The James River Writers, gearing up for its sixth season, has attempted to unite Richmond's eclectic diaspora of novelists, journalists, poets and speechwriting/rant-raving/romance-spinning aficionados. If there's a unified front for Richmond's writers, it's JRW (this writer joined the board recently).
But being wayward and opinionated sorts, not all writers will join the herd. The community has split into various factions: those who religiously attend the workshops on perspective; those who refuse to comply with the organization's laws of grammar and publishing; and those who just want to sit down to their computer and write quietly.
"Everyone knows writing is a solitary pursuit, but JRW believes you can best succeed as a writer by being part of a gang," JRW co-chair Virginia Pye says. "We're unique in that we are geared toward professional writers while also offering concrete encouragement to aspiring writers trying to achieve their dreams."
Whether you love the group, hate it or don't know anything about it, there's no denying the James River Writers has stirred Richmond's literary pot and added a lot of new ingredients to the mix. Offshoots such as the Just Poetry Slam and The Writing Show draw large crowds every month. Likewise, annual events such as Virginia Arts and Letters Live, the People's Choice Awards and the two-day conference in October -- which has offered such draws as Tom Robbins and Jeannette Walls have become increasingly popular with people of letters throughout the commonwealth.
And yet, for all this organization, Richmond is still without a literary journal, save for VCU's Blackbird, an online semiannual publication.
Plays well with others: B
Whether our Capital of the South moniker is our greatest boon or an Achilles' heel, Richmond rates a slow second in Virginia's race for literary enlightenment. March marks Charlottesville's 14th annual Virginia Festival of the Book the largest book festival in the mid-Atlantic region. It will not only last for five full days, but also be almost entirely free. That's not to mention U.Va.'s nationally recognized fount of fiction, poetry and journalism, the 82-year-old Virginia Quarterly Review, or the 25-year-old Young Writers Workshop.
Richmond's exposure to big-name ink is more scattered, but consistent. So far, the biggest names coming to town in 2008 are not even arriving via our literary community. Azar Nafisi, best-selling author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," will headline at St. James's Episcopal Church's WomanKind conference Feb. 15; the University of Richmond's Office of the Chaplaincy is slated to host California native and spiritual memoir maven Anne Lamott March 5. Likewise, Maya Angelou graced us with her presence in November thanks to the nonprofit Family Lifeline.
Of course, Richmond lays claim to the Library of Virginia and our independent bookstores, from Fountain to the Chop Suey family, from Black Swan to Book People to Creatures 'n Crooks. Those places have loads of local character, and take an interest through a variety of events.
Potential for development: A
If no potential Pulitzer is unearthed this year in Style Weekly's sixth annual Fiction Contest, Richmond magazine's second annual Unpublished Novel Contest or VCU's seventh annual First Novelist Award, there's still hope to find a diamond in the rough via the Edgar Allan Poe Museum's Young Writers' Conference, a week-long residential conference for teenagers directed by Poe's own cousin, Harry Lee Poe.
Or perhaps SlamRichmond, available every Saturday night in 2008, will return triumphant from the National Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam in Columbus, Ohio, or the inaugural Women of the World Poetry Slam in Detroit. "For its third season, SlamRichmond is taking a huge step toward its goal of putting the River City's spoken word poetry scene on the map," says Tom Sanchez Prunier, the group's founder.
If the Internet is the portal to the future of the book, Richmond's literary presence is alive and kicking. RVABlogs displays links to 225 local blogs that service nearly every neighborhood in our region, wax poetic and deliver more than anyone's fair share of the daily dish. Ross Catrow, editor of RVA Blogs (www.rvablogs.com), says that community blogs, the lion's share of which were started in 2007, won't replace newspapers, but "are so much more local and timely than the RT-D." He predicts a major growth spurt in the political nature of blogs this year, regarding both the upcoming presidential and mayoral elections. Unadulterated, AP-style-free opinion continues to reign supreme in Richmond's growing blogosphere.
There's no doubt we've come a long way, baby, but we can't completely lose the three R's to the three W's. While the writer's strike rages in Hollywood, Richmonders must not loosen their grip on the mighty pen. Or, sure, the mighty keyboard. We must back our literary scene by actually buying books (not just coffee) at bookstores, by attending the events our literati have created, by pushing for new forums for the written or spoken word. And maybe find a way to get those voices on the computer screen together with those springing from the page.
Valley Haggard, at work on her first novel, is Style Weekly's book editor and a new member of the JRW Board.