The Big Read Blog (Archive)

But Why Isn’t It AWWP?

March 1, 2007
Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta, capital city, in Chattahoochee R. Valley among Blue Ridge foothills, is an almost aggressively modern metropolis...Despite its strong ties with Eastern capital & atmosphere of commercialism & efficiency, it is still fundamentally a Southern city, & as in rural Ga., entertainment & sociability are largely home affairs...
--The WPA's Georgia: A Guide to Its Towns and Countryside, abridged

To Atlanta, then. To AWP, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, the annual kaffeeklatsch for thousands of scribblers enrolled in, hundreds teaching in, and a few actually studied in, America's creative-writing industrial complex. As director of the NEA's literature grantmaking programs, my position here is roughly analogous to my old status as the San Francisco Chronicle's book critic at Book Expo America, the annual trade convention of the book business. Essentially, the rigamarole goes like this: Everybody is nice to me, many under the largely misguided impression that I personally can do them some good. My role here is really to keep learning as much as I can about the state of the field these days, to reassure people that readers and writers have a friend in Washington, and, to a lesser extent, to get the word out about the other half of my day job, the Big Read.

As the NEA's initiative to help restore reading to its rightful place at the heart of American life, the Big Read has lasting consequences for everybody penned onto the show floor at the Atlanta Hilton between now and Sunday. If reading numbers in America keep tanking, we're all kidding ourselves. We're headed toward a society where not just all the writers, but all the serious readers in the country could fit into Centennial Park. And when that happens, you can pretty much kiss this sweet little experiment in representative democracy goodbye.

Cheered up yet? Me, either. The good news is, I'm about to spend a long weekend with a few thousand people materially invested in making sure that doesn't happen. I only know a fraction of them yet, but that's sure to change in the hours and years ahead. If there'd been an AWP half a century ago, just think of all the writers on the Big Read's ever-growing list who would've flown into Atlanta with me this morning. Maybe not Ray Bradbury, who doesn't fly, or Harper Lee, who's not much of a joiner, but surely Zora Neale Hurston, or Ernest Hemingway -- possibly carpooling together from Florida, flouting open-container laws across multiple states. Despite themselves, writers can be a sociable tribe. To be sure, plenty of great writers are sitting this weekend out, or don't even know about it. But the sheer value of talent and patience here -- when not inversely proportioned -- gives me hope, or at least tides me over.