The Problem of Money and Access at AWP
The first Association of Writing Programs Annual Conference (AWP) I attended was in some ways, certainly financially, the best: it was in New Orleans, and my boyfriend at the time and I found a $100 bill. Even beyond that luck, which paid for some of our meals, I was an MFA student, which partially funded my participation in the conference.
What do people do at “the largest literary conference in North America”? They present on panels about writing, teaching writing, getting academic jobs or not getting them, publishing or not publishing; they give and attend readings. They represent publishers, or discover new journals at a giant book fair. And they go to parties. Oh, the parties.
AWP is expensive. Registration costs $250 for a nonmember—and that’s the early registration. Presenters, not just attendees, must register or are barred admittance. The conference consistently locates itself in expensive, difficult to travel-to cities in early spring, a time notorious for bad weather in much of North America, which means flight delays. Ostensibly, this timing is so the conference can score a deal on hotels. Attendees do receive a special rate on some rooms, but those quickly sell out, which means pricy lodging, transportation, and food, and unlike many similar conferences, AWP offers no childcare.
Is it possible to attend AWP if you’re poor? If you’re not going to be reimbursed by a university, should you even bother? The short answer is: I did it, and many others do too—but it can be a lonely and difficult experience.
AWP’s costs are so prohibitive, it can be hard to remember that the organization was founded as a nonprofit in 1967. Its first conference featured a total of 16 presenters. Fast forward a little over 50 years, and the conference has a whopping 13,000 attendees, way up from even the several thousand that attended my first conference less than 20 years ago.
This rise is due largely to the explosion of MFA and PhD programs for creative writing; the increasing professionalization of creative writing; and its continued, some might say unhealthy, entanglement with academia.
Along with rapid expansion, AWP has faced persistent criticism for failure to accommodate people with disabilities, including lack of accessible facilities (stages with steps and no ramps, no interpreters) and a notable absence of disabled writers as featured presenters and readers; the organization has faced similar criticism in regard to writers of color and LGBTQI writers.
This year, AWP decided to go on with the conference in San Antonio, even after the city declared a state of emergency due to coronavirus. This decision prompted many writers to protest the conference’s lack of consideration for disabled people. The poor timing—with nothing but a tweet promising an update about holding the conference or not for almost an entire day before an official statement came out—led many to assume AWP was off, and cancel what they could to try and recoup some expenses.
Even with the conference proceeding, an overwhelming amount of writers and publishers canceled planned appearances, because their panels were empty of speakers or their tables unstaffed, or out of health concerns. With attendance at the 2020 conference uncertain but certainly much smaller than expected, the finances of some small presses, who depend on book sales at AWP, are uncertain as well.
Newly appointed Executive Co-Director of the conference, Diane Zinna—who was interviewed for this story—resigned shortly after announcing the decision to hold the San Antonio event.
Some writers have organized a virtual AWP book fair, with publishers giving special discounts to make up some of the financial loss of not being able to sell books in San Antonio. But some other writers, including students, must still attend the conference if they are to have hope of getting reimbursed—or they will lose whatever money they’ve already shelled out for travel.
At AWP, there are registration discounts available for students and seniors, and discounted one-day or book fair passes—but these passes are for the last day, when some attendees have already left, and publishers start packing up tables and booths in the early afternoon, quickly getting ready to go (and go to the last parties).
An academic conference AWP is often compared to, though smaller in scale, is the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCC), which awards conference grants and scholarships to adjuncts, scholars of color, indigenous scholars, and people presenting on disability issues and queer issues. Unlike the CCC, AWP’s fees include no discount for adjuncts or non-academics: those who will not be receiving travel expenses from their employers.
According to Zinna , AWP has a “work-exchange program” where writers can volunteer in exchange for free registration, a program that used to be available only to students or adjuncts, but Zinna said it is now open to “anyone who feels they have a financial need.”
Though AWP was funded to serve writers teaching at the college level, more and more writers just can’t get those jobs, especially not writers of color, women writers, or writers who are disabled. There just aren’t that many jobs anymore to get. More and more, it’s writers outside of academia who participate in AWP—not just to attend, but to present and give readings—and who shoulder expenses themselves.
I’ve attended AWP multiple times over the years, almost exclusively when I had a job to do there: panels or readings, and when the trip was covered or at least financially assisted by university teaching or scholarship. But I don’t have that kind of gig anymore. After earning my PhD, I couldn’t get an academic job. The last AWP I attended was in 2019 in Portland, after skipping quite a few. I was giving a reading and speaking on a panel, and while my fulltime, editor job outside of academia wasn’t going to pay for me to do that, at least I had a steady paycheck and a few vacation days.
Then I found out I was being laid off—well after my nonrefundable plane tickets and housing had been purchased.
I stayed far from the conference hotels which were in the pricey downtown area, renting a tiny house a 30-minute walk away. My rental had a hot plate, so I could cook most meals. But the walk was difficult, especially in the rain. I felt uncomfortable walking so far alone after dark, and ended up getting more taxis than I had anticipated.
In 2016, Beatrice M. Hogg wrote that she spent $560 to attend AWP. In 2019, I would venture I spent more like $800. (I didn’t eat that much.) Craig Finlay, whose poetry collection is coming out this year and who is attending the conference for the first time, said in an email, he’s “budgeting around $750 all told. Shit, that seems like a lot when I type it out.”
Even writers working within the system of writing programs often can’t afford AWP. Richard Scott Larson, skipping this year’s conference for financial reasons, after attending for seven years, said: “I’m an admin for a university writing program, so while my colleagues get reimbursed for attendance (as well as the AirBnbs we share), I always have to pay in full.” One writer, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said at the university where they teach, “there haven’t been any travel funds for years.”
So why go to AWP at all?
It’s huge. The potential for connections is unparalleled. The book fair alone features hundreds of exhibitors, often spreading over two floors. Finlay, who works as a librarian, said: “All of the writers I know seem to know a great many other writers. I know very few. I’m assuming they meet them through their MFA programs or through conferences. I don’t think I’ll ever do an MFA but I can do conferences. I can meet people that way. I guess I just want to feel a little less isolated.”
Like Finlay, Jordan Alam said she decided to attend AWP “because it felt like ‘the thing’ to do as a writer looking for connections to publishing.”
For some writers, especially those teaching or working solely in literary spheres, attendance at AWP is expected. One of the first questions other writers had to me, upon learning my debut novel is coming out this fall from MIRA Books, was: are you going to AWP? (No, I am not.)
Publishers, especially smaller or academic ones, sometimes use AWP as a place to launch books, to hold signings and readings. But not every publisher can afford to go—and most certainly don’t pay for their writers to be there. In a field already burgeoning with books, how can a writer be counted? How can they even be remembered if they can’t afford to show up to the big show?
Sejal Shah, who described AWP as “such an expensive conference that is also important,” told me: “It has really made an impression on me that if you don’t [have resources], or if it’s a matter of access and disability, it’s a real loss to not be there.” Writers told me they met editors at the book fair who later published their work. Would those opportunities have happened if the writers hadn’t been present? It’s an “unfair disadvantage to be locked out of that structure and network,” Shah said.
But outside of the book fair, most networking at AWP takes place in bars. Which is expensive, among other issues. Fiction writer Rachel Cantor, like me and like many writers I talked with, stays some distance from the conference center because it’s more affordable, but “being far from the conference hotel (i.e., bar) inhibits socializing.”
For non-academic writers, there’s the ostracization of not being affiliated with a university—but there’s also the further, ever-present ostracization of not having a per diem or any travel reimbursements. So I could do drinks but not dinner with my friends. I could do one round, but not two. I could buy an appetizer, then I had to excuse myself and walk home in the dark. Most nights of the conference, I was back in bed by 9pm, which is fine.
But could it hurt your career chances—readings never attended, connections never made, publishers or editors never met—because you can’t afford to go to the meeting place? What do you miss out on when you can’t be at that conference bar? Because of finances, how many writers aren’t able to come to the conference at all, to present work, and to network for greater opportunities—especially important for those writers in rural or remote places, or isolated by financial or other hardships?
Writers unaffiliated with an academic program are already at a disadvantage. We have fewer resources, less time, a smaller or no network, and for many, much less income. At AWP, that difference can be magnified. It’s out in public, displayed on the badge required to get into all conference events, which lists one’s “affiliation.” When I first began attending the conference, those who were presenting or reading had colored ribbons on their badges, like prize hogs.
Last year I put Bad and Nationwide as my affiliation, a ZZ Top joke. (I am now a freelancer, after all.) “Is that a literary journal?” a woman asked at the book fair, squinting at my chest.
Expecting non-academic or even non-tenure track writers to contribute at the same level as academic writers who do receive support is further ostracizing. “Even scrimping at motels, etc., most AWPs would cost in excess of $1,000,” said Cantor. “Where does that money come from?” Shanon Lee, who works as a freelancer and was slated to speak on a panel in 2020 as well as volunteer, said “I only have to cover flights and accommodations, but that is a hardship for many low-income writers.”
Former Executive Co-Director Zinna spoke of intentions AWP had to formally allow sponsors of the conference, who are given a set number of paid registrations, to donate unneeded ones. Already, registrations—which are usually nonrefundable—can be transferred to another person so long as those two people are on the same financial “tier:” both students, for example.
This process has already happened quite a bit under the table, with friends passing off badges to get into events. (One writer spoke to me about stealing a stack of blank badges, which he printed and passed out to those in need.)
“We want AWP to be a resource for people no matter what stage of the journey they are at, and to honor all the paths a writer’s life can take,” Zinna said. Executive Co-Director Cynthia Sherman, when reached for comment, echoed Zinna’s statements, and clarified that registrations would be donated to “local community members to be distributed by the Host Committee.”
“I believe it is worth sharing that AWP consistently offers the lowest registration fees in comparison to other conferences of our size despite the rising costs to produce the conference,” Sherman said. Although she did not state which conferences she meant, the largest conferences nationally are tech or digital conferences whose attendees, if they work in the tech industry, likely have higher-paying jobs than writers.
Along with formalizing the inroads that Zinna and Sherman talked about, Cantor suggested “lower conference fees for non-affiliated writers.” Alam offered the hope that AWP “offer more targeted support (a track, suggested panels, something) to unaffiliated writers, especially those of us who come from marginalized communities who may otherwise not know how to plug in.”
But registration is not the only financial barrier in a conference held in pricey cities—and money is not the only way writers without institutional support are shut out of access.
Even without on-site childcare, help could be given to attendees paying for care back home—presenters who have to leave children with babysitters, for example. CCC offers grants of up to $300 for attendees’ childcare, with preference given to “adjuncts, graduate students, and/or other members demonstrating financial need.”
At last year’s AWP, when I brought up to a member the conference’s lack of childcare, I was told: “This is the disability year”—i.e., that the conference could only deal with one outstanding issue at a time. Speaking as a disabled writer (I am partially deaf, attended multiple panels with microphones that were not used, and was the only one at my own panel to bring written copies of my remarks for accessibility reasons), 2019 was definitely not the disability year—and by continuing on with a conference in a city under emergency for a highly contagious virus, 2020 doesn’t look to be it, either.
Equity is linked. Failure to provide childcare or funds for childcare is not only a class issue, it’s an issue of sexism, as women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of caregiving. And as AWP does not provide discounts for marginalized writers, unlike other conferences, it stands to reason that writers would have less of a presence. Alam said: “I think that writers of color deserve better support and engagement at these events—we make spaces for ourselves, but it didn’t seem like there was a conference focus on uplifting those voices or bringing in more writers of color.”
Who does an organization represent when huge swaths of the population are left out? When writers and writing are supposed to reflect the world, how can you turn away from so much of it?
It’s not illegal to discriminate against the poor. But when 60 percent of college students face food insecurity every month; when academia runs on the exploitation of adjuncts’ labor; when tenure track professors give lectures to hordes of students, only a fraction of whom will ever obtain jobs in the profession in which they trained (and often paid dearly for), it seems glaringly insensitive not to directly address the deep and systematic income inequalities of the field.
Last year, I did my reading and my panel. I went to some friends’ events. I saw some old friends—and this is, by far and away, the best part of AWP.
Writing is a lonely art. As a freelance journalist and a single parent, I spend most of my days alone. This is one of the reasons I attended AWP: for the chance to reconnect with people I had taught with or went to school with, or met at other conferences. My favorite part of the conference was a stroll through the book fair, where I ran into multiple friends, including poet Ed Skoog, whose kind offer to “Sit down for a while and talk with me” was the best invitation I received, better than any party at an expensive bar—and one of the only invitations writers like me could afford.
Alison Stine is the author of the novel The Grower, which will be published by Mira in September 2020. Her other books include the poetry collection Ohio Violence. She lives with her son in rural Appalachia.
Co-published with Literary Hub.