“My experience of literary festivals has always been a conflicting one… On one hand, I have found them to be very superficial, just an excuse for partying, PR and in-group networking (especially on the part of the writers); on the other hand, I have been struck by the quality of a few encounters I've had in each one...”
Vivek Narayanan, Writer
This underlying paradox of literary festivals is what makes them a fascinating conundrum, especially in India where this relatively young phenomenon is beginning to grow on readers, writers and the publishing industry. Of the eighty literary festivals (and more) across the globe, India is home to so many: Besides the mother of them of all, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), there is the Hay Festival Kerala, the Kovalam festival, the Kala Ghoda, Poetry with Prakriti, Kritya Festival of Poetry, the relatively younger Muse India Hyderabad Literary festival and so on.
So, what do literary festivals achieve? Do they, as Narayanan, also co-editor of Almost Island, notes, promote superficial in-group networking? Now if they do, what is wrong with that?
Commerce of writing
Perhaps it is this ‘networking' that does wonders for the ‘writing industry'. Author and literary agent Mita Kapur says that literary festivals further the ‘commerce of writing'. “Books sell and it benefits authors, publishers and readers,” she points out. As someone who co-directed JLF in its early days and now directs Mountain Echoes, a literary festival in Bhutan, and as an invited writer to this year's JLF and Kala Ghoda, Kapur should know.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge the revenues that such events bring to the table — for the publishing industry or the tourism and travel industry. This year, the JLF reported book sales of over Rs. 30 lakhs in five days, confirms Sanjoy Roy of Team Work Productions, the producer of JLF and the Hay Festival, Kerala.
At the same time, I cringe (perhaps naively) when using terms like ‘industry' or ‘commerce' in the context of literature. The challenge, therefore, lies in ensuring that literary festivals do much more than just encouraging networking or earning revenue.
Poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria does not think literary festivals are merely networking opportunities: “I don't network, as for me writing is a way of life, not a product!” At the same time, such festivals create abiding literary friendships, says Chabria. “… Because writers work alone and intensely, from time to time, even the most solitary beasts-like myself need sustenance,” she adds.
The writer-to-writer dialogue is something cherished by many for the creative stimulation and inspiration it affords. For novelist Mridula Koshy, literary festivals are important to writers for different reasons than they are to readers. They provide a platform to gain awareness on questions of technique and craft. “I come to get a sense of the landscape I write in, to possibly expand my sense of what that landscape is,” she explains.
What is fascinating is that this process happens in an open and public forum that a ‘festival' is. Koshy also adds, “It is exciting and daunting to think that questions of creativity may be addressed collectively, that larger decisions may be made from the presence of so many imaginations in one space.”
Narayanan, on the other hand, also recalls how the Hay Festival held in Thiruvananthapuram in 2010, gave him invigorating encounters with the audience. He says he was humbled by the earnestness of many who were clearly there to have a more public affirmation of what might normally be a private and personal connection with reading and writing.
This interest in the audience could be introspective and implicit and need not always translate into a reading or an open dialogue with readers. Yet, on the one hand, as Mita Kapur notes, today's writer is out there on the streets wanting to meet her readers and literary festivals fuel these meetings.
Connect with audience
On the other, not all writers are comfortable or even articulate when placed in front of a large audience. “I don't agree that writers can connect with the audience through lit fests because some are incredibly shy. Not all writers are performers,” says Pramod Kumar K. G., who ran the JLF for the first two years.
Peter Griffin, writer and co-curator of the literature section of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai, shares a similar sentiment. He says that one of the things that can go wrong with a literary festival is that it can get in the “wrong people”, quickly adding that the “wrongness may have nothing to do with writing abilities… It just may mean that a particular writer is an excellent communicator through the page, but not as comfortable in person, or in front of an audience.”
So, would the size of a festival become relevant? The Kala Ghoda Festival is often appreciated for its grassroots approach to literature. Kapur, who read there this year in fact, hopes that the organisers will retain its charm forever.
Then, there are events like the Almost Island Dialogues, an annual gathering that happens in Delhi, of a small group of writers and readers. Anybody who has been to the Dialogues would affirm the intensity and seriousness of this no-frills event. Sharmistha Mohanty, Editor, Almost Island, who organises the event, is keen on retaining the intimacy: “The Dialogues have been small and intimate… They are defiant in the face of commercialisation of literature,” she says. Perhaps this is why they prefer not to use the ‘ Festival' tag?
When the JLF was created, it was a very intimate gathering of writers too, with 18 speakers or so. This year, there were over 200 authors. Yet, the issue is not that literary festivals are growing.
Growth is good and positive. Pramod Kumar says that the JLF has not become too big. It's just that the event has enormously outgrown its venue. “Our festival attendance has been growing in leaps and bounds outstripping our predictions of number of visitors year after year,” adds Sanjoy Roy.
The challenge from the organiser's point of view lies not only in coping with issues of space or sponsorship, but also in likely structural inequalities inherent in a literary festival. The inequality between writing in our regional languages and in English, or even between poetry and prose.
Narayanan thinks that these inequalities may not be something that the festival organisers consciously encourage. In fact they might even try actively to work against them but they nevertheless continue to haunt every festival.
However, it could also be that the perceived inequality between regional and English writing in India, for instance, is fuelled by the lack of comprehensive reporting by the media. Most media do not feature enough stories about the sessions on regional language literature.
It is perhaps to tackle the divide between poetry and prose that there are festivals dedicated to a select genre like the Poetry with Prakriti festival in Chennai. The festival invites poets from myriad corners and hosts readings in the most interesting and yet whacky spaces.
But does poetry need festivals? Yes, says poet Karthika Nair who was invited to read at both Prakriti and JLF this year. “Poetry needs to be present not just in the pages of a book, but also in the ears and memories of potential readers.”
Literary festivals owe that responsibility to not only literary genres, but to language and society as well. Any festival that celebrates ideas, encourages debate and dialogue is successful, says Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director JLF. “It resists zombie-like mass culture. In a multilingual culture like ours it's vital that such events connect to the Indian languages and remain rooted in their linguistic heritages,” she adds.
It is down to the specific objective of the organisers in deciding what they hope to achieve through their festival. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, for instance, has a range of objectives, primarily to introduce Scottish writing to a worldwide audience and to introduce writing from around the world to a Scottish audience, says Frances Sutton, Press Manager, Edinburgh International Book Festival. In this process, the organisers have even developed ‘The Word Alliance', a network of international book festivals that work together to introduce their home-grown talent to an international audience, adds Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
A literary festival undoubtedly fuels exchange and dialogue of ideas across boundaries. It is, at the same time, an agent to ensure that society at large keeps reading. But, as poet and veteran invitee to literary festivals K. Satchidanandan notes, seeing and hearing a writer (at a festival) should only complement reading, not replace it. “I will be unhappy if some begin to think that literary festivals are a substitute for reading books,” he says.