By David Duhr
BOSTON: So the vestibule of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston is shaped something like a toilet, with ramps circling the edges and flushing people out onto Boylston Street. This week, it’s flushing writers. 11,000 (eleven thousand) of them, or so I’ve heard.
The collective sigh of relief you may have heard echo around the country Wednesday morning came from the thousands of writers, quasi writers and pseudo writers who decided, for one brilliant reason or another, not to attend this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, where the Boston forecast for Thursday went from 46, calm and partly sunny to “Oh my God this is a nightmare,” due to what one local weatherman labeled a “surprise winter storm,” which, really? Where’s the surprise? It’s March in Boston. A surprise would have been 46 degrees, calm, and sunny, with partly friendly locals and even just one single city block without a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Instead it’s 31, “feels like 20,” actually feels like 2, and with winds gusting to over 40 mph, breaking the spirits of many thousands of people who have come into town from exotic locales, like Tulsa. Though let’s be honest, there are plenty of writers who welcome weather in which they can wet their pants on the sidewalk and nobody’s the wiser.
Pants-wetting serves as a nice segue into the next absurdity, the AWP registration line. Pictures don’t do it justice. Steve Edwards says he waited in line for 2.5 hours, and that by the time he got his “credentials,” the line had nearly doubled. I heard rumors that by the end of the day, the line was up to four hours long. Four hours. In four hours you can watch Dr. Zhivago, in full, and read the first few chapters of the book.
So what do they get in exchange for four hours of their lives and 40-230 of their dollars? A badge, for one thing, which NOBODY is checking. And for the right to ignore “500 events and 1900 presenters,” and to wander dazed through three giant ballrooms’-worth of “more than 600 exhibitors.” (Numbers come from the official AWP program, a back-breaking souvenir that is too heavy to carry onto a plane, but will also send your checked luggage well over the 50-pound limit.)
Those exhibitors hold down the “book fair,” where we are herded like cattle through many dozens of rows of tables representing litmags, MFA programs, and small presses, and where you’re likely to overheard such things as “So you publish just poetry” and “Can I send you my novel? It’s not done yet” and “Why does the London Review of Books have a table at an American conference?” I know, that last one sounds almost too stupid to be real. It’s real, friends. It’s real. And so is the response: “I was wondering that myself.”
It’s no wonder that no less than ten of the exhibitors I spoke with (out of ten total) have private stashes of booze under their tables. I wish I were one of them.
Not that I don’t have a table. I do. I’m sharing one with Chamber Four, a Boston-based book review site and litmag. And our table may as well be in their Cambridge apartment. See, the book fair is laid out alphanumerically, so to find a table you need to know its letter and its number. Table A-23 for x journal and table P-3 for y MFA program and table T-15 for whatever poor shmuck is stuck all the way out in the hinterlands.
And table Z-29 for me.
Z. In the forgotten ballroom, a room which many attendees don’t even know exists. The deep, dark bowels. Where it smells like deep, dark bowels. And where, over the next two days, I’ll be reporting back on the weird sh*t I hear and see, and the awkward conversations I’m part of, and from where I’ll try to sneak photos of writers who have reached their breaking point.
Because as one writer put it, this is “a conference full of people who would rather be alone in a room with a book.” And that’s the truest thing I’ll hear all week.
David Duhr is Books Editor at the Texas Observer and runs WriteByNight, a writing center in Austin, Texas. Catch him on Twitter at @write_by_night. Or at table Z-29, if you can &*^#*)^ find it.