Premise: The most effective strategy for attending a massive public event like this year’s Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago is to treat it as a live-action competition, the literary equivalent of what is known in gaming circles as a “first-person shooter game,” your goal as player being to emerge four days later somehow ahead of wherever you were when you went in—your self-esteem increased, your status augmented (however incrementally), your contacts bolstered. Yes, of course, there are the offerings—the panels, readings, info-sessions, all the “ostensibles”—but you know, we all know, that nothing on that front can possibly compensate for the taxations of face-work, the non-stop walk-over-burning-coals that your ego must suffer from the moment you crack your hotel-room door in the morning until the sharp snick of the lock at day’s end when you retreat back into your privacy. You must therefore approach AWP, and other events like it, as a game, with an active sense of mission and a sober grasp of the base-line human psychology. Never forget that you are there to see and be seen, and in the scale of mattering—so far as your career is concerned—the latter is infinitely more important than the former.
But even this needs qualification. Merely being seen—having your ectoplasmic image pass laterally across the retina of some disinterested other—means nothing at all. Any of us can get that just by walking along LaSalle Street at lunchtime. No, for our purposes being seen means being seen. It’s a distinction we all recognize. To be seen you must not just ghost your way across another player’s field of vision, you must register as interesting, or, better, significant. The beholder must at some point focus on you with a question, like “Who is that person?” or “Is that someone I should know?” My assumption here, in this first pass at lit-psych, is that the beholder is more or less in the same situation you are.
This means we’re talking about visual speed-chess played in the democracy of the like-minded, the kindredly aspirant. The basic pattern of exploratory interchanges is incessant and reflexive, and merely moving in space from one scheduled event to another—down a corridor, through a lobby, up or down an escalator—requires not dozens, but hundreds, of insta-negotiations. The process is as exhausting as it is inescapable. And of course it forms the staple basis of every single conversation between any two “connectors”; the conversation, no matter how trivial, represents the first escalation. Eye-contact, you see, serves here as the rolling of the dice, and interchange represents an opportunity to move the piece, the self-player, the avatar. These first “connects” are predictably obvious. “Wow, can you believe this?” is often used. Or: “I’ve been here three hours and I’m completely exhausted.” Or: “Have you been to these things before? I had no idea—”
In AWP Convention Game regulations, a salutation, an exchange such as the above, between people who already know each other, technically counts for nothing. It must either be truncated—for economical use of time is vital—or else parlayed, turned to advantage. The point of play, if I haven’t made this clear enough yet, is to trade up, to advance the avatar, and the only way this can happen is when someone with a higher-stratum position (more publications, better publications, more ascertainable connections) sees you, and with that certification promotes you along the board. This is hardly arbitrary. For as everyone knows, being seen from a higher position only happens when there is something to be seen, though of course the appearance of being seen has value insofar as you might be seen being seen, and therefore score second-order points (described in game book) whether or not there is genuine substance behind the encounter. The calculus is very tricky, and point scoring is often hotly contested.
The challenges and difficulties of status recognition are obvious. Unless you are possessed of some striking visual attribute (extreme attractiveness or stylishness being the most obvious), such a visual transaction—with an escalation to conversation—remains unlikely, certainly in situations where you are in play as a sole agent. For crowd situations automatically activate a cruel ecology of attention, a variant of the principle of natural selection projected onto the field of appearances. Moreover, if you are strikingly attractive, this whole discussion is moot, as—unless there is something deeply inhibited in your character—you will have long since parlayed your awareness of your God-given gift into a status that obviates such ground-level truckling. Any fool knows that good looks trump attainment at least three-fourths of the way up the ladder, only then starting to cede to prestige—and this game advice is for players not yet near those echelons.
I am speaking here for all of us who still cannot walk into a room, a literary arena, without immediately seeing it as a complexly graded hierarchy, a scarcely disguised Hobbesian jungle, tyrannized over not by teeth and claws, but by their verbal equivalents. We all ask the same questions: How do we go about trying to advance our avatar along the board; how do we achieve status lift? Or, less cynically: how can we find our way into situations where our natural merits (our sensibility, our intelligence, our not-sufficiently-regarded achievements to date) can be made known and be validated?
Since appearances reveal so very little, it obviously matters that we place ourselves into advantageous social contexts, situations where we have a chance to speak, so that our expressions and opinions can, best-case scenario, attract the genuine interest of the right people. Given the fact that few, if any, members of the superior caste are likely to approach us straight out, we must make our way to them; we must get into physical proximity, and then discover or invent sufficient pretext.
I must make note at this point of what the game-book calls the “constraint of gradient.” In plain English this means learning to choose your target. The rungs of the latter recede above you into the empyrean, and the probability of a successful transaction diminishes rapidly with every higher rung. It therefore behooves each player to make assessments honestly, to value him/herself and the quarry figure as objectively as possible. A few minutes trading impressions with Bill Quigley from Oceanus Quarterly, for example, is far more likely than a belly laugh with Margaret Atwood in the salad line (Margaret Atwood would not be in the salad line); and Bill Quigley can, with the right twist of luck, get you to Martina Belshazzar—who of course has the ear of Tess Drummond, putting you almost in reach of Carol Muske-Dukes. But I am getting way ahead of myself. At this point just trust the system: it’s immemorial. This is how the world works and we pretend otherwise at our peril.
The best way for a level-1 interchange to happen is by way of a broker or an intermediary—some friend or acquaintance who has already established contact with a member of the proximate Status Caste (S.C.). The friend may herself, it happens, be a member of the adjacent caste, but while this is lucky it cannot count as a point-score in regulation play—prior relationships are deemed neutral with regard to advancement value. Where this is the case—let’s say that “friend” and quarry are seen talking near the revolving doors of the entryway—proceed with gumption. Suppressing all natural doubt and tentativeness (a reflex vital for all aspects of play), move directly into the broker’s space and assert friendly familiarity, casual arm contact is good, making sure to let a long moment elapse before you glance over to see who she might be standing with (of course you already know). There can be no suggestion that you have come over to meet that person. Indeed, when possible, avoid conferring any recognition whatsoever in that first glance, which is at this point simply the social prelude to your being introduced. Your posture of intimacy and your decisive stance will have already forced the issue, and by not appearing to recognize the quarry you will have sent the slightest tremor through that person’s own self-esteem, momentarily bringing him toward you, setting yourself up to confer the pleasure of your imminent recognition.
“Friend” now turns, as “friend” must. If the conference is more than a few minutes old, he no longer registers surprise, irritation, or delight. Matter-of-factness prevails: “Frank, hi—how’s the conference going? Oh, hey, do you know Kent Malone? Kent, this is Frank Mil—”
Here is the crucial moment, the test of mettle and much else besides. You must now wait just long enough for your last name to be enunciated, but not so long that S.C. can reveal that he has no idea of who you are. Step into the breach, and with your most exquisite timing and alacrity, you must a) convey enthusiastic recognition, along with your startled apology for not knowing him straight off (crowds, conference distraction…), b) indicate with some well-placed but succinct reference—”Yeah, wow, ‘Battle Hymns,’ the whole fabulist thing, I loved that”—that you are playing in the same game, and then c) locate yourself boldly, exaggeratedly if need be, in the game: “I was just using one of the Military Sonnets in my seminar,” or almost better, if you can pull it off, “I was just saying to Ron Bisbee—do you know Ron?—” a sentence you don’t need to finish, provided that Ron Bisbee is seen as a caste peer by the quarry. This you will know by the expression that greets mention of the name. If there is even a hint of eagerness, some sign of pleased recognition, you have earned the right to join the conversation, never mind what your broker-contact might be signaling. If not—if your quarry looks to be searching his memory—you should start considering your exit strategy (“Anyway, terrific stuff, and great to meet you. I have to—”).
Assuming your gambit does succeed, the next step is up to you. If you have some goods to offer—literary opinions of genuine merit, or a body of publications to cunningly refer to, you stand a fair chance of securing advancement, one square at very least, more if you can score an agreement to send or forward something (of yours, or of topical relevance), necessitating the exchange of e-mail addresses (2 squares) or leading, best-case scenario, to an invitation: “Hey, a bunch of us are going to Rudy’s after the keynote—you should drop by” (3 squares, with more to come, as Rudy’s is sure to be trafficked by other members of the S.C.—and with Kent Malone in your pocket . . .). Whatever the outcome here, it is vital that you show no signs of genuine pleasure—make it clear that interactions of this sort are a matter of course for you. Leave as soon as you are sure that at any point henceforth, at the conference or in the life to come, you can step up to the quarry and give him a buddy-pat and say, “Hey, Kent—Frank, AWP.”
Alas, I don’t have the space to explore all the other combinations through which a player can gain points and advance his or her avatar. Mostly they are projections of the same principle, the same set of strategies, upon variant scenarios—the ambitious player will quickly work them out. But a few special-case situations do need to be referenced here, lest the reader think everything is about overture and insinuation. Sometimes action is ill-advised and can result in a loss of points and progress. The elevator contingency, for instance: the door opens, you step in, you suddenly realize that you are alone in that tiny space with Paul Auster. Do not imagine that this is God finally giving you your chance. It’s not. This is God testing your character, your worthiness for the continued gift of life. Under no circumstance are you to say, “Excuse me, I just want to say—” There is nothing that Paul Auster or any other author on the planet desires less at that moment than your smarmy gambit. Pretend that you have never seen the man’s author photo, keep eyes locked front and center, step out first when you reach the lobby. 1 point.
Another way to keep from losing points—to retain ground gained (though without further point accrual)—is to refrain from asking a question or making an observation during the Q & A following any panel. Everyone knows that the only reason any person ever asks a question is to solicit attention, either for the quality of her opinions, the level of her engagement with the issue at hand, or her intelligence. Members of the audience, of course, resent the asker immediately, whether or not they can hear the comment or question. Can you speak up? We can’t hear you! Do you detect hostility in the tone there? But this resentment is as nothing to that of the panelist/speaker, who is chafing to be done with the event and at this late hour fears only the mis-statement or revelation of ignorance that will undo his whole choreography. There is nothing to be gained by asking a question. If you are noticed, you are noticed with irritation, and some trace memory of that irritation will linger should there be any future encounter, either with the panelist or indeed any audience member who has turned around to gape at you.
This leads us back to the business of being noticed—seen—and sets up nicely for a conclusion. Almost everything I have written here testifies to the importance of impression; the game is powered by its dynamics, and advancement is secured on strength of connections. So the bottom-line law of literary life can only be emphasized: if you have given people a sufficiently positive feeling about themselves, they will like you. They will associate your face, your name, with something that gives them pleasure. If they are in a position to reward you easily for the pleasure you have given them, they will do so, if only to secure the prospects of future pleasure. Do not mistake this for any interest in you or your work, unless your work in some way reflects well on theirs as well.
Enough said. As for the game—scoring, finishing, winning—this one is unique in its deep design, quite profound even. For while it is true that the piece travels according to points scored, and that scoring is calculated for all different status levels, so that you are playing no less earnestly when you are having drinks with John Irving and Francine Prose than when kibbitzing with Kent Malone (indeed, the point tallies at the upper echelons can be quite dizzying), the paradox is that the only way to exit the game—to win—is to reach a stage where you are no longer trying for points. No longer trying because no longer caring. The sublime irony is that you can only be declared winner, and thereby freed from the remorseless circulation of your avatar around the board, when it has become a matter of complete indifference to you whether Richard Bausch or Lorrie Moore looks up with a smile when you enter the room, when Jonathan Lethem’s shoulder pat slides off you like summer rain, when you are not even paying attention because you are thinking about what awaits you at the desk back home, that greeting line of words on the page that alone has power to grant the status—or, better, the absolution—you need. Then you have won. Though part of winning is no longer giving a damn that you have.