The Texas Accent
Texas Writers Month in Its Fifth Year
Any day now, Peggy Hubble will find an elongated envelope with the Office of the Governor as a return address on her desk, which anchors the southwestern corner of public relations firm MEM/Hubble Communications' downtown Austin office. As she has done for the past four years, Hubble will open the envelope, admire the elegant proclamation inside officially declaring May as Texas Writers Month, and eventually put the proclamation in one of her desk drawers. Whereas Hubble and all of the writers and booksellers who are the originating forces behind Texas Writers Month acknowledge that the governor's endorsement of May as Texas Writers Month is very welcome and appreciated, Texas Writers Month is an initiative-based program that depends on local organizations like bookstores and libraries throughout the state to plan their own events and not a mere political seal of approval. Hubble says that Texas Writers Month has incrementally become more decentralized over its four-year existence. "We wanted it to take a life of its own, really. It's kind of like Black History Month; there's not an office you call for Black History Month, not one that I know of anyway." Consequently, Texas Writers Month organizers depend on one centralizing source that reminds the public and the institutions planning author events that May is indeed Texas Writers Month. It's a costly source for MEM/Hubble, one they've spent in excess of $20,000 funding pro-bono over the past four years and one they'll partly fund again for a fifth time this year. It's the principal financial outlay of Texas Writers Month, The Poster, and because the writers joining in the cloistered debate are professional, gentlemanly writers, they understandably have no interest in revealing what is for them private correspondence, even though the debate has taken place via e-mail, a particularly non-belletristic form of communication. Nonetheless, because some of the state's leading men of letters are involved, the debate is bound to be a repercussive one.
In the past, the 242-member Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) has benefited financially from poster sales made during Texas Writers Month. When requested to donate money - any amount of money - to the printing of this year's poster, which yearly costs $5,000, TIL declined. Newly instituted TIL president and UT professor Don Graham, who is just about as off-the-cuff in person as he is in his new book of essays, Giant Country: Essays About Texas, speaks to the issue by stating that "TIL is supportive in a general way of Texas Writers Month, but there isn't any special relationship between that organization and Texas Writers Month. Quite frankly, outside of Austin, people just aren't sure about it.... They don't know what it is. They think it's a part of Laura Bush's program [the Texas Book Festival]. And what's happened to Texas Writers Month is that it has been in some way overshadowed by the Texas Book Festival," the very centralized, two-day author event at the State Capitol which this November enters its third year. Don Graham, however, is not voicing these concerns from an ivory tower; this year he began attending the informal committee meetings of Texas Writers Month organizers.
"The Texas writing scene is pretty much Austin-centric in some respects, so there's always going to be an over-representation in Austin," says Larry Wright, who is a local author, screenwriter, New Yorker staff writer, and former TIL vice-president who more than any other figure is the founder of Texas Writers Month. "The whole idea is that this is an opportunity for local booksellers and libraries and schools and institutions and so on to do something. We can't do it for them. We just provide an occasion." In fact, Wright avers that "it's not really up to [TIL] to make the month better." The cause of the debate has been variously attributed to miscommunication, institutional bias, or Austin-centric boosterism, but the root problem may be bafflement on the part of many about what exactly TIL does. Graham acknowledges that TIL is "one of the great mysteries. Nobody knows what it is. The organization needs to think about what its goals are," Graham says, noting that steering TIL to think about its goals is his first priority as president.
Speaking for many people interviewed for this article, Dick Holland observes that "there's more to the month than the poster." Holland is the former curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University and an advisory board member for the Texas Book Festival. Holland's comment indirectly alludes to the crossroads Texas Writers Month stands at in its fifth year. The mere existence of a debate about institutional funding of the poster hints that Texas Writers Month has become a force to be reckoned with, but then any debate that sidetracks organizers (all of whom donate their time and money pro-bono) from orchestrating events and encouraging others to do so is wasted time that fails to aid communities throughout the state in recognizing their local writers.
Of course, writing is a solitary craft, and many writers like it that way, preferring not to be recognized and brought out of their working environs. Larry Wright must have a more complete perspective than any Texas writer on how that tricky dynamic of recognizing writers and yet leaving them to their own devices operates. In the fall of 1993, Wright first set in motion the discussions that would lead to establishment of Texas Writers Month. "It's hard to remember how bad it was. There were practically no Texas authors featured at local bookstores around the state. If there was a special place for them, they'd all be confined to Texana, where a lot of authors just simply don't belong.
"So I took several lunches around the state to introduce local authors and local booksellers, who really didn't know each other at this point. It was simply `get acquainted' luncheons, but we were trying to find some way of finding common causes, promoting Texas writers," Wright remembers. "It was at some luncheon in Houston that one of the booksellers said, `Well what we really need is something to promote,' and the idea of having a month of Texas writers came up."
Wright didn't just happen to know all of these multitudinous booksellers and authors around the state; he also is a busy writer who has several projects at any one time. So he "just called up bookstore owners in Houston and Austin and Dallas and introduced myself and I said I'd like to introduce some local writers who you may not know who are in your community." Unexpectedly, Wright found himself in something of a diplomat's position: "There was a lot of education that needed to be done. And moreover there was a lot of resentment on the part of the writers who felt terrifically overlooked, so the main aim was to get these two camps together in a friendly, cordial environment - at least start making friends with each other. I would say that in '94 [the first year for Texas Writers Month] there was an atmosphere of hostility on the part of the writers to some extent who felt like the bookstores were ignoring them and defensiveness on the part of the booksellers who didn't know what to do with the local writers."
It's useful to remember that a "Texas writer" is not necessarily someone who writes with a Texas accent, despite the overemphasis placed on Texan authors writing about Texas themes in an April 4 article in The Economist. Because Texas writers represent a diverse platform of genres and themes, it wouldn't appear that achieving the month's ultimate goal - which is to get Texans of all types interested in Texas writers - would be that difficult. But the success of the month depends in large part on whether local booksellers are interested in promoting Texas writers. Graham does raise a legitimate issue when he says that outside of Austin, Texans don't really know what to do with Texas Writers Month. Things are looking up, however. For example, there are more events planned this year in Midland or El Paso than in Houston, which has traditionally lagged in orchestration of Texas Writers Month events.
In Austin, lack of enthusiasm has never been an issue because of the aforementioned pool of local writing talent but also because local bookstore event coordinators here are experts at fostering store environments that foment a sense of belonging for the local or state writer. Wright for one has ready praise for Dave Hamrick, Barnes & Noble's regional community relations manager for the entire southwestern region of the country: "I don't think that there is a bookseller in the state who has been more effective in making local authors feel at home in his bookstores. He's a genius at it. And he's also shown how it can work for him. One of his first Texas Writers Month events at Central Park Bookstop was like a traffic jam. It was an amazing event, maybe too much of a success." If Larry Wright is the founding writer of Texas Writers Month, Dave Hamrick is the founding bookseller. Hamrick recalls that "the first year we did it I was managing the store at Central Park [Bookstop] and I was talking to authors who were in the store a lot, Steve Harrigan and Elizabeth [Crook] and Larry, and we decided to attempt to do a celebration honoring Austin writers. No one had ever done anything like that before that I was aware of." For Wright, "it was the first time I had been in this environment where writers were treated as kind of celebrities. It was a little scary. There were a ton of really good writers, but there were thousands of people who had come to see them. It was a phenomenon; Dave's eyes were kind of spinning."
Hamrick is a soft-spoken but direct man, not one who would ever admit that his eyes had once been spinning. Like many of the individuals who make up the informal Texas Writers Month committee, he also helps orchestrate events in conjunction with the Texas Book Festival. These organizers (representatives of Borders and Book People are also on the list) have a clear perspective on whether the Texas Book Festival overshadows Texas Writers Month. Echoing their sentiments, it does. The Festival packs in 100 or more established names over one weekend whereas Texas Writers Month spreads out authors over a month's time in various cities around the state. But the Festival doesn't possess all the advantages, as Festival director Cyndi Hughes readily acknowledges: "With the mission of the Book Festival focusing so intently on books and especially books published within a certain time period [authors of books published up to a year and a half before the Festival are eligible], we're kind of limited in what we can do as far as featuring writers. In some ways, Texas Writers Month has more flexibility in that they can open it up to other kinds of writing, not just book authors. They can include playwrights, more poets, freelance writers, even some journalists."
Right now, Peggy Hubble is not focusing on differences between the Festival and Texas Writers Month, or the lack of TIL funding, or whether events planned throughout the state will all go off as planned. In fact, she probably won't think about any of those questions until after May, when organizers will once again meet and finalize some basic issues endemic to a month commemorated to honoring a state's writers. "I think after this Texas Writers Month, we'll decide," by which she means that organizers will decide whether Texas Writers Month should continue as is, not continue at all, or be moved to November to coincide with the Festival. "There is discussion as to: Has Texas Writers Month served its purpose, was it the precursor of the Texas Book Festival, has the Texas Book Festival now kind of taken on the celebration of Texas authors? In my mind, the success is looking at bookstores and the visibility that Texas authors have in bookstores and the events that are taking place around the state. I think we've achieved our goal and more."