Speculative Fiction at AWP 2012

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference is primarily a literary conference. It’s like World Con for literary writers.(Heck, there were even some costumes.) Many of the attendees either have earned or are currently earning their MFAs in Creative Writing.

I went in with the expectation that most of the panels, readings, and book fair booths would exclude genre writing completely. So I was very excited to find a small but active knot of genre-focused events.

Panel: “Beyond Pulp – The Futuristic and Fantastic”
My first genre panel at AWP was “Beyond Pulp – The Futuristic and Fantastic as Literary Fiction.” The panelists were Anjali Sachdeva, Kate Bernheimer, Kevin Brockmeier, Brian Evenson, and Matthew Williamson. This panel took place at the Palmer House, which is beautiful but not a place I’d like to be trapped in all alone at night. It has the kind of opulence that couldn’t have been pulled off without creating a few ghosts in the process.

The Red Lacquer Room at the Palmer House in Chicago

Fellow Clarion West classmate Maria and I sat at the panel, taking in the crazy splendor of the Red Lacquer Room. There were maybe ten or so chandeliers, each mounted in ornate appliques on the ceiling.

Chandelier in the Red Lacquer Room

At one point, the panelists started talking about Clarion, and how they knew people in the Iowa Writers Workshop (the most prestigious MFA program) who were graduates. Maria and I were practically bouncing in our seats. We wanted to wave our hands and go, “Hey! We got your Clarion Westies right here!”

The panelists each read a prepared statement or gave a brief talk on the relationship between the literary and the fantastic.

Some interesting points:

  • Writers should practice free love when it comes to literary/ genre writing. Write everything. Love everything. 
  • The artificiality in genre distinctions has more to do with marketability than content. 
  • In genre fiction, online magazines have more prestige and better stories, while the print magazines are mired in nostalgia.  
Reading: Apocalyptic Literature
The next genre event at AWP that I attended was a reading of apocalyptic literature. The readers were Brian Parker, T.R. Hummer, Pinckney Benedict, Judy Jordan, and Kevin Brockmeier. 
At this reading I learned two things:
  1. Kevin  Brockmeier is amazing and I must read all of his books. 
  2. Apocalypse tales are better when they have a sense of wonder amid the horror. 
After the panel, Kevin Brockmeier announced that he had some copies of “Ten Great Novels of the Apocalypse“, an article he wrote for Oxford American. The one moment of out and out kindness from a stranger that I experienced at AWP happened at this panel. I was waiting in line to get a copy of this article, and they ran out right before me. I walked away feeling a bit dejected. Then a young guy came up and handed me his copy. “Here, my friend got one. I’ll share with him.” 
After the Thursday morning elevator insanity, where people fought over a ride down, this small act of giving completely surprised me. I like to think that people who write or read about apocalyptic events are more likely to be kind in the days before the world goes crazy. 
Bookfair: Genre Journals
The panelists from “Beyond Pulp” mentioned two print markets for fiction on the borderlands of the genre/ literary divide:

Both of these journals had booths at the book fair. They’re beautifully printed and bound. 
Fairy Tale Review and Unstuck

The small white square in the center of this photograph is a music CD, full of songs inspired by fairy tales. I can’t wait to listen to it.

In addition to these journals, Western Colorado’s MFA program was also there. They had a little sign listing all of the different courses of study, and one of them said Genre. Two of the people at the table were genre writers, and they were really enthusiastic about the program. 
Keynote Speaker: Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker this year at AWP. She was witty and funny and brief, and I loved her for taking hands with the sign language interpreter for a joint bow at the end of her speech. 

Margaret Atwood speaking in the Roosevelt Theater, Chicago

Atwood was asked to speak about the craft of writing, but she explained in her speech that she had never formally studied writing. In the end, she learned by reading and reading and reading, writing and rewriting and beginning all over again.

There was a book lottery for people to have up to two books signed by Margaret Atwood. I entered. I didn’t win. But it was amazing just to be able to be in the same giant auditorium with her, and to hear her speak about working tirelessly to craft stories in an encouraging but realistic way.

The Ultimate AWP Event: Hanging Out

On Saturday, the book fair was open to the public for free. Westie classmate Nick Tramdack came over to the Hilton, and we spent hours hanging out in a hallway outside a ballroom, debating the virtues of past and present tense. 
Clarion West 2011 Classmates Maria Romasco-Moore & Nick Tramdack
Maria also introduced me to Meghan McCarron, the Clarion West alum who suggested that Maria apply to Clarion West. We spent a good twenty minutes in a busy aisle of the book fair talking to Meghan, who was super friendly and full of great stories and advice.

Missed Opportunities: Panels & Events I Didn’t Attend
There were several genre events that I didn’t attend. AWP is like that – there’s always ten interesting things going on at the same time.

Here’s some of the genre events that I missed:

  • Readings & Parties:
    • Wag’s Review & Unstuck Reading, with readers Noam Dorr, Lucas Mann, Rachel Swirsky, and Julia Whicker. 
    • Unstuck Reading, with readers Gabriel Blackwell, Ian Richard Jones, Meghan McCarron, Joe Meno,  Kiki Petrosino, Dan Rosenberg, Zack Savich, Francesca Thompson, and Matthew Vollmer.  
    • Literary Rock & Roll with Audrey Niffeneger
  • Panels:
    • Women in Jeopardy: Crime Fiction
    • Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age
    • I’d Take Stephenie Meyer’s Royalty Check: What Should We Be Teaching Our Students?
    • Midwest Gothic: Dark Fiction of the Heartland
    • Vampire by Vampire: Genre Writing and the Creative Writing Workshop

If you write genre/ weird/ fantasy/ science fiction stories and you’re thinking about going to AWP next year, then you’re likely to find a good number of events to attend and journals to discover.

For me, the best part of any convention, literary or genre, is hanging out with your writing friends. The genre people were especially open to speaking with the crowd after panels, talking about their journals at the book fair, and being introduced to genre friends. I was a little worried that I’d feel marginalized and lonely as a fantasy writer at AWP, but in the end it was a wonderful experience. 

4 thoughts on “Speculative Fiction at AWP 2012

  1. Oh, that sounds like fun! The hallway thing. Also, I can totally envision you and Maria trading bubbly grins while listening to other people talk obliquely about you.

  2. It was super fun! 🙂 I know we may not ever get to have a complete Clarion West reunion, but I think if we could get 8 – 10 of us in a room together sometime it would be amazing.

  3. Jenni,
    I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now, admiring you for your love of speculative fiction. I am incredibly impressed by how you do not give in to the pressures of academia, wanting to force you to write Literary Fiction. At least not all of the time. Yesterday, while Ashley and I were driving to her reading in Pittsburgh, I was hit with a wave of realization, while considering your blog.

    Until 2009, I was a speculative fiction writer.

    I have always (even during grad school) been a speculative fiction reader, mostly horror and occasional sci-fi stuff, and it is that type of writing that made me want to be a writer. The first praise that I ever received as a writer was for a story that I wrote in fourth grade about a little boy ghost who is in love with a little girl ghost. When I met Ashley, I was working on a (I now realize) crummy novel about a haunted town. Heck, the first two online publications that I ever had were a horror short and a sci-fi short. Then all of the sudden something weird happened.

    I tried to get into grad school. For poetry?

    On my drive yesterday, I felt like a man who finds himself in his 40s, driving a minivan, with four kids screaming in the back, trying to remember how much fun he’d had as a roadie for a heavy-metal band. I am really happy about all of the great opportunities that graduate school has afforded me (cool job, cool conference-goings) but I feel like I have betrayed the young me. The real me perhaps? I am embarrassed that I stopped writing horror. I haven’t stopped reading it. I haven’t stopped being afraid of the world around me. Cripes, bats crawl out of my sink sometimes—if that’s not fodder for horror, then I simply don’t know what is.

    My main point of all of this is that I have some big thinking to do: What will I do now? Can I go back to what I love, seamlessly? I don’t know that I am an academia basher, but I miss the old days, writing horror, trying to scare myself and anyone else who would look at the pages. I loved publishing with small online journals, being part of that community. This thinking is exciting though and I really have you (and Maria, I think) to thank. You two stuck to your guns, even at the biggest damn convention in the country and continue to write and study what you love. I was pulled away for a while and I want to come back.

    You’re a hero, and I’m looking from my mini-van over to your tour bus, hoping for an autograph.

  4. Hey Damien!

    I'm sorry we didn't get more of a chance to talk about writing at AWP. Thanks for leaving a comment here to keep our discussion going. 🙂

    My feelings about writing speculative fiction boil down to one concept, I think: life's too short to be writing anything other than what you absolutely love.

    I'm so glad and thankful I was able to do an MFA program. I met you and Ashley there, I've gotten to work with Gerri (a genre writer herself!), and the program was immeasurably helpful. I'm positive that I wouldn't have been accepted to Clarion West if I hadn't been through the MFA program first. Not that that's how it works for everyone, but I needed the MFA program. And I needed Clarion West to help me clarify some foggy points in my technique. The more I look at genre and literary writing, the more they go hand in hand. 🙂

    Your story about the two kid ghosts falling in love sounds beautiful. Maybe you could do an updated version of it, with adult Damien's eyes telling the tale? If you wind up doing that, I'd love to read it!

    If I can give you a gentle shoulder shove, I'd say write some horror. Go for it. Your graduate degree may have enhanced your horror writing in ways you don't realize yet. If you need a brain trick, just tell yourself it's for fun. That you can make anything happen in the story. Everything's on the table and nothing's too silly. I've been having to do that with my short stories as I revise them for my thesis. (Ex: What if this dude is a member of Starfleet and wears his communicator badge everywhere?) And
    you know what? It works!! It makes the stories stronger. 🙂

    In the end, if I could choose between writing a literary book that my heart wasn't in and receiving acclaim for it, or writing a genre book I loved that one person – just one – told me they had loved too…

    I'd pick the one that I loved writing the most. Any day of the week. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: