The 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference and book fair, held at the L.A. Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles from March 31 to April 2, was productive and fun as well as tensely charged. The conference has become a cornerstone of the creative writing world and its various elements—including M.F.A. programs, literary publishers, arts organizations, and large and small media outlets—and is therefore the locus of many of its tensions. Outcries for greater diversity and inclusion within AWP and its constituent organizations were a major subject of the conference.
The complexities and contradictions at AWP were evident in the book fair area, where more than 800 exhibitors set up shop—a record number, according to Christian Teresi, AWP director of conferences. While creative writing programs promoted their faculty and curricula to prospective students, literary presses sold books and conducted business.
Alongside the usual indies and micro presses, trade publishers and larger media outlets had an expanded presence at this year’s AWP. Penguin Random House’s booth, in a prime spot near the book-fair entrance, was located directly across the aisle from Miami University Press, which publishes one collection of poetry and one book of short fiction each year. Poetry publisher BOA Editions celebrated its 40th anniversary while the New York Times demonstrated its virtual reality film technology. For the first time, PBS’s Book View Now program brought AWP to a national audience by broadcasting live interviews with literary celebrities in attendance from its pop-up studio inside the exhibit hall.
Beyond the book fair, writers flocked to panels focusing on the craft of writing as eagerly as they flocked to more than 500 sessions on publishing and book promotion. With roughly 12,000 attendees, this wasn’t the biggest AWP ever, but it’s not far behind the record holder, the 2014 conference in Seattle, which was attended by 13,000.
During her quietly powerful keynote address, Citizen author Claudia Rankine spoke to a packed room of 2,500 people about a lack of diversity among faculty and in the curricula in creative writing programs, which is alienating students of color. Many people criticized AWP 2016’s planning subcommittee for not accepting any panels about disability issues, and for not doing more to showcase writers from underrepresented populations. Others, though, argued that AWP was responsive to the calls for diversity, and that this year’s gathering was more inclusive and addressed diversity issues head-on more than ever before.