My Report from the 2017 AWP Writers Conference

I attend my first Association of Writers & Writers Programs (AWP) Conference in D.C. for two days this past week. It was eye-opening, not only in terms of the information I gleaned from the five workshops I attended, but based on my observations of the scheduled workshops, the exhibitors, and the people. Despite the projected attendance of 12,000 people (which probably fell short due to travel restrictions in the Northeast), the conference felt like a gathering of friends who know each other. More than once walking through the halls, I’d see people recognize someone and rush to hug an old acquaintance or classmate. That sense also prevailed in the workshops when moderators and speakers alike made references to people and books without clarification or enumeration in a manner that suggested everyone in the audience ought to know the reference. To that extent I was a stranger in a strange land.

I attended craft workshops that were structured for a general audience although the program was full of sessions for specialized interest groups, such as “Iranian Diaspora Writers,” “Latinx Literary Activism,” “Carolina African American Writers,” and “Poets Writing the Holocaust.”

The best workshops I attended were a panel on structure on Thursday and one on the dividing line between adult and YA fiction on Friday. Daniel Jose Older was on both panels which is one reason both sessions were not just informative and made me think, but were lively and never boring. I’m not ready to read his work, but if you get a chance to hear him in person, do it.

Perhaps the most interesting take away came from a panel on speculative fiction. Much of spec fiction until now has been dystopian––i.e., written to warn people about how bad things are going to be in the future if we don’t mend our ways. One writer suggested the November 2016 election has changed that and more than one speaker expressed their belief that the results bode ill for one and all. Thus, there was a call for utopian writing, writing describing how we get to a better future, which echoes a period in the second half of the19th century when authors such as Edward Bellamy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote utopian novels in reaction to the ravages of early industrialization.

One thing became clear to me over those two days: the almost total absence of writers in AWP who are out of step of the dominant ideological mold. Daniel Older, for example, was not challenged when he suggested that there’s never a day in the life of any black person when s/he isn’t aware of white supremacy. Not being black I can’t challenge him on grounds of personal experience, but I wonder if Michelle Malkin, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, Larry Elder, Jason Riley and the more than one and a quarter million blacks who voted Republican this past fall would agree? Nor was Brendan Kiely challenged when he suggested the way to overcome the bias of mainstream publishers against non-white, non-male writers was for everyone in the audience to run out and buy books written by non-traditional writers. The flaw in his solution is it implies books written by non-traditional writers are always better than books written by traditional (i.e., white, male) writers. Further, it ignores the incredible commitment by publishers in recent DECADES to publish works by non-traditional writers. All one has to do is look at the advertisements in the AWP Conference program guide to see the extent to which that’s the case.

Writers pride themselves on being independent thinkers, but what I saw at the AWP was a crowd mentality and a lack of awareness of the extent to which the liberal mindset they have bought is based on assumptions that fall apart when examined closely. Utopia does indeed seem far in the future.

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