteran present was writer Dinty W. Moore, a former chairman of the AWP board of directors, who did not miss a conference in 32 years.
Despite the precautions, the idea that the AWP could recur in March was perhaps too optimistic. As I write this Twitter friends are saying 5 people have reported contracting COVID-19 since the conference. I tested negative on Saturday, and while I was writing this, I was tested again – still negative.
I’m not one of those people who wants to drop the masks and pretend things are normal. Still, I find myself hoping that we can continue to safely and cautiously attend readings, share literary experiences, and talk about books in person this spring. It’s been a long time.
Kellogg is a former Times book editor.