Editor Battles Stomach-flu to a Draw

By Brandon Holmquest

Part One: The AWP Bookfair

Last week literary New York was all aflutter about the AWP conference. Practically everyone who had ever picked up a pen was in town, clutching fat stacks of business cards and their respective publications. There were readings. There were forums and debates and parties. I was laid up at home with intense nausea and a 101 degree fever.

This malady, which I have dubbed “stomach-flu” for lack of any more appropriate (or accurate) term, descended upon on me on Monday. I spent the day sleeping and aching. Tuesday, feeling a little better, I assumed the worst had passed and went to work. Then came Wednesday. I got up. I felt dreadful. I went to work. On the subway, the disease asserted itself with considerable vigor.

I was convinced that I would wind up on my back, listening to a disembodied voice inform all of New York that, since a passenger required medical attention, the entire city would be late to work. When you’re running late, hustling up a crowded escalator or elbowing young mothers and insurance executives out of your way in the vicious rugby commute, that voice is the last thing you want to hear. And when you do hear it, you hate that person’s very soul. Once, upon hearing that voice announce the indefinite suspension of all 6 train service, I turned to the person next to me and said, “Somebody better be dead up there,” and he answered me: “If they’re not we should go up there and kill KILL KILL!” Fear kept me vertical until I got where I was going. After that it was just a matter of quietly dying in my cubicle all day, staging small strange nature documentaries with my office supplies to keep the mind alive.

But that was all I could do. I don’t recall how I got home that night. The next thing I knew it was 4 a.m. and I was suddenly on the couch, Fitzcarraldo playing on the TV, then I passed out again. Obviously, there was no possibility of working in that condition. I spent all of Thursday and Friday sleeping, with short bouts of fever dementia interspersed among the bad dreams. Every so often the phone would wake me up and someone would ask me why I wasn’t at this or that incredible event they were so enjoying. After a while I shut the ringer off.

Saturday came and I did not feel any better. And yet. Someone had told me that there would be place where books were so plentiful as to boggle the mind, so cheap as to charm a miser. This is the sort of thing that I will rise from my death bed to attend, and so I did.

But what a state I was in. I hadn’t eaten in two days. My fever was now coming in rolling waves. I would be clear-headed one minute and mumbling delirious nonsense the next. So what?

With considerable assistance from my charming companion, I approached the Hilton, where three floors had been handed over to a swarming army of book nerds and bibliophiles. I could see them in the street when we were still blocks away, little grey-haired men in bifocals and tweed jackets covered in dust and cat hair, women walking slowly, dazzled by the sun. Into the lobby, up on the elevator and through the doors. Pandemonium. I had not thought that books had undone so many. There were people everywhere. I thought: Christ, we could found our own cluttered little country and someone behind me asked a friend if that was Charles Bernstein over there.

I wouldn’t call it an anticlimax, but once I was there milling around was about the only option I had. So that’s what I did. The thing about the AWP book fair is that they’ll sell table space to anybody. Cash up front is apparently the only criteria for participation. So all the big publishing houses are there, as are all of the larger small houses, and then the smaller small houses, various university presses, and some magazines and journals. Everybody else is either clueless or out to rip people off.

I saw one booth occupied by an middle-aged couple, the table before them littered with copies of a combination cookbook/poetry collection that looked like it had been made on an obsolete Canon copy/print/fax machine and staple-bound by hand. This was late on the last day and they seemed to have realized that no large contract would be coming their way this year. They were pissed. Another booth assured me that the only reason I’m not rich and famous right now is that I don’t have my own website, designed and hosted by them for a fee. A third booth swore up and down that their workshops not only could but absolutely would teach me how to write that poem/story/novel/memoir or what have you that I’d always wanted to write but didn’t know how. They could also help me get it published. All of this for a couple hundred bucks and they are qualified to provide this service because they have been providing this service for quite some time.

One thing I didn’t expect to see, which was hilarious, was how many graduate-level creative writing programs were there trying to lure prospective students. In my opinion these things are not substantially different from the phony workshops, except for being more self-important, more expensive, and somehow more socially acceptable. The whole enterprise is founded on false pretenses. The school says, “We’ll teach you how to write!” when what they’re actually doing is qualifying some people to be adjunct literature professors and allowing others to avoid that get-a-real-job-and-grow-up scene for a few more years. Which is fine by me, but I don’t see the need for the smokescreen. But hey, I’m a cynic. What can I say?

Fortunately, there was more than enough going on to keep me sincerely interested and sincerely attempting to communicate with people through the hot fog of my sickness. Many very nice people politely tolerated my jabbering. Thomas Keith of New Directions and Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books were particularly warm, as were the unfortunately anonymous people running the booths for the Dalkey Archive, Ugly Duckling Presse, Northwestern University Press, and many others. On the whole the experience was rather pleasant. I met a lot of nice people and gave away my entire stock of the ridiculous business cards we printed up to amuse ourselves a year ago. I acquired an unholy horde of books for a total of about twenty dollars.

I also came away with at least one significant bit of news, that being that New York Review Books will eventually be publishing the rest of Vladimir Sorokin’s trilogy. The first volume, Ice, came out last year. Ever since then I’ve been gnawing my fingers off wanting to know if the rest of it would be properly translated, or if I’d have to pay some Russian teenager a dollar a page to do it. Now I know, and can therefore turn my dollars over to their rightful owner: the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the time shrill announcements started screaming overhead that the place was closing I was thoroughly exhausted. A small cadre of reliable friends and associates assembled. After a final scramble through the place attempting to shake people down for free books which they would otherwise have to pack and carry away, I limped with them to the Astro Diner just down the street.

I consumed enough coffee to get me home. The plan was to take a long nap and get up in time to go to a reading at midnight. I didn’t make it. Slept straight through the night and was woken up around 10 the next morning by a phone call from Stephen Kessler, general friend of this publication. He and I had never met, and had been planning to do so while he was in town for the conference. My illness had monkeywrenched the hell out of those plans. Sunday was our last shot, could I be at St. Mark’s Bookshop at 4 o’clock?

To be continued…

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