Fear and loathing in Chicago

A bitter economic wind blew through the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last month. David Gewanter saw it snap a few authors out of their usual self-obsession

March 19, 2009

In Chicago, the "hog butcher for the world" as American poet, writer and editor Carl Sandburg called it, the abattoir known as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference is open for business.

Burly, heavy-coated, scalded by the cold February weather, 8,000 writers bump and shuffle through the glittering halls of the Chicago Hilton. They suspiciously eye the packed elevators, lest they be shoved next to some needy graduate from the Depression State University writing programme.

Yet if it is an abattoir, where porcelain flesh is cut, heads dangle loosely and trotters twitch, still there is no blood, not this year: no money, no blood.

The US economy is in free fall, and higher education institutions are selling off their art collections (Brandeis University), taking three-day furloughs (the University of Maryland) or watching their well-endowed holdings droop and shrink by several billion dollars (Harvard University). The economy is collapsing, and every writer thinks that it is about to collapse on him.

Or more precisely, on his next book - the breakthrough work, the one that will put his face before the public at last, the one to purge from memory the presence of those other writers, the pretenders, the dissemblers, the yeasty attitudinisers.

Will the publisher cut his next book? For the magic-paper mountain - the magazines, book lists, promotional copies, blurbspeak and bromide - is sagging under the weight of the US recession, an economic reality so palpable that it punctures the finely cultivated and eternally fecund depression of the writer. Or nearly so.

Everyone carries a black conference bag of books and Festschriften, and shuttles from pedagogic talks ("The Family Verse-Novel"; "Put Punch in Your Plays") to the many Tributes for the Recently Dead, where Mark Antony-like speeches are delivered by the deceased's students, spouses and amanuenses, themselves looking coppery-green under faint chandeliers.

After promising to attend each other's talks, most participants sneak out to the Edvard Munch exhibition at the nearby Art Institute of Chicago, where an overmedicated curator labours to persuade them that Munch merely constructed a persona of despair and remorse, that he said "Sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle" only because it helped create an audience for his paintings: as if the Anxiety series or The Scream were actually the droppings of a bon vivant, some virtuous American dieter and tennis player.

Surely, our American positivism must crash into a tree sometime, so that The Scream is caused by the painting looking at the writers looking back at it, with all their terrors and insufficiencies written in their faces. At the AWP, if a painting really saw the cost of art on life, it would scream.

Back at the conference, in the airless, infernally hot basement, there are ranks and ranks of bookstalls. It looks like an ugly debutantes' ball; no one buys the journals or reads through them. Behind the table sits the editor, kindly, underfed and with tattoos peeping from under his collar; he writes for other journals but not his own, and jokes with a writer thumbing through his own story or essay in the journal, who preens and presses for more exposure, more copies.

Didn't Philip Larkin say that replication was not increase? The hubbub is tremendous, a field of giant crickets rubbing their wings, but only for the noise: there is no sex here. Soon, this year or next, many of these journals will go bankrupt, their remainders sent to the limbo of betterworldbooks.com, or directly to the afterlife, where they will be wetted, shredded and pulped for phone books.

At last the cricket shambles off to his own panel, another half-empty ballroom where the fullness of his sentence and sensibility will be listened to. Every author, a chirping monad, a bubble-boy of language; and besides, shouldn't you be listening to me, isn't this MY time at last, the magic moment in which I, no longer the phantom of the underappreciated writer, claims the rostrum? A Socrates making his peroration among the snoozing dinner guests, a Joyce holding his book, praying Hoc est corpus meum. An Emily Dickinson nearly saying: "I'm Nobody - Who the Hell are You?"

Yet even as the warm breeze of recognition freshens the deeps of writers' Dis, the wing of despair shadows all. In the foyer, senior novelist to young writer: "I just finished reading your book, it was really terrific!" Young writer: "I haven't written a book." And it is the young writer who feels ashamed.

Meanwhile, our eyes dart here and there, hoping to glimpse the deus ex machina, the great money-machine of poetry: John Barr, the former corporate executive, present poet and head of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which some years ago received $100 million (£70 million) from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company fortune, and thus became the envy of all. So many great causes and writers: will the Poetry Foundation give out its rings and lifesavers?

The Death Valley Parnassians need help. The Centre for Peripheral Studies must relocate. Yet Mr Barr never crosses the Hilton threshold; a remote and kindly Wizard of Oz, justifiably fearful of crowds.

Still, the Poetry Foundation has prompted so many complaints that a friend says the money should go back to the drug company, so that it could better medicate us. Indeed, a Poetry-Pharmaceutical Wheel of Misfortune might be at work here (see diagram below).

The last day of the conference is literally on Valentine's Day, except that every day is Valentine's Day for the writer, a day of affectionate self-regard. This morning, each writer gives himself a flower(y speech) and grabs a (chocolate) kiss from another failing literary mag, such as Hambone Quarterly or Lemon Sphincter Review; but the very materiality of these self-gifts tends to wear on each soul.

By the time "happy" hour arrives (noon), people begin to feel grumpy with themselves, start to ignore themselves, and even bicker slightly - or maybe they are muttering into invisible mobile phones - so that by evening, they blurt out some unforgivable remark, sit like absinthe drinkers through a silent dinner, and finally retreat to the gloom of their hotel rooms.

There the pornography channels await them, the eternal pleasure-dome of ardent faces and evident pleasures; where every stroke is real, every gesture of praise brings a stiff and sincere response; where every open mouth is either stuffed or moaning like Orpheus.



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