Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Grandpa Has A Tumor--Let's Go Fishing! Guest Blog By Joe Clifford

My client Joe Clifford agreed to write a guest blog for us on his experience at AWP this year.  I'm currently shopping Joe's mystery/suspense novel LAMENTATION.  To see more from Joe, click here to visit his website.

Grandpa Has a Tumor—Let’s Go Fishing!
By Joe Clifford

If social media is to be believed, most people who attend the AWP Conference walk away pissed. At least my friends and the kinds of writers I read. There was this gem by Steve Almond a few years back, which chronicled the nightmare in Denver and produced my all-time favorite line about AWP (“[It’s] this sad, lovely space where Mid-List Authors Come to Feel Like Rock Stars”). The Boston version ended a couple days ago and already we have this graphic headline from the field. Publishing Perspectives: “AWP 2013, Day 1: Like a Giant Toilet Bowl Filled with 11,000 Writers.” I’ve written my own series of essays on my less-than-satisfying experiences with AWP, the best probably being this one.

If you read any of these, and certainly if you read mine, your next logical question has to be, “Why would anyone go to this?” Or more to the point, “Who in their right mind would go back?” That’s like the guy who’s had two disastrous marriages and gets hitched a third. (But in my defense, my lovely wife, Justine, is proving to buck the trend; the 3rd time really is the charm. And what can I say? Like all cynics, I’m a wounded romantic.)

Being a writer today, probably more than ever, means building a platform. If you’ve ever tried to land an agent, you’ve heard about this platform. Publishers. Editors. Publicists. Everyone talks about the need to have one. And while the introverted writer’s best friend may be social media, every once in a while you need to kick it old school and actually, y’know, put on pants and leave the house. At least I convinced myself I did.

It had been a few years since the disaster that was Denver. I won’t recap that miserable experience in its entirety. If you care to know just how awful it was, I’ve linked the story above. I was certainly part of the problem. Fresh out of grad school, novel(s) in hand, desperate to be noticed and validated, I, like the rest of the furry rodents scurrying the wheel, was singularly focused, stopping at nothing to let the writing world know I’d arrived. I gathered around the tables as the “mid-level” held court. I laughed at jokes that weren’t funny and praised work I either A.) hadn’t read or B.) had read and found underwhelming. I hated myself while I was doing it. And I hated myself when it was over. Like a fat kid horking back pie through the tears but unable to stop. Heavy on carbs, light on sustenance.

I am not comfortable in social situations, and in Denver I approximated what I thought a “normal” person is supposed to act like. Which is bad enough at dinner parties. Never mind holding a flimsy MFA degree, surrounded by ten thousand needy strangers and strapped with 70K in student loan debt, feeling like you needed a book published yesterday. Having spent most of my adult life on the fringes, refusing to sell out, I wanted badly to buy in. I was shucking and jiving with the rest of them.

There’s nothing wrong with the construction. AWP is like any other insurance salesman convention. You glad hand, you meet for drinks at the bar at the end of the day. Mostly you band together with the other “too cool for school” kids and mock others. Starts in grad school, ends at the grave. Certainly nothing to get worked up about. No, the part that really gets to you (if you are a writer, and if you weren’t a writer, why the fuck would you be at AWP?) is the phoniness.

Writing—good writing—is about cutting through the bullshit, telling hard truths, however ugly. It’s integral to one’s character. “Building a platform,” while entirely necessary, stands in stark contrast to that ethos; it just feels wrong (“Remember, you’re not selling a book—you’re selling you!”). Add to that, shelling out several hundred bucks to spend three days walking around a book fair (and that is what AWP basically is, a big book fair), with chirpy people and woeful college writing—mix in some self-loathing and regret, which results in needless introspection, and way, way too much shitty coffee—and you can see why no one seems to walk away feeling good about themselves.

Well, almost no one.

There does seem to be a small contingency that genuinely enjoys the event, and this isn’t to besmirch them. The older I get, the less besmirching I do (smirching is a messy business). My guess is that those having a good time at AWP are simply more social. And have books out. I have books out. But—and it’s a big one (which of course we know do not lie. Sorry)—I don’t write…literary fiction.

There’s the rub. AWP is a literary fiction event. No way around it. While I may be able to chalk up part of my miserable time at the conference to my less-than-cheerful disposition (I could be depressed rolling in a pit of kittens), it is undeniable that this thing just ain’t meant for me. Like Chris Rock says of rap and white people. AWP is a topsy-turvy world, a place where poetry sits atop the literary food chain, and genre is the slugshit you scrape off the bottom of Birkenstocks. Walk out on the street and say you write poetry, and who gives a fuck? Say you write poetry at AWP, and you probably have the chapbook to prove it. Short story collections. Obtuse, indie novels. University presses. These things matter at AWP, and if you are one of the current literary darlings, I imagine it might be fun to be relevant for a bit. Like going to your 20th high school reunion and still having hair (and being the best looking guy there—suck it, Tad Brenner!).

But while I weathered heroin addiction, kept my hair, and shone at my 20th, I write noir and hardboiled these days. And AWP is no place for criminally minded.

While bitching at the Office (Facebook) upon my return to the Bay Area, commiserating with other, equally dissatisfied pulp fiction writer friends I’ve never actually met face to face, Alex Cizak, editor of the print journal Pulp Modern, wrote, “Maybe it’s time to start a conference for Writers Who Write about Things Other Than Fishing with Cancerous Grandpa...” Fishing with grandpa and his tumor. Yup. That’s literary fiction and AWP.

Fortunately, I think they already have a conference for the other guys. It’s called Bouchercon. I’ve never been but I’m going this fall. I’ve heard good things. I hope to see Alec and some of my other figurative hardboiled buddies in Albany come September. It might turn out to suck, but at least I’ll be surrounded by my own kind and maybe this time I won’t feel like such a fraud.


  1. Another crisp, luminous, entry! I will be much intrigued to here how the Bouchercon goes. Keep inspiring us Joe!

  2. Very good. I bet that Bouchercon will be a lot more fun.

  3. I don't know why, but I love reading these AWP stories. I've never been to one, not even when it was here in Chicago and 40 minutes from my door, I thought, what in the hell am I gonna do there? yet I know groups that pack up and gather all thei freinds and go to every one and post their facinating pictures of breakfast, lunch, dinner and the back somebody's head that I'm suppose to know, and it just looks like a great big snooze fest.
    I don't think I'd fit in.