AWP 2014: Books About Books: A Nonfiction Conundrum

March 1, 2014 § 2 Comments

pikeAnn Beman  guest-blogging from AWP 2014:

Books About Books: A Nonfiction Conundrum / moderated by Brook Wilensky-Lanford, with panelists Kristin Swenson, Ellen F. Brown, Andrea Pitzer, Colin Dickey

It’s safe to say that a majority of AWP’s umpteen thousand attendees love books. If you’re like me, you love every aspect of them — the inked paper smell, the heft of the volume, the font, the cover design, the ideas born within the text, the potential for marginalia, the sound and feel of pages flipping beneath your thumb.

So if you’d seen how few people attended Thursday’s noontime Books About Books, you might have been surprised. And at the end of the hour-and-a-quarter-long session, you might have concluded that its lame attendance was inversely proportional to the quality of the presentation.

The inspiration for the panel came about while Wilensky-Lanford was roaming San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. While in the non-fiction basement, with its oddly enticing categories, such as Muckraking, Commodity Aesthetics, Topographies, and Stolen Continents, she found what was essentially a biography of books section. She also found epiphany: “These are the stories I want to read about, the stories of books, their afterlife, their social context.”


Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which Joyce Carol Oates described as a “bibliomemoir” in her New York Times book review.

Andrei Codrescu’s Bibliodeath, which the prolific Romanian-American writer intended as a thriller.

Kristin Swenson’s Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time

Ellen F. Brown’s Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood

Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov

Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints

BAB pose a tricky set of questions, says Wilensky-Lanford.


Do you look at the book as a character? What makes an appealing character? Does it have to be popular? Did you audition books?

The five BAB authors see books as the main characters of their narratives. In each of their cases, the books picked them. In Dickey’s case, he was “drawn to the story of the writing process, more than the book itself.” A majority of the subject books were popular, uber-popular in the case of the Bible. But the panel acknowledged that subject books could just as easily be obscure. They only needed a compelling backstory. “You can expose a little-known book … or go big,” said Pitzer.

How difficult is it to write the biography of a book rather than that of an author?

“I think it’s perfectly legitimate to detach the book from the author.”– Pitzer.

“It helps to have engaging characters.”– Brown

Was the structure of ‘the’ book influential in the way you structured ‘your’ book?

The panelists’ structures varied. “Think through carefully thematic versus chronological.”– Brown

Brown and Pitzer both recommended making timelines, whether the book is structured chronologically or not.

Do you think the form of books changes the story of books?

The upshot: Digital options enhance rather than detract from authors’ abilities to tell these stories.

Speaking of digital options, Wilensky-Lanford has devoted a Pinterest board to Books About Books

And a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday: “When the panelists choose not to discuss the panel topic as it is advertised. Like, at all. #HitOrMissAWPpanels2014.” Bad panels happen. But not this time. I’d categorize Books About Books as #Hit.

Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, Bombay Gin, the museum of americana, and Canoe Journal, among others. Beman lives and whitewater kayaks on California’s Kern River with her husband and two whatchamaterriers.

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§ 2 Responses to AWP 2014: Books About Books: A Nonfiction Conundrum

  • […] Read the full post here: AWP 2014: Books About Books: A Nonfiction Conundrum. […]

  • jerrywaxler says:

    Books play an important role in book-lover’s lives, However, it took me several years of reading memoirs to find examples of people who focused on the book as mentor, companion, key to important secrets. I recently read one called “Booked: LIterature in the Soul of Me: by Karen Swallow. Prior ( Read my essay about “Booked” here. .)

    I recently wrote a book about books. In it I trace the importance of memoirs in my life, so in a sense,Memoir Revolution is about a genre as a character in my life. This is the first time of it that way. Thanks for that concept.

    When trying to find a category for a book about books, I would agree it’s a conundrum. For years, writing about writing ended up in the reference section. I wonder if books about books ought to go there as well.


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