Art Works Blog

A Look At AWP--North America’s Largest Literary Gathering

In a cavernous Los Angeles convention center with the usual bright lights and carpeted aisles and blue-curtained booths there are crowds of mostly out-of-towners chatting and browsing, conducting business, listening to panels. Zoom in on the scene at the beginning of April (just before a convention for automotive enthusiasts) and you might have been surprised to find that the roughly 12,000 attendees and 2,000 presenters and 800 exhibitors milling about those gigantic halls were all there because they love contemporary literature. They love to write it, teach it, read it, hear it, share it, translate it, publish it, learn about it, and celebrate it any way they can.

Supported with a grant from the NEA, the annual conference and book fair of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) is the largest literary conference in North America. By “literary” I mean its primary focus is not to increase profits from book sales; rather, it’s an inspirational, sometimes controversial, often exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating lovefest of the art of the written word. One can search for talks by genre (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, young adult, and children’s literature) or other topics such as “professional development,” “diversity,” and “technology.”

I might be off by a year, but I believe this is my 18th consecutive time participating in the AWP conference, which has traveled around the country (and sometimes Canada) —from New Orleans to Seattle, Kansas City to Denver, Baltimore to Minneapolis. I can’t imagine missing it, or wanting to, but inevitably as I run from meeting to meeting, poke in and out of panels and readings, and wander the aisles of the book fair, I’m reminded that we NEA folks experience this event differently than most others there. Particularly this year, as I was feeling somewhat nostalgic.

The NEA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year; AWP will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. AWP’s first conference was held in 1973 at the Library of Congress and featured six events and 16 presenters (today there are more than 30 concurrent sessions at any given time for a total of more than 500 events). George Garrett, one of AWP’s founders, planned the first gathering with help from the NEA.

In a panel I presented at this conference called “The NEA Turns 50: Celebrating a Half Century of Support for Literature in America,” I talked about thinking of literature as a “field,” which is not how many writers view it (as I discovered by casually asking the question of attendees). Writers think about writing, and perhaps about revising and finding an agent and getting published and finding an audience. We at the NEA, on the other hand, think about how to help writers across the country do all that, which means we’re thinking more about the infrastructure or ecosystem for writers and readers, teachers and literary organizations. We think about who is (and isn’t) writing and what they are (and aren’t) writing and why. We think about who is (and isn’t) getting published or disseminated and why. We think about who is (and isn’t) reading and what they’re reading and why. We think about the fate of libraries and bookstores, book festivals and writing programs, hardbacks and ebooks, hybrid genres and traditional forms. We think about people of all ages and backgrounds, from all around the country, which is why the AWP conference is invaluable to us. We learn so much.

It’s daunting to be faced with hundreds of specific conversations in one place, in one city, at one time, and to try and step back and make sense of what’s happening overall, to identify trends and trouble spots. The need for more diverse writers and books and staff, the challenge of publishing in the digital age, the desire to collect and share data – these are issues that come readily to the surface. There was also a refreshing and palpable momentum this year among literary organizations to find new ways to work together and coalesce more as a “field.” But we’re still digesting all that we observed.

I suspect the hardworking folks at AWP are still digesting it all, too. A conference that size is not easy to pull off, and yet they do it superbly year after year. I’d have asked them by now what they learned this year about this ever-changing field of literature, but I imagine them at a yoga retreat or on a remote beach somewhere, decompressing. Or maybe they’re at the convention for automotive enthusiasts, enjoying being attendees instead of organizers, putting off thinking about next year’s conference in Washington, D.C. By then I trust we contemporary literature lovers will be ready and eager to do it all over again.

Want to learn more about the literature program at the NEA? We have a fact sheet for that! 

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