Literary conferences: Fun or fuss?

This first weekend of March the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference is taking place in Chicago. This is an annual gathering of creative writing teachers from around the country, some 9,000 strong. At the con these poets and novelists and memoirists will attend panels, give talks and readings, wander the booksellers’ hall, interview for jobs, and generally promote themselves, flirt, dally, drink, and socialize with new or old friends.

I’ve attended a couple of AWP conferences, once as a reporter and once as a panelist. They were fun. But then I enjoy conventions and literary gatherings, in general. In recent years I’ve regularly attended Readercon and Capclave, the first a national science fiction convention, held near Boston, and the second the Washington DC regional sf con. Each January I travel to New York for the annual birthday weekend of that great Sherlockian sodality, The Baker Street Irregulars. From time to time I’m invited to regional book festivals, most recently in Kansas City and Sioux Falls, not to overlook the National Book Festival on the D.C. Mall. This April I’ll be at the Mystery Writers of American awards banquet in New York and the Malice Domestic weekend in Bethesda, Md., since my book, “On Conan Doyle,” has been short-listed for an Edgar and an Agatha in the criticism/biography category. I expect to have a good time at both, even if I don’t win. I also wanted to attend “A Gathering for Gardner” — a weekend in Atlanta devoted to the work and memory of Martin Gardner — but can’t quite manage it. Those who come tend to be mathematicians, puzzlists, fans of Alice in Wonderland, or magicians. I can’t imagine a more appealing group of people.

Inevitably, when I come back from these sorts of events, I find myself re-energized, eager to read more, try new authors, work harder and better on my own projects. I usually fill up a bag with books from the Dealer’s Room, too, and am grateful for the chance to genuflect to the giants of fantasy and sf, crime fiction, poetry and other literary fields.

Nonetheless, I recognize that some people find such conventions vulgar or meretricious. A poet I know said that the AWP made him feel dirty. I suppose he was thinking of the pervasive one-upmanship, which is the besetting fault of such groups. Other people simply feel lost in the crowd and wonder what all this glad-handing has to do with art. Outsiders nearly always imagine that sf cons are largely populated by fans wearing Spock ears or going around with toy light-sabres and that the Baker Street Irregulars all dress like Sherlock Holmes. Not so — though I did love all the costuming at San Diego’s Comic-Con.

Do any other members of the Reading Room attend literary conferences and conventions? Which ones? Why do you go? What do you get out of them? Do you recommend them to others? Are we all geeks, of one sort or another, searching for our fellows, like calling to like? Please share some of your thoughts about and impressions of literary and scholarly gatherings.

— Michael Dirda

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