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The Three Rules of IAWA

3. Buy our books
Buying books builds better writers.

3.1 Buy our books (Till Now) In IAWA’s meetings of the first two years, the Italian American writers invited publishers, agents, editors, bestselling writers to discuss the problem that Italian American books weren’t getting enough attention. IAWA made these meetings into a search for how the literary marketplace was operating. It grew clear that American writing was no longer organized only by region or by class. It was organized by different principles of exclusion. Groups had boundaries based in an area where descent and affiliation mingled with class. Jewish American, African American, Chicano, Asian American, Nuyorican -- these had become categories in the book business. Italian Americans had experienced very little success in establishing Italian American as an effective marketplace category.

"Italian Americans don’t buy books." IAWA’s members heard this mantra from almost every expert they consulted -- and most of these were persons who would identify themselves as Italian Americans in the book business! This was a serious, not to say devastating, folk belief. IAWA set out to help change this belief. IAWA initiated two programs in 1994, and has pursued them ever since:

Steerage. Each month the editors of the IAWA Newsletter choose a book of interest to Italian American readers. The Newsletter asks its readers to go to a bookstore and order this book.

Monthly Book Presentations. Every month IAWA presents at least one new book of interest to Italian American readers. For years these presentations took place at Barnes & Noble Astor Place every month.

Both steerage and the monthly book presentations aimed to stimulate the circulation of Italian American titles in the book distribution system, of which Barnes & Noble was the paradigm in 1994, when we began these programs.

3.2. Buy our books (Now) IAWA has decided to take its monthly book presentations and make them the first step for a much larger program, which is called The Italian American Bookfair. The second day of the conference (October 14) will be devoted to the discussion of this project, among writers, editors, agents, publishers, and other publishing professionals in conversation with Italian American teachers, booksellers, librarians, scholars, and leaders of important Italian American organizations. IAWA’s members are preparing for this discussion in several ways.

Bookfairs on various models. IAWA has already sponsored Bookfairs on two models, both involving cooperation with Italian American voluntary organizations. This year’s March Bookfair used the model of the "new-book bookfair", where one invites the author of a new work and tries to sell a copy of it to every person who attends. IAWA had procured fifty hardbound copies of Steven Varni’s new novel The Inland Sea (William Morrow). The publisher gave a good discount, and IAWA members Joann Sicoli and Jeanne Dickey sold all fifty copies. Manhattan FIERI, the National Organization of Italian American Women, the American Italian Cultural Roundtable, and the Italian Cultural Institute of New York were all cosponsors at this event. IAWA’s May Bookfair was a collaboration with the Association of Italian American Educators (AIAE) and a bookseller, to sell books at AIAE’s annual dinner. Next year, this event will include the price of a book in the price of the dinner. The object of these exercises is to mobilize Italian Americans to buy books as Italian Americans. It will become evident that Italian Americans do buy books.

On August 10, IAWA will try another model of Bookfair. This one will present several writers, and will take place in a bookstore, in this case Barnes & Noble Union Square, in which IAWA will present Mary Jo Bona’s Claiming a Tradition: Italian American Women Writers (Southern Illinois University Press), along with some of the books she talks about in her study. A panel of writers -- including Professor Bona, Helen Barolini, and one or two others, yet to be named – will present titles that represent well the new wave of Italian American Women Writers.

For August 15, IAWA is inviting Italian American booksellers to sell books at the Ferragosto celebration on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

All these experiments have this in common. IAWA is asking that Italian Americans promote Italian American books using the already-existing admirable network of Italian American organizations, with their annual rounds of dinners, festivals, meetings, banquets, and other gatherings. The Italian American Bookfair will give these organizations, numerous and varied as they are, a common purpose, a chance to make a material difference in the public perception of Italian Americans, their intelligence, their self-understanding, their contribution to the American conversation.

Sunday, September 24, 2000, IAWA will have a table at New York Is Book Country. This major New York bookfair is a place for the book business to meet directly with the readers of this bookbuying city. Booksellers specializing in Italian American books will also participate in this bookfair.

At the conference The Italian American Book, the second day will open with the presentation of a new work The Italian American Bookfair Manual. This brief guide introduces the principles by which any Italian American individual or organization can make a material contribution to the social and cultural advance of Italian America by sponsoring an Italian American Bookfair.

3.3 Buy our books (The Future) Italian America will become a literary institution. That is, Italian Americans will use books to explore the complexities of their heritage. How will we know that this is happening?

Italian American writers will produce new histories of the United States.

Italian American novelists will publish bestsellers whose protagonists are Italian American poets and painters.

Italian American will be the name of not one, but several fashionable styles in different pursuits. Italian American music and Italian American prose will have their fans and well-known experts, much like the ones that Italian American film already has acquired.

Bookstores will have sections devoted to Italian American culture, history, and literature.

Colleges will have Italian American Studies programs.

There will be endowed chairs in the teaching of Italian American literature.

These will be institutional signs, visible in the worlds of commerce and of academic bureaucracy.

But there is another sign by which we shall know that Italian American literature has reached its appropriate audience. Young people will debate the meanings of words they read in the texts of Pietro Di Donato and the locations of places described in the fiction of Helen Barolini. Poets will recite from memory famous poems of Diane Di Prima or John Ciardi. Some people will prefer one school of poets, and some another. These will be considered serious matters, worthy of public discussion.

These fantasies are not very far from the reality we have already begun to see. The age of the Internet is making it possible for people to find each other’s writings much more easily and on any basis . Already we have Italian American booksellers. Barnes & Noble and Amazon have been good sources for our books. But we also have Maryann Calendrille, Jim Periconi, Susan Barile, and Vito DeSimone conducting brisk businesses in Italian American books. We will feature the art of buying books in future episodes of "The Three Rules."

The Three Rules of IAWA. Copyright Robert Viscusi June 13, 2000

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