Winter Words: Are Lit Fests Good For Literature?

“To have a serious discussion on literature, the market would have to be literate. Filling such a gap in the mass market is a challenge, so the event manager demands altering the format to satisfy people who feel literate without actually reading. The only way to do this is to talk about topics tangential to literature – but not actually literature.”

SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>

Before I moved here, the Calcutta I experienced was a city in eternal winter, my parents bringing my brother and me along when our Canadian home was too cold for them to bear. Stuck with my uncle’s joint family in the North Calcutta neighbourhood of Amherst Street, I was cramped, uncomfortable, disoriented and mostly sick. So, books – some school, others novels – were my only escape; they comprised my survival kit in a place that challenged me on many levels.

Calcutta’s “boi-para”, College Street where small publishing still thrives – Google

Then, as now, Calcutta was a city of contrasts. Despite the blackouts, I recall the lights of Park Street reflected in the smog, shimmering in the night’s sky as though the heavens had been painted by the tail of a comet. Daylight brought the sun and Bhetki fish fry, the odd trip to the zoo or Belur Math – but more importantly local books, the gulleys along College Street lined with them. Then there were the endless discussions over tea and coffee. First, I listened to the adults; later, participated in the Adda. Capped off with Boi Mela or the Book Fair, the Calcutta I enjoyed was almost exclusively a winter of words.

Much has changed since those pre-liberalization days of want and worry. The ubiquitous Ambassador car has given way to Maruti Swifts on one end, Benzes and Jaguars on the other. Though many publishers fled to Delhi amidst Calcutta’s Red-era bleakness, College Street is still a torrent of pages and people – and the season of books remains entrenched.

Today, no less than three literature festivals take place during a short span of 30 days beginning in the second week of January. First is the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, which is run by Oxford Bookstore. This leads to the 23rd-26th holiday, which has become the nesting time for the Kolkata Literary Meet (or Kalam), the season being bookended by the Kolkata Literature Festival, taking place during the International Book Fair as the Bengali month of Magh ends (usually) in early February.

While Winter of Words once belonged exclusively to Calcuttans, other cities are claiming the moniker. Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram – even Guwahati and Goa have literature festivals that draw in enthusiastic crowds. And then there’s Jaipur, which at nine days has become a landing and take-off point for over well over a hundred literary delegates (most of them writers) each year. It’s clear that even as post-liberalization boom industries like outsourcing seem to be leveling off, literature festivals are sprouting up like dandelions on Kentucky Bluegrass.

The question is – are more people actually reading, as a result? And, if so, what are they reading? Also, these days, when film stars, politicians – and even Baba Ramdev qualify as delegate, it begs the question, what qualifies as literature? What impact does the literary festival have?

First, let’s consider the quantitative question: The statistical group Nielson has stated that, indeed, book sales are up in India – and set to grow by 19% per year through to 2020. Education, however, dominates these figures attracting 94% of the activity.  Of the remaining 6%, trade publications, the bulk lies in non-fiction, biography and popular fiction, though the success of Indian names in the literary genre means that the literary writer may well have escaped the endangered species list for now.

Crowd at JLF, which organizers advertise as “The Greatest Lit Fest on Earth” – Google

That doesn’t mean the literature festival celebrates the literary. Increasingly, space is ceded to make such events more ‘interesting’ and ‘cool’. This is especially true in India where pulp writer Chetan Bhagat can get up in front of a crowd at Jaipur to show videos of his critics in order make fun of them – that too, to thunderous applause. It follows that what qualifies as literary theatre has come a long way from the tame venues of bookstores and libraries. And such ‘progress’ shows no signs of slowing down.

The appetite for such spectacle explains why it is challenging to find a festival on books and authors in India that doesn’t rely heavily on ‘philmy types’, politicians, stand-up comedians, motivational speakers and other celebrities. Plus: it isn’t enough for writers to read from their works and interact with audience members, there must be song, dance, exhibitions and the like, for literature is merely a point of convergence around which other things, ostensibly artsy, coalesce. And, like a curry with too much oil, the din of the literate becomes thick and heavy. The show overwhelms, weighs us down. So, we sit in the bowels of the arena, awaiting the next highly anticipated appearance, culminating in some show-stopper of a performance.

The talk, though, is not to be outdone. In the era of Arnab Goswami, Rajdeep Sardesai (dare I say Karan Johar?) there must be some talk-show type ‘debate’ or discussion on the more sensational end of collective cultural dialogue. How else could dumbgazes be so surgically separated from the screens or smartphones?

There is an argument to be made that it’s all about commercial viability – and to promote literature, one needs the sizzle. Jaipur is a case in point: despite being a showcase for arts in general and having grown exponentially since its founding year in 2006, the festival struggles to make a profit. It is, after all, expensive to fly in delegates, the more high-profile guests demanding first-class plane tickets (in some cases, appearance fees) and provide luxury hospitality and accommodations. The other festivals, which followed Jaipur, faced a similar dilemma. This has prompted them to cooperate, pooling resources and sharing expenses – for authors with new books out, the promotional budgets of publishers are tapped.

I’ve attended festivals and symposia at which literature is the sole focus; closed sessions for writers only with open sessions involving readings and audience questions. While the footfalls are more modest, to my mind, the intimate atmosphere is more engaging. These enriching experiences have tended to be organized in the not-for-profit sector or by institutes of higher education. But, whether organized by a for profit or not-for-profit, a lit fest is usually a money-losing proposition.

Enter the event-manager…  These marketing professionals usually have some connection to the commercial side of media, and understand that name and profit are gained from attracting the widest possible section of the market. To have a serious discussion on literature, said market would have to be literate. Filling such a gap in the mass market is a challenge, so the event manager demands altering the format to satisfy people who feel literate – without actually reading. The only way to do this is to talk about topics tangential to literature – but not actually literature.

And, with social media making a spectacle of our daily lives, the potential of a selfie with someone famous, holds much allure to many. So, bring in the actors and models – even gurus and reality TV ‘stars’ qualify – because however connected to books the modern lit fest may be, a stage, these days, increasingly means only one thing in India: showbiz. Let’s remember, JLF is marketed as “the greatest lit show on Earth” – whatever that means, and that elder statesman of media, The Times of India Group has an event they call a ‘literary carnival’. If you’re sensing a circus theme here, you are not alone!

“The greatest lit show on Earth”, JLF plays host to Rajasthani folk dancers – an event, which is ever more a cultural festival than merely a celebration of the written word                                            – Google

GHOSTS OF FESTIVALS PAST –

MARGARET ATWOOD

My first literature festival as press was the Ottawa Writers’ Festival. I showed up early, and happened to be in the greenroom when Margaret Atwood entered as though she’d glided in from another dimension. Sipping wine, she caught me staring – and smiled. I waved but couldn’t  quite muster the courage to go up to her, just then. Instead, I watched as fans casually approached, copies of her books in hand, exchanging a few words and leaving with her signature.

As her readers chatted with her about her works, I observed that while Atwood had arrived somewhat worn and weary, her face beamed as she connected with people who’d been affected by her words. It was kind of wonderful to watch… Later, I had as brief a conversation with her but, like other fans, will remember the experience for the rest of my life.

AN ABSENT SALMAN RUSHDIE

The modern lit fest in India purports to take on issues – and they do – but ironically, they tend to shy away from the most important one for writers: freedom of expression. At the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2013 (my first year as delegate) the buzz had been about Salman Rushdie. He was due to make an impromptu (read that to mean planned) appearance but of the two big M. Banerjees clashing over this (the festival director and Chief Minister, both being M. Banerjees) Chief Mamata had won out over Director, Malavika – and Rushdie was not only excommunicated from the festival but he was also banned from the city.  Around the same time, author and intellectual, Ashish Nandy was unceremoniously escorted out of JLF for a quote on corruption being an equalizer for disadvantaged communities having been taken sorely out of context by the fourth estate.

Somewhat baffled by the Rushdie ban, I wandered into the writers’ lounge when one of the participants of a panel discussion I’d moderated earlier invited me to join in on a discussion she was having. She’d been turning over the day’s events with a prominent Kolkata author and former Oxford University professor as well as a well-known TV-journalist from Delhi.  They must be up in arms about the censorship, I thought. But, I was aghast to find that they were criticizing Rushdie as an attention-seeker, pausing only to rubbish Nandy as a contrarian Bengali intellectual (particularly derisive was the intellectual Bengali author, ironically).

The news anchor opined that Nandy deserved to be imprisoned for his deeply offensive words. At the time, I didn’t know that Nandy’s remarks had been taken grossly out of context – but I challenged the journalist saying, even if Nandy had said something inaccurate or biased or terribly offensive, didn’t he have the right to say it and be forced to defend his views from critics?

Adam Foulds in conversation with Amit Chaudhuri at the Kolkata Literary Festival. The stage is already set-up for the band, which would give a concert after the author interactions – File

As many in the media do over here, she answered my question with a question: “What if a person or persons in America said, ninety percent of blacks in America are criminals – what would happen to them?”

I responded that they’d be vilified in the press, people would likely take to the streets in protest – but they wouldn’t be hauled in front of a judge or put in jail. She didn’t buy it. Turns out, I, too was wrong: knowing what we all know now about American politics, I should have said, if someone (preferably a white male) said ninety percent of blacks were crooked, he could probably make a decent run for the White House!

Frivolities aside, I was shaken that in a city known for poets, dramatists, and avant-garde film-makers, someone could be thrown out for writing a work of fictional prose – and this, too, without heavy condemnation by the arts community. I shouldn’t have been so surprised in retrospect: In 1988, writers (mostly non-Muslim, by the way) had been among the first to urge then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to ban the Satanic Verses when it came out. Something of this attitude – that it’s alright to put a lid on ‘offensive’ speech – has slowly stained the fabric of literary discourse in this country. And, the India’s complicated laws, cloaked by the motivation to maintain public order, have been and continue to be used as a weapon for the suppression of words since colonial times.

I fear the momentum of certain memories has carried me away from a central question: are literary festivals good for literature? In this, I must return to the smaller venues, touched upon earlier at which authors were required to read, questions were confined to the content, and personality didn’t enter into the fray.

AKHIL SHARMA AND JEFFREY ARCHER

I recall two readings at different fora thousands of miles apart – not only in distance but also in the work of the authors – that illustrate well the value the literary appreciation.

After I’d done a reading in Norwich, England, I listened as Indian American author, Akhil Sharma, read from his then new novel, Family Life. Breaking up the reading with commentary, a professor of creative writing as well as author, he spoke about his creative intentions, technique, and execution – and then discussed how his real-life background mirrored the story. Later, he described the internal struggle that led to creating the work. It was such a clean rendition – and that too, sans moderator – that one was left both satiated and wanting, more importantly, informed.

Sharma’s work being literary fiction and (then, anyway) not terribly well sold could not be any more different than that of mega-seller Jeffrey Archer’s – and yet, Archer proceeded to do almost the same thing at another event, which I attended in India. Characteristically, he added a twist, writing something new, apparently, on the spot, and then proceeding to dissect the process. Again came intention and execution, use of detail and distraction.

Regardless of what one might think of Archer or his work (though let me admit that I am an admirer of the latter to be sure) one has to admire how seriously he takes his own process. And that’s really the point: these occasions, at their best, illuminate the reader on a particular aspect of a story or body of work – or the way in which an author approaches writing. The talk or interaction needn’t be all that literary but it should be about content and craft and offer insights unavailable elsewhere. This can create a paradigm-shifting experience for a reader.

SB Veda moderates session with Tash Aw, Shyam Selvidurai & Anita Raghavan at KaLaM – File

JM COETZEE

It is with the search for insight on behalf of the reader and out of loyalty to this city’s Winter of Words that I have reached out to writers in the past. This year’s Kolkata Literature Festival will feature at least one writer whom I connected to organizers.

My efforts, though, haven’t always been so successful. When I met the inestimable JM Coetzee, at a literary conference in the UK, his Nobel Prize and two Bookers having by then been fused to his name, I asked him if he’d consider coming to Calcutta for one of its festivals. Mr. Coetzee, who’d just asked me about the Bengali language and its differences in India and Bangladesh as we chatted over soup and sandwiches, was not terribly enthusiastic. He explained that he’d been to Jaipur, once, and organizers tried to appeal to his serious nature but that all the other activity at the festival detracted from this. In the end, he considered the experience to be literary tourism rather than any actual exploration of literature. That was enough for him for festivals in India.

When I relayed Mr. Coetzee’s reaction back to one of the organizers of a lit fest in Calcutta, she promptly fired back a text : “Tell him we can do something highbrow just for him!”

Yeah, right!

VIKRAM SETH

The first time I heard Vikram Seth speak at a public event, it was at the National Library of Canada, after A Suitable Boy came out. He read from his prose and poetry, and was riveting: theatrical and funny, he as also very insightful. Two decades later, he followed a session I’d moderated at a literature festival in India. His immense intellect seemed restrained that day, preferring as he did to play to the audience.

A young girl who’d come that afternoon with her parents, asked the author of India’s most popular novel about finding a husband, if he could speak to them about marriage, confessing that she was averse to going along with their plans to marry her off in arranged fashion. Ambling into the crowd, he planted himself beside the family, mic in hand, and then proceeded to counsel the mother and father on the benefits of allowing their kids to love as they wanted.

That afternoon, Seth seemed more Oprah than author. As the masses lapped up the performance, I felt something vile and viscous crowning my esophagus. Still, somehow I forced myself to gulp down, and stood up along with all the others when it was time to give a standing ovation…

ROBERTSON DAVIES

Ultimately, a discussion of literature, its forms and craft, by those who hold the pen, contains within it, ample space to create the experiences that both avid readers and the literary-curious seek. I’m put in mind of writers like the late Robertson Davies for whom a public reading was theatre. When he read, one could simply close one’s eyes and experience his storytelling transport oneself through power of word, voice, pacing, intonation and emotion, to Deptford or any other setting in his works. His work and rendering of it were enough to keep audiences captivated. No need for sizzle!

In short, by relying on elements beyond the writer and her words to attract crowds, organizers are selling the audience short. The event managers need to give the fans more credit than to dumb down the programmes. And, there is no need to stretch to find ‘creative’ themes to fit a programme or even a single session. Better just to let the writers tell their stories, and the stories behind them. We all, marketing pros included, might find that’s quite enough. It surely is for this city’s Winter of Words.

Throngs of citizens of the state within a state: that land of books that is Boi Mela, 2017 – Google

Addendum: How it all started

The dawn of the literature festival in India, at least according to most, was heralded in by the gregarious British author, William Dalrymple when he co-founded the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2006 – but people have short memories.

The oldest celebration of books was actually an improbably practical outcome a Calcutta Coffeehouse Adda in which certain young publishers brainstormed about how they might create a forum where book lovers of all stripes could be exposed to the widest range of books, coalescing to browse, hear authors speak, exchange ideas – and most of all, buy books. They envisaged a mela modeled on the Frankfurt Book fair.  The following year, the Publisher’s Guild was formed; in 1976, the first Calcutta Book Fair took place.

Some four decades later, with the title changed to reflect the current civic nomenclature, the International Kolkata Book Fair has grown into the largest non-trade book fair in the world.

The book fair or Boi Mela as it is better known in local vernacular has for long contained many of the elements of the modern literature festival with readers getting the opportunity to meet authors who would be in town to launch their books or come as part of the theme country delegation, and discussions were organized around both the literary and specific subjects.

Notably, in 1988, Mahasweta Devi, spoke at Boi Mela at a time when she was a left-wing subversive, telling the stories of migrants and indigenous peoples. Not long before her death in 2016, she had become an elder in the left movement, and by then had received not only the Sahetya Akademi award but also India’s highest honour, the Padma Vibhushan. But at Boi Mela, she was simply a writer speaking her mind, and it would be a sign of things to come.

Today, Boi Mela also contains a separate literature festival appended to the fair at which the more commercial and stage-managed elements grab the attention like the crash of a falling stack of hardbacks. It’s a compact affair but increasingly garnering higher profile delegates. Still, authors continue to launch books during the general mela – and discussions are organized throughout.

What has remained at Boi Mela as a space for books is almost state within this state – where the only qualification for citizenry is desire to read. The space offers the opportunity to browse, read, walk, eat, drink and carry on the conversations that typify Bengali culture: the Adda. This, after all is at the heart of any literary festival, the chance to read, meet literary types – and most of all, word away a day about words.

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