Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

John Clellon Holmes | September 1979

At AWP's recent annual meeting in Nashville, I was asked, as a new member of the Board, if I would become an advisor to the diligent and gifted women who do all the drudgery involved in getting out this Newsletter. I agreed to help in any way I could.

I have some thoughts. It seems to me that AWP is more than a "vanity-operation" representing a narrowly-specialized backwater in university-curricula. It has grown into an invaluable service organization for both staff and students in the member programs, and for individual writers- many of them graduates of these programs- all over the country. It is becoming an increasingly important conduit through which vital creative work reaches publication. In the poetry, short fiction and novel series, plus INTRO, we are addressing not only ourselves, but them.

It is this latter function that seems to me to need our most urgent attention. The situation of the young, talented writer in America today is grave, if not calamitous. The markets are shrinking. Magazines that once published significant fiction and poetry have either closed-up shop or drastically reduced the space they allot to literature. The trade presses have been devoured by Merger, and cost-accountants and efficiency experts (unlike the Maxwell Perkins' of the past) are not interested in accepting a book just because it should be published. Willa paperback sale subsidize the hardcover edition? Will it sell to TV or the movies? Is it topical or scandalous enough to move copies in the supermarket? These are the questions that dominate decision-making in the trade houses now.

AWP has to decide, within itself, that it intends to become a force in getting excellent writing to the large readership that it deserves. Writers have always resisted guilds, unionization. All attempts to create an organization to represent writers have foundered from within -until AWP. We must agree, among ourselves, that factions, cliques, cabals, and minorities-of-one-or-two mostly involve aesthetic differences or matters of taste, but that these disagreements have little or nothing to do with the function of AWP, which I construe to be the support of a literary community that includes writing programs, of whatever tendency, in an increasingly gloomy situation. I have proposed before that alternate outlets -university and small presses -be led to realize their crucial importance in the resolving of this situation. Whether because of federal or state monies, or the stubborn willingness to publish good work because it is good, the university and small presses must know that an audience is out there, that AWP will help as a marriage broker between the writer alone in a room, and the wider world that clearly needs to know what issues from that room. Equally, the trade-houses have to be brought to understand that many of the future Hemingways and W. C. Williams' will emerge from our member programs, and that it is both practical and potentially profitable for them to come to us for help in discovering these new voices.

All of us who attempt the unachievable (the teaching of writing) have undergone that moment when, looking into a student's hopeful face, we decide to keep from him or her our knowledge of the doleful experiences that we know lie a head doomed to publishing in obscure magazines, doomed to teaching freshman English, doomed to a gypsy life.

One of the visions of R. V. Cassill, who founded AWP, was that something could be done about this if we all got together. We have done so, often with no agreed-upon notion of what we were doing, but shakily the guild has survived and increased. Now it is time for us to understand that we have become a significant factor in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Hit the anvil with a hammer, not your head. AWP could become that hammer.
The proposed hiring of a full-time liaison person to make known our presence is promising.

His/her function, however, has to be clearly de fined. The roses will take care of themselves; it' the fences that we have to concern ourselves about. All of us are writers, and all of us (not to mention our best students) are faced with the, same obstacles in terms of publishing. As Seymour Krim said a decade ago, we live in at era dedicated to "selling the sizzle not the steak." AWP is one of the last bastions behind which we can all, differing as we do on aesthetic matters crouch and prepare a counter-attack.

Finally, as to the Newsletter: I think we should publish a sampling of work by particularly-gifted students. If not being done already, all the trade houses, as well as the university presses, should receive the Newsletter. Literary controversy shop-talk, in other words -should be kept to a, minimum in the Newsletter. Hard information; that will encourage a feeling of solidarity among us, and help to clarify a common purpose, is what is needed. The differences among us are far less important than the similarities. Brief, factual announcements of publications are essential if we, not to mention them, are to understand the breadth and depth of the phenomenon that AWP represents. A mimeographed list of all the books and important magazine contributions by member-students, past and present, should be sent to publishers. In the market-place, good writing is mostly thought of as esoteric, difficult, non-bankable, depressing, and what-have-you. We know better. If we can't halt the relentless engorgement of the trade-presses by non-literary conglomerates, we must make a purposeful and hard-headed end-run around them.

And that entails convincing the university and small presses (as well as ourselves) that they should move from marginal publishing into the center. Our liaison-person should be able to work the whole spectrum of the publishing and reviewing field. In my opinion the Newsletter, and AWP itself, should attempt to become part of the solution, and not drift into yet another aspect of the problem. In line with which, I would like to propose a meeting-of-minds from the member programs as to how they conceive the function of AWP, how helpful they feel it is in terms of their work, and where they believe it should proceed from here. Out of this, some consensus might emerge. Perhaps we might consider a questionnaire, asking what the title of Gauguin's master-painting asks: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Only the cooks know what the taste should be.


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