‘Get the Message Across More Forcefully’
Last week’s AWP conference—the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (February 8-11)—was the usual sea of campus-based students and faculty members, university presses, plus assorted services for publishers and authors.
Early estimates were of some 12,000 people being in attendance. The book fair area of booths and tables was said to have more than 850 outfits represented. And in roughly 550 sessions, attendees heard and debated issues, many of them based in questions of diversity. I wrote an advance piece at Publishing Perspectives on the program’s stated mission of inclusiveness.
Being set as it was in Washington, D.C., however, the political nature of so many of its admirable points of support for writerly egalitarianism was heightened. Some of the attendees participated in demonstrations of their political leanings. I’d guess that very few sessions went by without some mention, pro or con, of the White House administration a few blocks away.
From the hotel, I could see the top of the Washington Monument and the Capitol—they seemed farther apart than in the past.
I was on a panel called Current Trends in Literary Publishing, a session that’s put together and moderated annually at AWP by Jeffrey Lependorf of CLMP, the Community of Magazines and Presses dedicated to literary work and to literary journals in particular. With us were Katie Freeman of Penguin Random House’s Riverhead Books; Dawn Davis of HarperCollins’ Amistad; Literary Hub’s Jonny Diamond; and Michael Reynolds of the independent publisher Europa Editions.
It was Reynolds who, in reminding us that Europa Editions was originally founded in Italy, told the audience that current events are causing houses like his to reflect on why they choose to publish literary fiction. His house has a Turkish author, for example, who’s currently jailed by the regime there, as are many in publishing and journalism. And as the pressures of nationalism increase in many parts of the world, including the States, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, France, what is it about serious fiction that seems to resonate so strongly for so many?
“What about current events,” Reynolds asked, “makes it important to publish literary fiction?
“Do we need to provide more context?” he asked. “Do we need to frame our publishing program differently in order to get the message across more forcefully in this moment?
“In publishing literary fiction,” Reynolds said, “I think we all know that reading fiction—reading fiction in general—is good for our empathy. And I think a publishing program can think about social empathy, and global empathy.”
Several of us on the panel would go on to seize on that phrase Reynolds had given us, “global empathy.” My own key message to the event was very close to his but with that usual provocateur angle: I urged the room of several hundred people to take their belief in literary fiction—and especially in its peculiar capacity and internationalism to promote “global empathy”—and begin to speak more loudly, more proudly about it. I see this political era as a stark opportunity to demonstrate literary’s importance.
And that brings me to my provocation for you today.