The Story Is There: Day 1 of the Literary Writers Conference

The Literary Writers’ Conference of the CLMP met this last weekend in New York at the New School. I attended, bringing two of my best students, Stephen and Anna, in order to give them a crash course in the writing life. I’ll be putting up my conference diaries here all week.

Also, for the record, I still support the WGA strike.

Day 1

The first day is about money, even before we get there.

Hotels in New York are not really for Americans anymore, I decide, as I watch Priceline tell me repeatedly that my bid of 275.00 a night is too low. The Days Inn Chelsea is 312.00. Sorry, my brother tells me, when I ask if he can get me a room in the hotels his company owns. No vacancies. I remember that over the summer I’d tried to get a hotel near JFK when I decided I was too tired, coming back from LA, but every hotel there was sold out (I went to every one). Europeans, especially the British, find 500.00 a night rooms a bargain, now that the dollar is the new peso. If Americans wonder what we used to look like when we traveled in Mexico in the 80s, they just need to live in New York and watch the British.

I finally find us a room at the Hotel Wellington, at 57th and 7th, and another at a bed and breakfast out in Park Slope, Brooklyn, called the Hotel Fuggedaboutit, which is a small clean studio apartment. The hotel room is 298.00 with taxes, the apartment, 200.00.

On the first day of the conference, when my sturdy Geo Prizm is somewhere near the top of Manhattan, I call Jimmy, the proprietor of Hotel Fuggedaboutit. It’s on Park Slope’s tony 8th St. near 8th Avenue, near my old neighborhood, with the F train at the end of the block. Jimmy had asked that I call him from White Plains, which seemed excessive, but it turns out it takes him, in the end, almost 2 hours to travel to us and give us the keys. So I send Anna and Steve ahead to the opening plenary, after getting them a quick snack of pizza at Smiling Pizza, my old favorite pizzeria, and I sit down with a New York Post and wait. Jimmy arrives, shows me around, indicates the phone is unlimited calling, there’s cable, internet, and steam heat. He has excellent books and later admits to me an ex of his told me he should be a writer, based on his letters to her. His face is pale, covered in plaster dust. He’s a contractor, I think, some sort of construction, and he rents out the apartment for extra money, while he lives with his girlfriend in the East Village. He’s an old-neighborhood Irish-Italian guy, the kind I instinctively trust. I leave him finishing his pizza and go to the plenary, which is on the Economics of Publishing a First Book.

Anna and Steve sit near the back and I find them quickly. The New School auditorium is at about 2/3rds capacity. I’ve arrived in time to hear an editor at an independent house speak of publishers as a ‘trusted filter’, which is an interesting if sort of passive idea, and then to say that the reason we don’t all have e-books is that there’s not enough money in it to make it profitable for someone to make excellent e-book reader screens. But he feels certain that’s the future. I briefly imagine myself on the subway, with a Jetson’s like device in my hand, scrolling down it. He goes on to speak fatalistically about how capital-intensive publishing is–did he recently discover this? This was always true.

Who will be brave enough to make the good, cheap e-book? I feel as if the audience is wondering this together.

The next editor, it turns out, is also an author. She speaks of the need for authors to self-publicize, even though she herself is an author who doesn’t, as someone on the panel points out, put her own book in her bio. I feel my energy drain as she says this. I’m not that kind of person, she tells us. Even as she insists that all her writers be that kind of person. She seems either unaware of or deeply pleased by this mixed message. She wants us to make postcards and leave them at our yoga studio and not to expect any marketing money from the house. I imagine yoga studios littered with desperate, brightly colored cards that no one looks at as they go in and out. She speaks with a sort of intense envy of the marketing money movie studios get and seems very focused on cross-over deals.

I have been hearing about postcards since 1999, it occurs to me, which was the year they worked. It was before every author did them. Since 2000, though, promotional post cards are for leveling a table at a restaurant in New York.

The next editor is the most experienced and least jaded, which is good. He talks about how touring requires using trusted independent bookstores, who will prepare their readers for the books prior to events, and that he finds touring essential still (the others do not). He seems solid and capable. I like him.

The Q&A begins. A woman raises her hand and by way of introduction, explains she’s a recent MFA grad, a children’s book author who’s won prizes for her unpublished first novel, which she says she knows is good. She repeats this a few times. I’ve been told it has Shakespearean overtones, the language has been compared to Langston Hughes. It keeps getting rejected. And here, she gets to her question: Why won’t you buy my book?

Anna, Steve and I are instantly obsessed with her.

The experienced one speaks first: Have I seen this? he asks, and the audience laughs. I can love the writing, he says, but if there’s no story there, no story I can connect to, then, I won’t buy it. We’re asking readers to put down between 18-25 dollars to connect to a stranger. The story has to be there.

The story’s there, she says. The story’s definitely there. She seems indignant. Offended by rejection.

The other editors repeat the importance of story over good writing. Remember, the experienced one says, and this turns out to be the last moment of the panel, we’re on your side. When we open that box, we want to fall in love. We want to meet the next great novel or short story collection. We are not the enemy here.

I’m a little disconcerted, as we step out into the hall for the reception, but Anna and Steve look excited. That was amazing, Anna says, and Steve nods in agreement. We pass the experienced editor, who has the woman from the audience in front of him. Her prize-winning chapbook is under his arm. He looks a bit as if he’s been kidnapped.

Everyone says they want authors to self-promote until they do.

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7 thoughts on “The Story Is There: Day 1 of the Literary Writers Conference

  1. nova says:

    This is great… Keep the coverage coming. I was at that conference last year, the first year they held it. I remember one audience member confessing a little too much in the big Q&A with the fancy editors and I felt embarrassed for, and totally curious about, her. Me, I’d like to keep my rejections to myself. Anyway, last year I found the conference really interesting and inspiring. Hope it’s fun!

    (And I’m still supporting the strike too.)

  2. koreanish says:

    The thing that kept happening was people using questions as advertisements for themselves. There were always intensely long wind-ups.

    It may be a trend.

  3. RJ March says:

    Ugh. Self-aggrandizement makes me sick, but on the other hand, where am I now? Hmmm.

    Yeah, keep up the reportage– I like seeing what I’m missing in this literary world of yours.

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