Aesthetic Drift #8 by Scott Gilman
What do Lord Byron, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Keats, the Bronte sisters, D. H. Lawrence, Don DeLillo, John Fowles, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, James Salter and David Foster Wallace all have in common? Either their manuscripts, collections, or personal libraries reside in Austin, at the Harry Ransom Center on the campus of the University of Texas. For good measure, the Ransom Center also houses one of the original Gutenberg Bibles.
Emanating from this rich academic and literary foundation is a culture in Austin that fosters independent thinking, writing and creativity. While smaller, of course, than literary hubs like San Francisco and New York, what Austin shares with those larger coastal cities is its magnetism for those seeking something–and some place–else. While today the hordes come because of technology and start-ups (and food trucks and live music and hipster acceptance) Austin has long been home, and welcoming, to the outsider, the hippie, the iconoclast, the weird.
So it’s no surprise that even in today’s world of devices and handhelds and screens, books, writing, and publishing are all engrained into the city’s life. Once a year, in the Fall, the Texas State Capitol hosts the Texas Book Festival, a two-day event featuring a diverse set of readings, tents, booksellers and activities. A Literary Pub Crawl the night before gets reading types out of the house and into the bars, walking the streets, loosened up before sessions in the House and Senate chambers.
The focus of the formal aspect of literary culture in Austin resides at the University of Texas with the Michener Center for Writing, which offers a three-year, full-time residency MFA program. Additionally, the Michener Center offers a reading series open to the public; its lineup this year includes Jesmyn Ward, Charles Wright, TC Boyle, Laura Kasischke and others.
But outside the halls of government and academia lies an undercurrent of literary activity from striving and published writers of all kinds. Meet-ups for writers (like the one I sometimes attend, “Sit Down, Shut Up and Write”) occur regularly to encourage writers to do the hardest thing about writing – sit in a chair and write – while others provide forums to workshop their work and network with like-minded creatives and to provide assistance on getting published. These meet in coffee shops around the city, encouraging writers to keep going (another group is called “Write It Already”), functioning as de facto gym buddies for those plugging away on a novel, thesis or memoir, and more generally, a career in or pursuit of writing. Groups like the Writers’ League of Texas host events, conferences and classes for its members; The Writing Barn is a space that hosts readings, workshops and seminars as well as open hours for writers.
Austin boasts a diverse collection of small and independent bookstores, many operated with the intent on keeping the value of a book store, and an inviting space for writers and readers, alive. Most well known is BookPeople, which on top of its impressive selection offers regular readings from nationally recognized writers (I’ve seen Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen read there) and also offers events and reading for kids. Their kids section, in fact, is one of the best parts of the store. But there are plenty of intriguing and fun options beyond BookPeople. Just down the street is 12th Street Books, which houses the city’s only walk-in rare book room.
Great for collectors looking for out of print and special and first editions, 12th Street focuses on small-press books, fine bindings and titles by and about Texas writers.
Along the popular, trendy corridor of South Congress Avenue is South Congress Books, a smallish store with an eclectic collection of used fiction titles and books on art, film, music, criticism and history. Its also features rare books for those looking to collect hard-to-find editions. And on the East Side is Farewell Books, a progressive used book store and art gallery. Their collection is small but will challenge you, and the rotating art exhibits will keep you coming back.
Malvern Books, an independent store located close to the UT campus, hosts a variety of events, from various book and reading clubs to novel nights and open readings.
It fashions itself as not just a bookstore but a literary community, focusing on “lesser know and emerging voices.”
One of the more exciting elements of the writing scene in Austin is the proliferation of local presses and magazines in recent years. And in addition to publishing new and local writers, they are also hosting events and readings, helping to foster and cultivate the local writing community. Fields Magazine was started over three years ago and holds a reading series three times a year in a local art gallery. Founded around the same time, The Austin Review, an independent, non-profit literary journal, publishes fiction, flash non-fiction and analysis.
Describing the scene here in Austin, Sean Richmond, editor in chief of Fields, was enthusiastic about the nature of the community. “There’s a lot going on, and it’s just so much fun to be a part of,” he said. “Everyone is really supportive of each other, and we collaborate on each other’s journals and read at each other’s events and otherwise all work together to grow this burgeoning community. … It’s small enough still where we all really know each other, but large enough that it feels really rewarding, and I still see a lot of new faces every time we host an event.”
Not all readings occur in bookstores or art galleries. Whip In is a former convenience store converted into a beer house and Indian restaurant. On the first Tuesday of the month, Whip In hosts “One Page Salon,” during which writers, poets, and other performers get a chance to showcase their work in a laid back environment. ‘Everything is Bigger’ is a monthly reading series currently held at the downtown bar Cheer Up Charlie’s; it features three readers and a special performer. Also held at Cheer Up Charlie’s is Five Things, a bi-monthly event where five readers are asked to read five minute pieces on five different things; this event has been on-going since 2008.
Five Things is hosted by Adeena Reitberger of American Short Fiction and Callie Collins of local press A Strange Object. A Strange Object published its first book in October 2013 and is continuing to release new titles. American Short Fiction was founded in Austin, is published three times a year and focuses on emerging and established voices.
Says editor Rebecca Markovits, “American Short Fiction has been around a long time, and we’ve watched the literary scene here really flourish over the decades. Like the city in general, the Austin literary crowd seems to be growing and growing. There’s always a new writerly or readerly project popping up – a new journal, a reading series – and it says a lot about that particular combination of creativity and can-do that so characterizes this town. So it feels like a great time to be talking literature in ATX.”
Scott Gilman lives in Austin, Texas and enjoys exercise, reading, writing, eating and drinking. He is working on his first novel and a short story and essay collection. More of his writing can be found here.