In the interests of stocking our bookstore shelves with the very best and brightest, we spent last weekend roaming the aisles of the American Booksellers Association conference, aka the ABA. (Yes, book people love acronyms; if one were so inclined, one could fill one’s days shuffling from AAP to ALA to BEA—though one might question the National Writers Association’s decision to join in this mania for initials.)
This was our first time attending a conference as a bookseller; previously we sat at the Host Publications table, behind a neat fan of jolly nice books. But whether you’re there to sell, buy, or browse, the commercial arm of the book conference is always the same: you are in a drop-ceilinged basement somewhere, surrounded by tote bags, and it’s fifteen degrees too hot or too cold. The room manages the amazing feat of being simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, and the carpet’s psychedelic swirls suggest that vomit concealment was the interior decorator’s primary concern. You wander the aisles for two or ten or possibly seventeen-hundred hours, filling your arms with catalogs and small cards inviting you to Hear Mike Michaels Read Tonight in Room 12B. Wine Provided! At every third table there is a woman selling a self-published poetry collection called And Then My Uncle Touched Me.
If you sit at a booth, a man visits your booth to ask if you sell books about fishing; he is persuaded to buy a book of Romanian poetry with a picture of a fish on the cover. Another man with a thick Polish accent and a helmet of ginger hair stops by to tell you about his cat, Eric, who was a stevedore in a former life. People pick up your novels, smear them with fingerprints, and place them back askew, with a cutting remark: “I really only read non-fiction.” (“I’m sorry to hear you broke your imagination,” you say, but only inside your head, which fills to bursting with horrible rudenesses as the minutes, hours, days go by.)
Somewhere above you, writers and academics host and attend panel discussions entitled Oh Do Shut Up, Mother!: Liminal Masculinity in the Works of Edith Wharton and Weeeee!: How To Write a Play in Ten Minutes. You pretend you are sad to be missing out on these panel discussions.
There are tchotchkes everywhere (and yet you will never, ever learn how to spell tchotchkes). Publishers fling Hershey’s Kisses and earth-themed stress balls at unsuspecting poets, while tchotchke sellers try to convince bookstore owners that finger puppet squids and miniature plastic flamingoes will sell. (And they will. A transcendent work of literature may be an axe for the frozen sea within us, but it doesn’t look all that cute in your office cubicle.)
The day ends—you thought the day would never end—and you grab a glimpse of sunlight and a shot of vodka at the hotel bar, surrounded by exhausted conference attendees who appear to be playing the drink-whenever-someone-says-paradigm drinking game. People take sides about Sebald. People kiss people who are not the people they should be kissing. People weep about the kissing, and about their tenure prospects, and possibly even about the Sebald. (“What’s so great about a picture of a flamin’ teas-maid?!” “You imbecile!”) You trudge back to your hotel room smelling like $1 bills. You watch ten minutes of a reality TV show called Too Much Lovin’, about an obese man who hoards lizards, and then you fall asleep in your clothes, clutching a tiny can of minibar Pringles.
And on it goes. Rinse and repeat. At some point on the last day, every vendor at every table begins to drink from a hip flask of Jim Beam stashed in their Tin House tote bag. The drunkest vendor vomits quietly in a corner; the carpet will not betray his secret. And then it’s over and the professional dismantlers appear and begin to reduce your recent past to a huge pile of mangled 50% OFF signs and a sea of abandoned catalogs.
And yet! In a triumph of hope over experience, you look forward to the next conference, and the one after that. The voices of the barking mad fish enthusiasts fade in your memory, to be replaced by fond recollections: of that grilled cheese you ate in the hotel restaurant, and of the conversations you had with all those charming, passionate dorks. My people, you think, thrilled to belong to that earnest tribe of bookish folks who wear their Smartish Pace t-shirts with pride and think reading is the best possible use of one’s hours. So do your worst, AWP 2013! Have at us with your branded key chains and your novelty erasers. We’re ready for you and your disgusting carpet.