Come one, come all

Janice Pariat | Updated on January 25, 2019 Published on December 21, 2018

Not enough: Unimaginative and disorganised programming leaves authors frustrated and confused about their place in literature festivals   -  VITRANC

Why are authors so disenchanted with literary festivals?

My first literary festival was in Italy in October 2013. It was already grey and cold, and I didn’t know a soul at the Internazionale a Ferrara, in the little medieval town of Ferrara in northern Italy. I wandered through its cobbled streets in my inadequate autumn jacket, thrilled and intimidated. My debut book had just been published in India, and this seemed so entirely new and important. No matter that I couldn’t understand a word of Italian, and that I had no idea where to get my free author lunch — I was at a literary festival.

I met writers from around the world, looking coolly confident, as though they’d done this all their lives and knew every appropriate thing to say — on stage and off. My session was held in the vast, stunning Teatro Communale, a baroque opera house from the 1780s, and sitting up there, under the lights, strapped with a mic and headset, I was paralysed: What on earth am I doing here? What could I possibly have to say of any interest to anyone in the audience? My co-panellists, two other Indian authors, were clearly lit fest veterans; I clearly wasn’t. It went all right, I think, I’m not sure.

To be honest, most of it was a heady blur.

Five years on, little has changed. And a lot. I’m still nervous before sessions, still baulk at having to moderate discussions, or be in conversation with an older, more established author. What has changed is that I know more people and no longer slink into the author lounge entirely friendless. I’m also beginning to feel, sadly, more than a little disenchanted by literary festivals. And this for several reasons.

Some festivals are so abysmally disorganised, you wonder whether there has been any amount of planning behind the event. Last year, I attended a festival which slotted my “book launch” at the end of the day’s programme. But by then, it had shut the book stalls and sent off the other participants in a shuttle bus to their respective hotels. Later that night at dinner, we were emailed the “festival schedule” for the next day. Instances like these, and there have been many, make you ask yourself that most existential of questions: Why am I here?

I’m not alone. Recent conversations with other author friends prove the despair is widespread. One flew across the country for a session in which her moderator and co-panellists, who began the discussion in English, broke into Malayalam — a language my friend didn’t understand — and didn’t bother switching back. Another friend was put up in a hotel where onion peels were found strewn across her bed. Others were expected to moderate up to four sessions a day. And, as a particularly put-off writer friend pointed out, “for no money”.

Mostly, though, there’s despair at programming which is often unimaginative or inappropriate. A writer friend who happens to be gay is slotted constantly into panels on LGBT literature. “Women writers” often find themselves on “soft” panels talking on love and relationships, rather than politics or economics. I’ve grown weary of being placed on sessions on the “North-East”. “Young” writers, regardless of what they’ve written, are expected to comment on “new India”.

Only some authors (read mostly white or upper caste male) are granted the freedom to talk about the world. Sometimes we don’t know why we’re on a particular panel — given our work has no connection, thematic or otherwise, to the topic of discussion. Earlier this year, I was slotted into a session on translation. “Why?” I emailed back, confused.

“I neither write in another language other than English nor work on translations.” “Oh,” came the reply, “because your books have been translated.” For the same festival, a friend was asked to be in conversation with a well-known Mexican writer. But, she had to point out, none of his books were available in English translation. Honestly, it would help if festival organisers at least read some of the work by their intended invitees.

Things seem to be far dire for fiction writers. An author friend whose novel was published earlier this year is skipping most festivals this season. “They don’t know what to do with us,” he said. It’s true.

Glance at a lit fest schedule and you’re likely to find issue-based panels on hotly-debated topics rather than ones focused on craft, language, writing, books. Festivals are beginning to feel like newsrooms rather than literary spaces. The trend isn’t entirely surprising. Non-fiction books have come to be seen as more “useful” because they’re considered authentic, verifiable, relevant and have clearer “take-aways”. Fiction, as someone told me at a recent festival dinner, is only imagination. “It doesn’t,” he continued, “teach me anything.”

Literary festivals need to be spaces that challenge this bias, not bolster it by marginalising fiction or subsuming it under an “issue” of the day. I’m not positioning “fiction” as more important than journalism; rather, what is required is for some attempt at balance.

Most (fiction) writers are happy to attend literary festivals.

Just make it worth our while to be there.





Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart;

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on December 21, 2018
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