AWP 2016 Recap: Searching for a Feminist Utopia

Last week, from March 31 through April 2, I attended the annual conference presented by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Los Angeles.

Though I was most excited about escaping New England’s frigid winter-spring for warmer climes, I was also eager to attend panels and events integral to the current literary landscape and publishing industry. My first and previous AWP conference was three years ago in Boston (where I took an inverse journey from my last, leaving the humid heat of Florida for snowy scenery during sprang brake). I don’t remember so many panels on women in literature then, so I’m glad to see the conversation has progressed in a relatively short amount of time.

This conference, I attended three panels speaking to social issues in this context (though there were many more!):

  • An Office of One’s Own: Literary Agents on Equality, Gender, and the Business of Creating Books. Four literary agents (Duvall Osteen, Sarah Smith, Monika Woods, Melissa Flashman, and Lisa Lucas, paying homage to Virginia Woolf) shared their perspectives on the current publishing industry as women, critically looking at successful books by women; the literary marketplace; and women’s roles as writers, agents, editors and how they must collaborate with and support each other. What I found interesting and a little misguided was that the panelists’ (all white) conversations were primarily guided by their own experiences, devoid of the issues that women of color face, until the moderator (Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation) addressed this.
  • Guerrilla Girl Marketing. The creators (Katherine Towler, Ann Wertz Garvin, Brandi Granett, Erin Celello, Diane Haeger) of Tall Poppy Writers, a venerable online forum for women writers, spoke about marketing novels and connecting to readers with this marketing collective. From accruing resources to establishing their branded social media presence, the panelists emphasized the importance of working together with women writers to expand the reach of their writing.
  • Visions of a Feminist Utopia: The Feminist Press and the Future. Contributors and editors (Jennifer Baumgardner, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, Yumi Sakugawa) of the 2015 anthology The Feminist Utopia Project questioned beyond the publishing climate to women’s lived lives: “What is this future we say we believe in? What does it look like and what are we like within it?” Readings from Nalebuff and Sakugawa opened the floor to issues surrounding feminist theory, like sex work and activism.

Basically, these panels taught me that:

  1. Women need to work together to succeed in a man’s world. The “classic” literary canon has long been dominated by old white males (read: Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.). Women have made strides to be recognized in literature, yet we’re still relegated to the periphery. Even though women read more than men (except in history and biography categories), books written by men receive more reviews and awards than those written by women. As the VIDA count revealed in 2014, men get more ink across the globe: That year the London Review of Books featured 527 male authors but only 151 women, the New York Review of Books had a ratio of 677 men to 242 women, The New York Times book review featured 909 male but 792 women contributors, and The Nation had a ratio of 469 men to 193 women. The words of one panelist stuck with me: as readers, “we have the power here. We should buy books by and about women.” Not to mention, women are also sorely underrepresented in executive positions, though 80% of literary agents are white women and there are more women in editorial positions according to Publishers Weekly. Both on the page and behind the page, women are continuously sidelined.

  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Books written by women are often unjustly branded as “women’s fiction.” With this sexist label comes a stigma about the writer and the work itself. Women’s fiction is chick lit. It’s Nicholas Sparks. It’s beach reads and pink covers. It’s fluffy romances and frilly emotional characters. But books written by (and/or for women) are much more than that. Two of the panels highlighted the negative effects of this umbrella classification, citing “women’s fiction” as an obstacle in being taken seriously in academia or other careers. “Serious novels can have pink jackets and be about women,” said one literary agent. Women authors are writing compelling stories not just for a female market, yet their work is absorbed by that gendered classification. All panelists unanimously called for getting rid of “women’s fiction” or calling books written by men as “men’s fiction.” Now that’s not a genre you see at a bookstore.

Other panels I wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into my schedule included: The Active Politics of Queer/Feminist of Color and Indigenous Feminist Publishing Movements, From the Margins: Literary Magazines Supporting Writers of Color, Women Who Edit: Literary Journals, Diversity Integrated: The Literary Art of Inclusion, Rewriting the Hollywood Gender Gap, Unsung Epics: Women Veterans’ Voices, Two Sides of the Mirror: Writing About Body Image Across Gender, Women Writing Fiction in a Postfeminist Era, When I Was Latina: Navigating Privilege in the Publishing and Writing World, Women’s Caucus, and Women Publishing Women: The (Under)representation of Women in Print and in Publishing.

Overall, these panels were generally focused on women, but I would’ve liked more discussion about how trans*, nonbinary genders/gender nonconforming/genderqueer individuals, as well as people of color, are represented in literature and publishing.

As editor Ron Charles says on VIDA’s website, “we have a long way to go.” The Tall Poppy Writers panel put it well: “The need to support writers cuts across gender lines.” Gender parity is vital if we wish to change the conversation and acknowledge women’s and other’s lives and voices. After all, how are we ever going to progress if we hear the same stories over and over again?

What conferences or talks on social issues have you been to? What books by women writers have you read recently?

Share your thoughts about these topics below!

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