AWP 2014: Shopping at the Bookfair

March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments

bjhollarsA guest post from Eva Langston:

Picture a clothing boutique on a city street full of high-end shops and restaurants.  Inside there are a few sparse racks of they-must-be-fashionable-but-you’re-not-sure-you-like-them clothes and two young sales clerks wearing patterned leggings who stand at the counter looking bored, perhaps because they have no customers, or perhaps because apathy goes with their outfits.
You walk inside, and the sales clerks look up from their i-phones with arched eyebrows. They watch as you flip awkwardly through a rack of clothing. “We just got that in,” says one of the girls. “It’s from —–‘s spring line.” She names a designer you’ve never heard of, but you nod as if you have. Your hands tremble. You can’t shop under such scrutiny. You prefer the overstuffed clearance racks at a store where you don’t even have to ask to go into the dressing room. You prefer ordering your clothes online.

Now picture a table at the AWP Bookfair. On it are a few copies of a book or journal of which you are unfamiliar.  It will most likely contain literary prose and poetry that you know you should like, but you’re not sure if you actually will. Sitting behind the table are two young, hip graduate students looking glassy-eyed and hung-over.

You pick up one of the journals tentatively. They watch you. “It’s a really great issue,” one of them says, taking a sip of coffee. “It has translation poetry by —– and a piece by —–.” You don’t recognize either of the names, but you pretend you do. This is AWP, where everyone is supposed to be intelligent and well-read. You put the book back down. You can’t shop under such scrutiny. You can’t shop under these horrible fluorescent lights.

The tables of small presses and too-cool-for-school lit mags stretch through multiple, gray-carpeted rooms. You are used to shopping on Amazon in your pajamas from the privacy of your own home.  You don’t know how to make small talk. You had this plan to “promote” yourself at AWP, but now you’re too embarrassed to hand out the business cards you had made. You go up to some tables only to snag a piece of free candy and slink away without making eye contact.

You begin to think this whole bookfair thing is crazy and you should go attend some panels where writers will babble incoherently about something that wasn’t exactly the topic, but at least you won’t have to interact with anyone. You decide to hit a few more tables, just to pick up some chocolate, and then get the heck out of here. As you wander the aisles, you only approach the tables that…

1. Are giving away something for free, like buttons, a journal you actually want, a personalized poem, or an Iron Man key chain. (Bayou Magazine, The Sun, 300 Days of Sun, Fourth Genre.)

2. Have a raffle you can enter. (Gettysburg Review, Beating Windward Press)

3. Are manned by smiling people who invite you over in a non-aggressive way. (Prompt Press, GirlFriday Productions, Front Porch Journal, Sundog Lit, Cambridge Writers’ Workshop)

4. Have weird things on the table you cannot resist examining, like a stuffed ferret in a bell jar, a pair of giant dice, magic seeds, mustache tattoos, or pie charts. (Greens Mountain Review, Hoot, Fairy Tale Review, Burlesque Press, Vida.)

You inch towards these tables, asking shyly about the ferret, or writing your name down for the raffle. At one table you find yourself in a conversation with the girl manning the booth. She gets tongue-tied while explaining the aesthetic of the magazine. “Have a fortune cookie,” she says quickly, blushing. You realize these people who you thought were acting bored because they are smarter and cooler and better dressed than you are simply introverted writers who are trying their best at being social. Just like you.

You still feel awkward shopping under such scrutiny, but at least now you know that everyone else feels awkward, too. You approach the tables with a little more confidence. You take their book marks and post-cards and magnets. You will look them up online later, you promise, dropping the paraphernalia into your tote bag.

That afternoon, on the way back to your hotel room, you stop into a boutique with the thought of picking up a fashionable scarf for the conference tomorrow. People at AWP are better dressed than you — that much is true.

You step into the shop. All the clothing is black or white or a creamy beige, reminding you of print on the page. Reminding you that you love reading and writing, and that’s why you came to this conference in the first place. The sales clerk looks up from her i-phone. Shopping still scares you, but maybe not quite as much as before.

Eva Langston received her MFA from the University of New Orleans, and her fiction has been published in The Normal School, Café Irreal, Pif, and the GW Review, among others.  Currently she works as a Skype tutor for Ukrainians and a math curriculum consultant, although she’s trying to make writing her full-time job.  Follow her adventures at


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