The State of Literary Art III: Writers’ Conferences? Meh…

Writers’ conferences , as you may have long suspected, have a pecking order – and most of us are at the bottom…

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

(For previous essays in this series, look here and here.)

This week’s look at Joe David Bellamy’s book of essays on the state of American Writing (by which you by now have gathered he’s talking mainly about litfic), Literary Luxuries, takes a look at that interesting phenomenon of the literary world that has evolved since the advent of the brave new world of teaching creative writers, the writers’ conference. There are a couple of essays to discuss for this topic, so we’ll take a look at both. We’ll also be looking at what writers’ conferences really are – and whether they make a difference for the rank and file writer.

Bellamy’s essays take two almost opposing views of the writers’ conference. In the first essay, “The Bread Loaf Experience,” his tone is tongue in cheek bordering at times on caustic as he describes (based on his own experience, of course) what attending perhaps the most renowned of writers’ conferences is like. Bread Loaf is attended not just by the great and renowned but by many, many aspiring writers who hope by attending sessions to catch the attention of a powerful figure whether that person be another writer, a literary agent, or an editor from an important publishing house. While it is possible (and perhaps on the rare occasion has happened) that some young talent will be plucked from obscurity and scale the heights of literary fiction (or poetic, one assumes, though this would be rare indeed given poetry’s difficult position over the last half century or more) to achieve critical acclaim, “respectable” sales (let’s not kid ourselves about the American reading public, okay?), and perhaps the “patronage” of a creative writing post at a prestigious college or university.

Ah, the dreams of would-be Salingers, Vonneguts, Atwoods, Oateses

The truth about Bread Loaf, as Bellamy offers it in this essay, is the truth about ALL writing conferences (and among conferences as among writers there is a pecking order, so I suppose the cynically sly among us writers could spend our time casting about until we can find – if possible – a conference where we can be big fish in small pond – though the trade-off might be that we are featured writers at extraordinarily obscure conferences) is that there is a pecking order. And what one does during a conference is find one’s place in the pecking order, settle in, listen to platitudes, talk writing with peers, and go home ambivalent about how much good attending X Writers’ Conference did us. Still, Bellamy, claims, the experience itself has had some value for us. If in no other way, we may have had the opportunity to meet famous authors, we may have made friends with like minded writers, and we have possible made network contacts that will help us in our pursuit of literary success.

[An aside before I move on to Bellamy’s other essay. The last couple of decades has seen the proliferation of “book festivals.” These events are different from writers’ conferences in a couple of significant ways: first, they are considerably more democratic than most writers’ conferences (though this is changing some as successful genre writers have discovered the lucrative opportunity that genre based writers’ conferences offer them) have been dominated by what David Comfort calls “the MFA Mafia” – in other words, they have been largely the province of litfic types; second, the focus of “book festivals” has been on allowing authors to sell their works directly to the reading public; writers’ conferences have focused much more on “instruction” for aspiring writers. Book festivals have now probably surpassed writers’ conferences both in number and popularity (not surprising since they appeal to the public at large rather than strictly to writers).]

Bellamy’s other essay of note on this topic is called “A Star in the Wilderness: Six Years at Saranac Lake.” This is, like his essay from last week (see above link), is more memoir than essay per se and recalls his six years directing a writers’ conference (there’s one way to get oneself a good spot in the conference program) on Saranac Lake in upstate New York. The conference, associated with St. Lawrence University (where Bellamy was a faculty member) was, to him, the epitome of a good writers’ conference: intimate, sociable, and democratic in that aspiring writers lived and worked in close proximity to the noted authors who taught seminars there: Gail Godwin, Ann Beattie, and Joyce Carol Oates all taught at the Saranac conference. (In what must be the most perfect of ironies, Bellamy shares an anecdote: the first year of the conference the keynote writer was to have been Erica Jong – but she backed out, tearfully offering as her excuse her “fear of flying.”) While the memoir suffers a little from Bellamy’s name dropping and insider gossip tendencies, what emerges in the piece is his earnest (and for a brief, shining time successful) attempt to create an atmosphere where famed writers and aspiring writers could interact as – if not exactly peers, at least in ways that made the pecking order disappear for a brief time. Such an approach is laudable and one only wishes his conference could have continued – or that his model could have spread more widely in the writers’ conference system.

Are writers’ conferences worthwhile? Bellamy seems conflicted about this – as many of us who are writers also feel. The chance to hear a legend like Oates talk about writing is certainly worthwhile. But whether one benefits directly from the conference’s instruction is rather less clear. As far as connections, friendships with peers, etc, these may or may not come to attendees. My response to every writers’ conference I’ve attended has been like that of Bellamy at Bread Loaf – ambivalent at best.

As you read this, I’ll be at a book festival where I will speak about my work and (I hope) sell a few books. Do I think I will make a difference for some young writer? Seems unlikely. But I will probably get to talk with people who find my work intriguing. That, for this writer, makes attending festivals much more interesting to me than attending conferences. After all, writers write for readers, n’est-ce pas? Maybe talking to them helps us even more than talking to other writers…



Categories: Arts/Literature

7 replies »

  1. I’ve never been to one. Insert big sigh here. Still, I’ve begun to suspect that this life I’m living is just research for my next life, when I’ll actually have time to write. Yeah, that’s it. Gotta go. There’s a load of laundry that needs doing.

    • You may decide not to go after you read my piece later this week about my experience, Terry. They’re about money at this point – like every damned thing else…(sigh)

  2. Been to several. Despise them. I feel embarrassed/self-concious when I’m higher up the order than others, and resentful and petty when I’m further down. I don’t like me much at writers conferences.

    • Boom…

      I have realized EXACTLY the same thing, Otherwise. The one I attended this past weekend may have been the deal breaker for me. Gonna try the library talks route, methinks…at least there I’ll see actual readers…not people who came for the $#@#! T-Shirt….

      • Blame ourselves.

        Writers have invested a lot in making the writing life seem glamorous and easy–Hemingway, the write a novel in a month crap, etc. There’s also a certain status that goes with it. As a result, there are millions of people who want to be a writer but far fewer who actually want to write, thank goodness. My experience is that writers conferences attract a disproportionate number of wannabewriters rather than wannawrites.

        Of course they’re easy to spot–if women, they want to write YA or childrens books, under the foolish idea that simple sentences are easier to write than complex ones. If men, they want to write conspiracy thrillers.

        • Otherwise wrote: “Of course they’re easy to spot–if women, they want to write YA or children’s books, under the foolish idea that simple sentences are easier to write than complex ones. If men, they want to write conspiracy thrillers.”

          I suspect S&R should simply post this comment as our piece on “book festivals” (now there’s an ironic term if ever I saw one). This so brilliantly skewers the scene – and correlates to what I saw so well – that I despair of even trying to write a piece, now.

          Hey, maybe I’ll simply plagiarize this – it’s a system that seems to reward some of our most noted “authors” these days.

          Got that old saw “cheaters never prosper” sticking in my craw right about now. Just did an essay on Ian McEwan – latest to be called out on it….