Smile, You’re at AWP

On my recent one-day excursion to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, held this year in Seattle, I carved out two hours to peruse the extensive bookfair on the third floor of the Washington State Convention Center.  This massive space, laid out with 650 booths exhibiting the work of various book presses and literary magazines from the established to the brand-new, mainstream to experimental, is a dizzying, dazzling cacophony of pitches, catch-up sessions, cover art and promotional magnets.  It is a delight to the writer—particularly the poet—who, the rest of the year, is reminded again and again that literary publishing is in its death throes and the pesky materiality of the book is quickly going extinct.

While the bookfair is heartening and impressive, I do have one qualm.  One can tell a lot about the culture of a press or a literary magazine by the behaviors of the folks manning these booths and tables.  From the self-important magazine selling back issues at full cover price to the publicity interns studiously preferring their text messages to eye contact, to the editors plainly scanning nametags to determine whether or not their visitor merits a handshake, the bookfair is somehow a simultaneous example of what is both laudable (artistic endeavor) and shameful (open discourtesy) in our natures.

Sadly, one cannot mandate good behavior.  But presses and magazines should be aware of the image they project at these special public events.  One can only imagine the size of the neglected slush pile at a magazine whose representatives—in public—virtually run away from human interaction.  And is a fiction writer or poet more likely to submit their manuscript—which, who knows, may be groundbreaking—to a magazine whose representatives have treated him or her with open disrespect, rather than a smile and a “How are you?”  If an appeal to decency seems naive, perhaps an economic argument is more persuasive.  It’s difficult enough to run a press in the black; as has always been the case, good behavior (and the happier customers it engenders) just makes good business sense.

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