Lessons from AWP: There’s really no pot of gold on the other side of the wall

AWP was very revelatory. I went to a bunch of the popular fiction themed panels, just because that’s a place where I have a hand in. And at a few of them, I heard genre-affiliated people rail about how they don’t get any respect and how the literary establishment should let them in. That’s not a new song, obviously. One hears it all the time on the blogs of SF writers and critics.

But at the conference, I also started to get a sense of what the literary fiction world is like. It was very interesting. There was a palpable sense of desperation hanging over the place. This was not a fan convention. Everyone there was a writer. Everyone was on the make. Everyone was hustling. Everyone was networking. And there was a very real sense that almost no one was going to “make it.” I wouldn’t say that the rhetoric was downbeat, but you just felt in the peoples’ body language and in the tenor of their conversation and in the panel titles* just how desperate people were.

And that’s the literary establishment, people. Genre fiction people rail about the “genre ghetto” as if there’s some beautiful golden metropolis on the other side of those ghetto walls. But there’s not. Literary fiction is just another slum. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s less healthy than SF. Both sectors sell roughly the same value of books every year (as I recall, they’re both about 6% of the total publishing market…and that’s 1/3rd of the share commanded by romance novels).

Yes, literary fiction controls many of the engines that give cultural prestige to authors and works. And it does feel good to get that prestige. But it’s not everything. I mean, what does literary fiction really have that genre fiction doesn’t have? I can only name a few prizes:

  • 50ish slots each year for short stories in the New Yorker and a few more slots in the Atlantic. These magazines reach literally one hundred times as many people as most of the top literary journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, etc) and science fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, etc.) Being published in them is pretty much the only way that a short story writer can get their work in front of the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally read short stories.
  • Roughly 25 openings, per year, for entry-level fiction professorships (and a few more unadvertised or mid/senior-level openings).
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • The National Book Award for Fiction
  • And then a few other bonus awards—NEA grants, post-graduate fellowships, etc.
  • The ability to foist a person’s novels onto high school and college kids.

All that stuff is great. And it’s real and concrete and wonderful, if you can get it. But who does get it? All those things go to maybe 50-100 authors a year. Everyone else has to scrabble around in the dirt, either relying on their book sales (just like genre authors) or working a day job.

I think it absolutely would be nice if some of genre fiction’s less-commercial writers were more competitive for professorships, because god knows they’re not earning a living by selling their books. And that’s a fight worth having. To a large extent, it’s a fight that’s been had. A fair number of genre writers (John Crowley, Kij Johnson, John Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Evenson, Samuel Delany, Kit Reed) are sitting inside creative writing departments and that number will probably increase a bit in the coming decades.

But I don’t think this is a fight that’s worth getting so frothing angry about. I mean, so you’ll find it a bit harder get published in the New Yorker? So what? Most literary fiction writers will never get in there either. So you’ll find it very difficult to win major literary awards. So what? Most literary writers won’t win them either. People talk about the literary/genre divide as if there were numerous lives and livelihoods at stake. They call it a matter of segregation and ghettoization, but it’s not. Those things affected millions of people. This thing affects maybe 50 people a year. Yes, it’s sad that Cat Rambo is not competitive for professorships and that we’ll never see a Ted Chiang story in the New Yorker. But it’s also not really that big a deal**. And correcting this injustice is definitely not worth my time.

*Examples (all of these are just from Thursday morning)

  • Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market
  • Getting That First University Teaching Job.
  • Only Half as Crazy as We Seem: Exploring Unconventional Strategies for Indie Lit Startups
  • Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That
  • What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School About the Two-Year College – (A panel about teaching in community colleges)

**Also, as I noted last year, genre fiction does have _some_ rewards that are denied to literary fiction

Sidenote: Literary authors are also guilty of this same sin. Many seem to think that all commercial fiction authors are rolling in the dough. Not true. I guarantee you that for every Tom Clancy, there are a thousand extremely frustrated military history buffs who are toiling away as insurance adjustors because their novels tanked (and for every one of those thousand, there are another thousand military history buffs who couldn’t even get their novels published)

AWP is kind of a social scene, but then, so is everything.

I’m at the Association of Writing Programs’ annual convention (this year, it’s in Boston). This is the big professional organization for people affiliated with writing programs (which, by extension, has turned it into the big convention for writers of literary fiction in the U.S.)

It’s good. Kind of big. Twelve thousand people. Pretty much all of them are writers. And I know barely anyone. I’m here with almost all of the MFA fiction writers (and some of the poets, too), which definitely assuages some of the loneliness. But I still feel a bit on the outside. Obviously, as a student, I’m a bit low-status. But it’s more than that.

I’ve come to realize that, regardless of their states purpose, almost all gatherings—AA meetings, churches, meetings at offices, corporate retreats, concerts, protests, etc—are basically social scenes. There are a bunch of regulars, who have the most connections (mostly with each other) and power, and they basically organize the whole thing for their own benefit. They’re the ones who the gathering is for. And, because of that, when outsiders come in, they always feel a bit rejected and shut out.

The important thing for the outsider is just to realize that the left-out feeling is a normal thing that everyone has to go through when they try to break in. And you can try to be friendly and outgoing and that helps a bit, but, really, the moment when you start to fit in is this weird, invisible transition. You come back a few times and, suddenly, you recognize people in the halls. Your schedule fills up. You get invited to dinners and parties. You start only going to panels that your friends and acquaintances are on. You don’t know quite how it happens, but suddenly you’re part of the in-group.

I’ve experienced this process a bunch of times. I was part of my college’s newspaper staff and twice a year we’d have banquets. During my first few, I stood in a corner and was desperately lonely and really made no attempt to talk to people or anything. But during my last few, I had a lot of fun. My first few science fiction conventions were miserable and lonely experiences. My last few were significantly easier and more filled with, like, talking to people and having them talk back to me.

So yeah, I imagine that my fifth AWP will be a riot.