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In Britain we are well aware that the United States doesn’t do things by halves. The country is huge, there are animals that can swallow a person whole and they have national parks the size of my home county. So it should come as no surprise that the literary scene, too, is a great, growling behemoth compared to ours. One of the best examples and proofs of this is AWP, North America’s largest writer’s conference and bookfair.
I was lucky enough to go to this year’s conference in Los Angeles last month. I’m hoping, with this brief overview of it, I can convince the British literary scene to pool together their powers and put on something just as spectacular. AWP has around 12 000 attendees each year, there to catch the 550 panels and discover the 800 presses, journals and literary organisations dotted about. As well as that, there is also the matter of it being in a different city every time. So not only did I have to psych myself up to tackle the abundance of literary distractions, but also to make the most of Los Angeles.
The amount of excitement and inspiration rushing around a literary conference hardly needs mentioning. Everyone there is buzzing with the kind of energy that can only come from being completely surrounded by like-minded people. They are all aware that, for these four short days a year, there won’t be a time when all the nitty-gritty details of one’s favourite books and writers, as well as one’s own writing process, are not only going to dominate conversation, but they will be the only conversation that anyone is interested in. What heaven.
Last year, in Minneapolis, when I was bright-eyed and naïve about the physical expectations an American bookfair demands of you, I made it to perhaps five panels overall in the course of the four days. Day one of Los Angeles, and by two o’clock I was three panels in. It’s hard to choose (or remember) all the discussions that I came across, but some highlights were, ‘Laugh to Keep From Crying: Using Humour To Write Through Pain’, which illustrated how tragedy and comedy can bring out the best of one another. There, too, was ‘The Furious and Burning Duende’, which started the conference on the Thursday morning and put some fire in the bellies of everyone present with talks about Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s evocative and expressive theory of duende. There were more, many more, and I fear describing them here will do them no justice. Only going there and struggling to organise your own schedule will do that.
As well as these unrelenting and impassioned conversations about literature, however, there is another thing that writers apparently do when brought together in large groups: they party. Now, travelling from New York to Los Angeles is relatively similar to travelling from New York to London, so I was both fairly well-practised in this kind of voyage and aware of the wreck I would be once the plane landed. As you might imagine (or entirely disagree with) there is nothing less appealing than a dance party full of drunken writers after a seven-hour plane ride. However, saying that, there is also nothing better than a dance party full of drunken writers to ease the pain of a seven-hour plane ride. It’s funny what this conference can make you do. It is this unexpected desire to party, as well as the masochistic urge to get up really early and get in a full day of panels and book-shopping, that makes this conference an endurance test more than anything else.
But no one knows endurance, and powering through in spite of madness and misery, like a writer.
Although I only got about one night’s sleep, and spent more money on books than I am proud of (though, who am I kidding? I am never ashamed of spending money on books), I can wholeheartedly say that the pain was worth it. On the plane back, I was filled with the entirely expected feeling of glumness and emptiness. The post-AWP blues, as I’ve come to know them. Where else will I find a never-ending stream of inspiring and enthusiastic literary types to while away my days with? What will I do when I can’t just turn a corner and run into something that shakes my core and sets my writing muscles to twitching? I wonder these things just as the familiar skyline of Manhattan comes into view from the plane window and I realise that I have had my questions answered. Because AWP, and the other giant literary events in the US, are not the machines driving this great storytelling culture. It’s the other way around. They are a result of the unending desire and passion for literature that this country has. I know that, on any given night, I can, with a fast pace on me, see just as much in NYC as I did on any given day at AWP. And no doubt I can even manage a dance party on top of it.
So, Britain, I ask you to do your best and try to take note. We might not have as much space as the US, and we might not have as many cities that will fit 12 000 tote-bag wielding writers for four days every year, but we can try, can’t we? Because all budding British writers should experience the US’s gift of constant refuge and opportunity for creative types, whether they’re looking for a quick fling by way of a poetry reading, or a full on love affair with the hulking conferences. Come on, you don’t even have to dance if you don’t want to.