Apart from the clash between Kate Braverman and her publisher, the AWP conference in Austin was really quite tension-free: plenty of literary stuff to keep the attendees busy, and even more fun to be had in Austin’s restaurants. My wife and I had barely picked up my conference badge when we managed to connect with N.M. Kelby in the convention center lobby, and the three of us promptly wandered off to lunch at Las Marnitas. We also had an amazing dinner with bloggers Lizzie Skurnick and “Jimmy Beck” of The Old Hag, in part of a big ol’ party at Z’Tejas (where the ‘voodoo tuna’ is, take my word for it, truly amazing).
Saturday morning, I came in early to see a panel on “nonrealist” fiction featuring Mumpsimus blogger Matt Cheney and short story goddess Kelly Link. Jeff Vandermeer started things out by noting that he was alternatively described as “a mainstream writer in the tradition of Borges or Calvino, or a fantasy writer in the tradition of Gene Wolfe,” then described how the fantastic elements of his fiction were in fact rooted in his own experiences as a globetrotting child of Peace Corps parents. “The real world is a deeply non-real, fantastical place if you take the time to look at it,” he said. Link echoed the sentiment, adding her perspective that genre is a technique, not a constraint. One job of a writer, she said, is to make the familiar seem strange and the strange seem possible; the type of writing she described as (borrowing a term from China Mieville) “weird shit” was simply one way of doing that. (Cheney puts his remarks on his blog…)
Then it was off to my own panel, which I shared with poetry blogger Joshua Corey, Fascicle editor Tony Tost, and Drunken Boat editor Ravi Shankar, with moderation from Robin Beth Schaer of the Academy of American Poets. Much of the focus was on the opportunities for publishing poetry online. “It’s good that there’s still not much prestige in online journals,” Tost observed at one point, “because it discoruages prestige hounds, who are usually bad writers and bad people.” We also discussed online publication as a wresting of literary authority from entrenched institutions, though Shankar noted that the online world still functioned primarily as a gift economy. Corey made some good points about boosting the amount of public discourse around poetry, so that people would be talking about it the same way we engage in public debate about films and such; my own contributions were more along the lines of noting how blogging introduces you to instant feedback from readership and enhances your craft through daily practice.
Then I made a quick dash to a panel on writing about sex, so I could say hellos to Michelle Redmond and Michelle Tea. Tea had some great comments to make about how her frank documentation of sexuality in memoir and fiction was intended to smash many of the stereotypes surrounding sex workers, particularly that they were intellectually incapable of articulating their own experience (or, for that matter, that their experiences were worth articulating). Sheri Joseph talked about why sex played such a large role in her fiction—a lot of it, she said, was based on the amount of time she spent lying on the couch to read, watch TV, grade papers, and so on—but then talked specifically about the challenges posed by writing about sex between a married couple for her next novel. “Writing about transgressive sex of any kind is fun,” she said, clarifying that “transgressive” was defined within the boundaries of a specific story. In one story, it could be bondage; in another, it could be pre-marital sex, or devout Catholics using birth control…in a predominantly gay setting, even a heterosexual affair would be transgressive. The main point for any sex scene, she said, was, “Does this scene serve the story? Does it reveal anything about the characters?” If it wasn’t inherently dramatic by that standard, it should be cut.
The other member of the panel was Steve Almond, who was largely content to read from his advice on sex writing from a three-year-old article. Then again, the crowd was largely content to laugh along with him, and in fact guffawed heartily throughout the 75-minute discussion. It was amusing, during one serious-minded question about how to discuss sexually explicit writing in academic settings without running afoul of sexual harrassment policies, to hear one panelist invoke “the world of tittering undergraduates,” considering all the giggling going on in the audience when Richmond waved a pair of Tea’s undergarments in the air as a “door prize” for the previous question. Of course, it could be argued that my perspective on Almond is skewed…but blog-gawkers hoping for a confrontation will be disapointed to hear that I didn’t feel like waiting in line behind all the women bearing books for him to autograph to introduce myself. On the other hand, when he finds out I was there, it might inspire an essay that you could look forward to in Salon sometime around Christmas.