At some point, my interview with Christian Teresi, the director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), turned into a long and angry lecture. Teresi was upset that I was badgering him about why the AWP Bookfair wouldn't be open to the Seattle book-buying public (the next day, AWP would reverse their decision and open the book fair up after all). His tirade about the importance of AWP culminated in an accusation: Teresi practically bellowed across the phone at me, "I question your commitment to books."
He's not the first person to do so. In testy interviews about the poor treatment of librarians, library officials have told me that I don't care about getting books in the hands of people. Publishers who don't pay their authors as promised have told me that I want to destroy books. Authors whose books I have negatively reviewed have told me that I'm doing harm to the very idea of literature.
Of course, this is ridiculous. Teresi (and/or AWP) is not the embodiment of literature, any more than I am. Library bureaucrats aren't books. A single author isn't the written word. We in the book business are paid poorly for our work, so we tend to inflate the importance of our jobs to the point where any negativity aimed at us becomes an assault on the worthy cause to which we've fed large and juicy chunks of our lives: literature, and books, and ideas.
Last weekend, Seattle was a temporary home to thousands of people who are sacrificing themselves on the altar of literature. And many of these people were talking about a new book: MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach. In discussions about it, people took sides with MFA writing programs or with New York's publishing industry, or they argued with the premise of the title entirely. The book, which was officially released at a Thursday-night party at Vito's, launched hundreds of arguments and disapproving lectures. (I'm sure someone, somewhere, accused the book of killing books.)
Or rather, the title of the book is what set people off. Everything about this book (the antagonistic, exclusionary name; the launch at AWP, when writers and publishers gather to talk about the state of the industry) was smart marketing. In fact, MFA vs. NYC doesn't choose sides. It just talks realistically about the business of writing, from more than a dozen different perspectives, including adapted pieces by David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and Tom Spanbauer. Some of the contributors, including Emily Gould and Keith Gessen, talk frankly about money. ("In 2011, I made $17,000," Gould writes. Gessen explains, "In New York, a young writer can get by on $25,000, give or take $5,000, depending on thriftiness. A slightly older writer—a 30-year-old—will need another $10,000 to keep up appearances.") Other writers offer more general advice: If you're considering entering an MFA writing program, Ellen Litman writes, "Don't go into debt. Don't go into debt. Don't go into debt." Those considering a career in writing will find a lot of brutally honest information here, but those who just like to read books will probably consider it to be a lot of whining.
But the thing about literature is that the bars to entry are ridiculously low. To write, all you need is two bucks to buy a pen and a notepad. To spread your work, you just need a voice. And with an internet connection (or access to an Espresso Book Machine), you can affordably share your writing with anyone willing to read it—no New York publisher or Iowa City MFA required. Of course, just because you can write doesn't automatically make your writing worth someone's time, but the act of reading is so intimate, so private, that all the bombast and tradition that the publishing and MFA industries carry with them simply melts away when a brilliant piece of writing draws you in. It's just a reader and the words, and nothing else matters.
As I walked the floor of the AWP Bookfair on Saturday with the rest of the Seattle book-buying public, I found myself drawn to the smaller booths with beautiful, handmade books featuring unique, intelligent voices—BatCat Press had a half-dozen gorgeous books on one table, and local publisher Alice Blue Books shared a table with Spooky Girlfriend Press and Doire Press. The discovery from the book fair that I couldn't wait to read was Alice Blue's second volume of Shotgun Wedding, a collection of six hand-folded and stapled chapbooks selected and edited by Alice Blue publisher Amber Nelson.
Local writer Corinne Manning's "A Slow Steady Eruption" is exactly what you want out of a good short story: beautiful language, a fascinating protagonist, and a hint of mystery. The narrator upends her East Coast life to move to Portland, with its "startling green that burned all winter long." She finds work at a co-op and immediately entangles herself with the wrong people as, nearby, Mount Saint Helens grumbles its warnings. Local cartoonist Colleen Frakes's comic A Conversation with My Mother About Home is exactly what the title says: a series of stark black-and-white panels that somehow manage to illustrate the way we lose the places we're from, piece by piece. And Amanda Bennett's "From This Is Where We Cut Away" is a surprising excerpt from an upcoming novel narrated by a protagonist that many AWP attendees might be able to identify with:
I once told my mother I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a story and gave it to her. She finished reading, put the pages onto the counter, and said nothing. When I asked her about it, she said, What do you want me to say? Really great job describing those pine trees?
Now I am a chemist.
Of all the excellent readings I attended, and of all the intriguing books that I sampled, Shotgun Wedding Vol 2 was the sweetest and most invigorating literary experience of my entire AWP weekend. It arrived at just the right time to remind me, after all the bloviation about MFAs and New York City and who is and isn't damaging literature, that in the end, books are doing just fine. Books will always find a way.