March 9, 2018. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annually produces the largest writing convention in North America. Roughly 12,000 attendees have come to Tampa, Florida’s massive waterfront Convention Center this weekend. for three days of literary fiction, poetry, panels, discussions, and schmoozing. Over 800 university and private publishers, and writing programs are represented, plus many supporting businesses. And one woman selling apparel and jewelry.
This is the world of MFA programs, publishing houses large and small, ranging from the giant Louisianna State University Press to ever-heard-of-them? presses that issue quarterly magazines of feminist poetry or exquisite printed-in-Europe chapbooks. Those last, mostly under forty pages and about the size of a passport, are works of art inside and out.
A handful of exhibitors offer editing and publishing services, but the majority of booths are fronted by rows of books, as literary publishers their stock in trade. New York’s Big Five are absent. So, too, are Amazon and the other on-line giants. Ditto the larger commercial houses such as Kensington or Sourcebooks.
The university writing programs, both domestic and European, are trolling for enrollees. Or at least a warm body willing to give them a hearing. People trundle by with too many tote bags (endemic here, as are mini-chocolates and buttons with pithy sayings), all bulging with books. This place is paradise for the literary reader or poetry enthusiast.
What won’t you see here? Paperbacks of any sort. Not one. No bare-chested first responders or Regency about-to-be-ravished belles or shadowed pistol-wielding P. I.s. Those in-your-face covers are not part of this world, which goes in for more austere, stylish covers, many with stylized graphics or fonts looking like Crayola scrawls, nothing smaller than a trade paperback. Cost isn’t the issue, art is.
Few book stores carry such an array of publications, reviews, and books of a literary persuasion. For the genre fiction writer, this is a very different world. Traditionally, genre fiction is usually plot driven: the story is the prime driver, characters work in service to the plot. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is heavily character-driven, at times to the point where there is almost no plot and character exploration, examination, disection and development are primary, along with the pleasing, daring, or unusual arrangement of words or descriptive phrases.
And then there’s poetry. Reams, yards, miles of it. Roughly a third of the hundreds of sessions are devoted to the writing or reading of poetry. If a third of America’s MFA program graduates are poets, as appears possible, the country will be awash in the stuff. Many students plan a career in genre fiction; some will teach; others are devoted to poetry or essays or literary fiction; one planned a career in being a student. Nobody appeared concerned about earning an income in the traditional sense.
But this is the MFA world, and different rules and mores apply. And not a paperback in sight.