News & Politics

The Politicized World of Writers’ Conferences

Writers’ conferences can be a mixed bag of how-to workshops, self-help lectures, networking, and — in today’s world — politics. The political creeps in when you least expect it, but it is generally there from the very beginning.

Keynote opening speeches, for instance, may lay claim to a particular ideological bent without mentioning political parties or names. Vague references to “America’s current troubled political waters,” or “what we as a country are suffering through in 2018,” tap into the assumption that everybody in the room hates President Trump. (You not only hear this at writers’ conferences, but almost everywhere in Philadelphia, from art and ballet openings, to the debut of a new play, to auctions, and even at the opening of a new Wawa.)

My participation in last year’s annual Philadelphia Writers Conference included a three-day workshop on writing newspaper columns. While I avoided politics in my talk, the anti-Trump assumptive thing often came up sandwiched within questions from participants. It was as if the class needed an assertive, collective anti-Trump moment, an acknowledgment that all of us hated the 45th president of the United States.

The benefits of attending a writers’ conference include networking with other writers and getting feedback from literary agents. At PWC, all the talk from the literary agents centered on how to write a bestseller and then getting your memoir sold, or how to get a book on The New York Times bestseller list. Statistically speaking, writing a bestseller only happens to a very small number of people. Practical advice on getting your book published is one thing, but tapping into the Great Myth that even you can write a bestseller if you follow certain guidelines is just leading people down a garden path to nowhere. Of course, the literary agents did say that the most important thing you had to do to write a bestseller was to get a literary agent. After that, the guidelines they recommended might as well have been these simple steps from Writer’s Digest:

  1. Write a good book.
  2. Provide a unique and eye-catching book cover.
  3. Generate good word of mouth
  4. Promote, promote, promote
  5. Sponsor a giveaway

As one of the most popular events at PWC, the literary agent panel was comprised of all women, the majority of them in their late twenties. The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took place earlier in the day. These were five-minute meetings in which the writer was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up in advance to have your five minutes with this or that agent, and then, like speed dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent sat and you started talking.

The opportunity of meeting with New York literary agents struck me as a little depressing, much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at PWC had never published a book, so their goal was to accomplish this at some point.

During the literary agent Q and A it was never specifically mentioned that writing a best-seller is actually a fluke and the result of chance, like winning the lottery. Few writers set out to write a bestseller, since there is no way to gauge what the public will find desirable at any point in time. Jack Kerouac wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say; Dostoevsky wrote because he had a message to impart, not because he wanted the facile celebrityhood of a bestselling author.

No one at PWC, for instance, would attempt to corner Dostoevsky and get him to reveal his ten-point plan for writing world classic novels.

The literary agents at PWC were repeatedly asked: What do you want? How can I get your attention? I will write anything you tell me to write. Hearing these questions, I imagined a young Tolstoy or James Joyce in the room, jotting down some notes — “agent wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “agent doesn’t want paranormal,” “agent wants commercially viable topic.”

And of course, “agent wants lots of characters, especially women, who bash Trump.”

I imagined Mark Twain asking: “Ms. Agent, how can I be an even better Mark Twain?” I imagined a question from the young unpublished Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism to Catholicism, entitled The Seven Story Mountain, could ever be a bestseller?” (Answer: “Not on my watch, Tom. The public isn’t interested in counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.”)

During the Q and A, somebody asked why there weren’t any male literary agents on the panel. “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents receive. But is this true? How can these women survive in Manhattan if agent salaries are so low?

And if men don’t read, is it because the educational culture in this country — the reading assignments in middle schools and high schools, for instance — has literally stopped assigning books that are about men?

As a fellow newspaper columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters. There are no male central characters at all.”

In an essay at Fatherly, Joshua David Stein writes:

The first time it occurred to me we might be in the midst of a dad drought was a few years ago, while reading Hug, Jez Alboroughs’ 2000 story of a lost chimpanzee, Bobo.  In the book, Bobo tools around the jungle, watching other animals embrace. He is lost, sad and wants a hug. Eventually he finds his hugger. It’s his mother; he’s a mother hugger. There are three words in this book: Hug, Mommy and Bobo. After a few nights reading the book to my kids, I took a Sharpie, crossed out the word Mommy and wrote Daddy instead. Dads give hugs too.

If I could do one thing to make PWC better, it would be to put a halt to PC ideology infecting workshop material. At one workshop, a woman presenter/author came down hard on Hemingway, inferring that because he was a sexist and a big game hunter he was no longer relevant. The not so subliminal suggestion was that Hemingway should be booted from the literary canon. Some people in the workshop agreed — “Yes, he’s an awful sexist pig!” Just like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. However, others insisted that moral judgments like this belong in a progressive “scorch and burn” rally at UC Berkeley, not at a literary conference.