AWP Chicago: A Human Being’s Notes
Browsing through the many post-AWP posts for something that does something that I don’t know what, maybe something worth mentioning, or something else, I found this up at Agni (via the Newpages blog): ‘AWP Chicago: A Gamer’s Notes’ by JS Tunotre. I read it and tried to think of how it applied to my AWP experience. I found myself resisting it, wanting to respond. Then I told myself I wasn’t going to post about AWP, especially not one of those ‘thank-you’ posts to everyone (which are fine and fun to read, but there are just so many of them, and I can only read so much about how weird it is to meet people in real life whom you’ve only known online). But I changed my mind today when I realized that I couldn’t focus on the student papers piled on my desk. So here goes:
Before you read on, recall that we’ve already talked a little bit about the ‘submissions game’ here, so maybe this AWP post will pick up a little bit where Mike Young left off?
And if you haven’t, please read Blake Butler’s BE AN OPEN NODE post for some more thoughts that sort of go with what I’m thinking here.
So, to the essay. Give it a quick read, then come back and let’s talk. Also, you should know that I’m reading/responding to JS Tunotre’s essay honestly. I’m aware of its satirical qualities, its humor, etc, but I think Tunotre is describing a common perception about AWP, publishing, writing, and so on that I want to treat as a serious argument, despite his framing it in gamer’s language. We can also discuss how serious Tunotre is about this issue in the comments.
Okay, enough delay. My first question after you’ve read the essay is this: does Tunotre speak for you?
I am speaking here for all of us who still cannot walk into a room, a literary arena, without immediately seeing it as a complexly graded hierarchy, a scarcely disguised Hobbesian jungle, tyrannized over not by teeth and claws, but by their verbal equivalents.
Probably not, unless you are a robot, in which case you are probably small and round and vacuuming up all of the crap after everyone leaves town.
Or you are insanely intelligent, live alone in a garrett that you never leave, and write very long books, in which case you have no experience with crowds anyhow.
But seriously, does Tunotre speak for you? I’m curious to hear from people who think of AWP this way (or any other social interaction for that matter).
Here’s what I think: when I walk into a room full of tables and books and lots of people, I feel something like ‘fear’ and then ‘happiness’ and then ‘fear’ and then something else; then maybe I make fun of myself for feeling those feelings. Sure, I might tell someone, ‘Man, this is so weird,’ but I like to think I’m saying that sincerely, rather than just trying to show how aloof and hip and distant I am about this whole fucked up thing. And yeah, I do create a sort of hierarchy: these are the presses/journals I’d like to go see and here are the people I’d like to see. I want to see these over others, sure. But the hierarchy, I think anyhow, is based on what I’m most interested in looking at, in reading; to whom am I most interest in listening speak? This hierarchy is created in my head not because I think I can gain some ‘points’ as I move through the room, but because I’m genuinely interested in words, in putting them together in pleasing ways. I think of myself as someone who wants to join in, be a part of a really exciting community. I want to support these tiny worlds: did anyone go by the Cannibal Books/Projective Industries table? How about the stuff over at The Agriculture Reader/Forklift, Ohio table? Did you spend money on your favorites? I’m sad I missed William Gass and some of the other author signings.
Then I might walk up and down the aisles with my eyes on my feet or down low so I can see the labels on the tables’ edges. I am shy sometimes. I also might walk with my eyes up, though I’m rarely ‘immediately seeing [‘the literary arena’] as a complexly graded hierarchy.’ Instead, I’m looking for a water station or a bathroom or maybe a friend – and not the sterile, inhuman ‘friend’ that Tunotre describes: a ‘broker or an intermediary – some friend who has already established contact with a member of the proximate Status Caste.’ I’m probably looking for a real friend, someone with whom I talk about things other than writing: my fear of flying, how to change a car headlight, that crazy neighbor who collects all of the neighborhood packages and holds them for everyone on the block until they get home from work and everyone thinks he’s really nice but you still think he’s kind of creepy.
You know, important stuff.
This is not to say that Tunotre is way off here. Everyone laughs at the term ‘networking.’ We write it in single quotation marks. I think our discomfort with the word is because of how systematic, inorganic it sounds. CEOs network. Computer people network. Prairie dog colonies construct networks of tunnels. And so on (excuse the over generalizations). Tunotre thinks of ‘friends’ as knots on a rope. One climbs hand over hand up this hierarchy.
Can I suggest a perhaps more earnest and innocent interpretation of how this might work? Can I address you sincerely? First, try to avoid thinking of this thing as a game to be won. This will remove a lot of stress from your life. Next, think of yourself as a part of a larger world – it can be however big or small as long as you realize that you are not alone. The important thing to think is that there is some kind of context in which you are writing. There are people in this world who happen to write words that you admire. Are they ‘better’ than you? No. Have they ‘defeated’ you with their two books and neat wardrobe? No. Maybe you’ve learned that a friend of yours knows one of these people whose words you admire. Will your friend arrange an introduction? Sure, s/he will, because s/he is not threatened and feels the same way about this as you do. You want to meet this person whose words you admire not because they can ‘do something’ for you, but because you genuinely feel something for them, because the words they write have affected you in unnamable ways. Then you nervously meet them. Human contact is made. Something neat happens: you compliment his or her words. They say thanks.
If something more comes from the introduction, then the little world of which you are now a part grows a bit stronger. You’re asked to contribute something to a journal or edit an anthology. You exchange poems. You invite this person to gchat with you. Tunotre calls this ‘trading up’ or ‘advancing the avatar,’ but I like to think of it as less selfish than that, more communal, hopeful.
What is the foundational difference between my model and Tunotre’s?
A confession: my first time at AWP, I robot-ed along. I had a list of everything I wanted to see. I attended panels about publishing. I made a point of visiting certain journals to which I had work pending. It was awful. I spent most of the day frazzled, gamed-out, suffering from a combination of being drunk and being hungover at the same time. But the next year, I prepared less, and felt a little better about myself afterwards. Then in Chicago, I had five panels I wanted to see (two of which were by old instructors whom I wanted to say hi to again), and the rest of my time I spent wandering around and hanging out with friends. I hardly prepared at all. Did the lack of a plan hurt my wallet? Yes. Was it so bad to just hang out with friends? No. Was I still drunk and hungover? Yes, but it was nice.
Okay, back to Tunotre and the makings of my conclusion. In the essay, Tunotre goes on to describe a ‘level-1 interchange,’ something called ‘the constraint of gradient,’ and a caste system of authors. Comparing the activity that goes on at AWP to a game is pretty funny, in a way, and also interesting to think about in an ‘oh, that’s neat’ sort of way.’ I’m sure Tunotre really enjoyed writing the essay. But he overlooks a lot of the personal contact that goes on when a bunch of people with a common interest get together. What happens when you shrink the crowd from 8,000 to 30? 15? 10? It’s easy to generalize about 8,000 writers in a room. But as the numbers decrease and everyone breaks up into little groups, then what? The gaming-model doesn’t seem to allow for sincere, honest relating between people, and that’s my problem with it. This, I think, is the point I’m trying to make: that Tunotre’s model, however tongue-in-cheek, is descriptive (‘This is how the world works and we pretend otherwise at our peril’) and mine is prescriptive.
Change the way you think.
I’ll close with some more excerpts from the essay, which is at times pretty funny:
From the paragraph about Q&A sessions at panels:
Everyone knows that the only reason any person ever asks a question is to solicit attention, either for the quality of her opinions, the level of her engagement with the issue at hand, or her intelligence. Members of the audience, of course, resent the asker immediately, whether or not they can hear the comment or question.
So yeah. Magic bullet. Something.
The sublime irony is that you can only be declared winner, and thereby freed from the remorseless circulation of your avatar around the board, when it has become a matter of complete indifference to you whether Richard Bausch or Lorrie Moore looks up with a smile when you enter the room, when Jonathan Lethem’s shoulder pat slides off you like summer rain, when you are not even paying attention because you are thinking about what awaits you at the desk back home, that greeting line of words on the page that alone has power to grant the status—or, better, the absolution—you need. Then you have won. Though part of winning is no longer giving a damn that you have.
So, that’s all I’ve got. Sorry if this seems like a righteous lecture.