A writer’s life is necessarily a solitary one however appealing one’s fantasy might be of composing a poem while sitting in a bistro in Paris or jotting down notes for a novel, while nursing a pint in a London pub. How wonderful then to receive an invitation to a literary festival where there will be dozens of writers to meet, publishers’ editors to discuss business with, and best of all, to have materialise before one’s eyes, in flesh and blood, that vast abstraction known as ‘readers’. For a writer, a literary festival is both a validation of his or her status with readers and also an inspirational occasion that induces the gratifying inner conviction that one is not alone; that there are other souls on the planet afflicted with the same lunacy to put words together and enjoy the illusion of having composed something that will receive the world’s standing ovation.
Although there were public readings, usually by poets, in the past, I don't remember there being literary festivals before, say, 1970. My own writing career began in the 1960s, when I had invitations to read my poems in many cities in England and acquired enough of a reputation to be invited across the Atlantic to read with other international poets at the Poetry Center at 92Y in New York (1968) and to the Library of Congress in Washington (1970). These two events, each taking place over several days and featuring some of the most celebrated poets of the era – from France, Japan, Israel, Yugoslavia, Ecuador and Chile, with whom I felt honoured to be representing Pakistan – were the closest to the idea of a modern literary festival.
The Poetry Center had been made famous by Dylan Thomas appearing there in the 1950s, shortly before alcoholism killed him in a hotel in New York. When I appeared there on the evening of my reading with two other poets,before we walked out to the stage, we found a full bottle of Johnny Walker at our disposal in the green room where we waited, and were marked that that must have been a practice established during Thomas’ visit. The event at the Poetry Center had been written about in the New York papers, and there were lavish parties, of which I'm proud to say the best was the cocktail party given by the Pakistan consulate on the day of my reading.
The event at the Library of Congress – again restricted to international poets – resembled a modern literary festival even more, though it remained a celebration exclusively of poetry, which was heard much more seriously than it is now. And the poets who had been invited, both at the New York Poetry Center and at the Library of Congress, were not there to fulfill some politically correct agenda but because the organisers had one principal aim — to bring to the American audience poets they considered eminent in their language. This idea of inviting writers of distinction was not taken up by literary festivals.
One began to hear of literary festivals in the 1970s, particularly the one in Toronto,which became famous among writers and remains a model for other festivals. The first time I was invited to Toronto,some 30 years ago, there were about 50 other writers; the second time, a dozen years later, there were twice the number, so popular was the Toronto festival with writers,their publishers and enthusiastic Canadian book lovers who came in droves, paid a not-so-insignificant entrance fee and bought several books to have them signed by their authors.
The Toronto festival was organised on a grand scale. Writers checked into the appointed luxury hotel where they could spend the entire week during the festival even though they were scheduled for only one 20-minute performance and a book-signing session. Before the readings in the evenings,all the writers were driven to dinner at first class restaurants – a different one each night – and after the evening's performance they could go to what was called the ‘hospitality suite’ at the hotel where an unlimited amount of whichever drink one desired was available for as long into the night as the visiting writers wished to spend their time talking to one another.
During the day, writers were free to explore Toronto or to join bus tours taking them to tourist attractions. And finally, everyone was invited to be driven to Niagara Falls, which – the month being October and Canada’s maple trees in gorgeous autumn display – was a beautiful drive followed by the magnificent sight of the Falls.
All this wonderful hospitality was not cheap. The Toronto Festival paid the writers’ airfares whether they came from Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro, and each writer was given enough dollars with which to explore Toronto during the day as well as to buy their lunch. Funding came from sponsors.
After the 1980s, more and more cities caught on to the notion that literary festivals were a fairly cheap investment that paid off handsomely: festivals brought them global attention, boosted their economy, entertained their population, made the cities feel an important part of the international scene and,best of all, enhanced the image of the nation by portraying it as culturally advanced. We were now in the middle of the digital revolution and though e-books were yet to begin supplanting the traditional book, publishers found literary festivals a significant component of their marketing strategy.
While virtual reality was about to overwhelm us, literary festivals maintained our sense of the old physical reality, for there we could pick up a real book, meet the real person who had written it and get the writer to sign the book, which would be a prized possession to pass on to our grandchildren who would gaze at it with wonder and pride.
But here’s the flip side. Before literary festivals became common, similar events were rare and usually involved only internationally acclaimed writers. In London in the 60s, there were many local poetry readings attended by 30 or 40 people who listened politely, applauded softly and quietly went away, there being no book signing. But only two major events remain in one’s memory from that decade: one that filled the Festival Hall on the South Bank and another that packed the Albert Hall, where it was thrilling to see and hear the likes of W H Auden and Pablo Neruda. Only writers of established international repute were invited to perform.
At present, with the proliferation of festivals, that thrill has been vastly diminished since festivals are overrun by hordes of writers whose only distinction is that they have recently published a book which they have come to promote; and among them the few familiar names are of writers who are currently popular or have acquired some notoriety unconnected with literature and this group appears almost everywhere,from Toronto to Sydney, Paraty to Jaipur, Edinburgh to this small provincial city where I live — Austin,Texas, which too has a literary festival that attracts scores of writers each November.
Where great writers like Neruda appeared to enrich our experience of their work when we heard them read, writers at literary festivals are primarily there to promote their work — and much of that work, I'm sorry to say, is destined for the trash heap. The popular obsession with wanting to possess a book with the autograph of the author on the flyleaf helps drive up sales, and therefore book signings at literary festivals are of important commercial significance to publishers.I am aware that my reference to ‘hordes of writers’must sound snootily elitist; I know, of course, that among them there could be the next Neruda and that democratically, it is appropriate and politically correct for every new writer to be given a chance in the spotlight.
But the model for such indiscriminate inclusiveness is the capitalist notion of letting the market decide what holds the most value; and the occasion –instead of being a festival that celebrates literature – becomes a promotional fair given the rather grand title of ‘Literary Festival’ that prompts in the mind of the public making its annual pilgrimage the charming illusion that it is privileged to be among the elect.
Publishers urge writers to goon a book tour, appear at as many literary festivals as possible and give interviews on local public radio stations.Festivals have become an important part of public relations, but not to promote good literature as much as to sell more books to a public attract-ed by the personality of a writer and no longer by a reasoned critical evaluation.
A former literary agent of mine once said that one small paragraph of gossip in People magazine sold more books than a favourable full-page review in the New York Times.Personality sells.
Literary festivals play to the cult of personality. The first time I appeared in Toronto, it was only to read and sign books. The second time, it was also to sit before an audience and be interviewed. I expected that no one would want to buy an entrance ticket in order to hear me answer questions put by an interviewer and was shocked, when I went on stage,to see that there was quite a full house with a television camera set up to record the event. I realised that we now lived in the age of television talk shows, that trivial gossipy chat now passed for intellectual relevance and that banality was confounded with seriousness.
Personality interviews are everywhere. A tennis player wins a match and is instantly interviewed; a soprano is about to go onstage for an opera that is being televised and is interviewed with such profound questions as how she has prepared for the role — wherever there is a personality, there is someone nearby, microphone in hand, with a question which is invariably inane and often downright stupid. During public performances, I have never been asked a question of any literary significance; what most people in any audience seem to want is trivial chit-chat as if that is some-how going to illuminate one’s literary work.
Another act that became common at literary festivals was the panel discussion. Some topic, which is inevitably a silly one from the point of view of serious literature, is adopted as a theme for the panel to discuss. A topic that frequently crops up is for a panel of novelists to discuss the future of the novel. The best answer declining an invitation to be on such a panel was given by Nabokov, when he wrote in The Times on May 30, 1962, “I am supremely indifferent to the ‘problems of a writer and the future of the novel’ that are to be discussed at the conference”. A writer by definition can have no interest in talking and readers who imagine their understanding is heightened by some gossipy detail a writer might let slip in an interview are not worth having.
These critical reservations apply more to cities in the Western hemisphere where, I do think, the beautiful idea of a literary festival has been appropriated by business and transformed into a selling opportunity, with only those writers being invited who have a new book to promote. I saw this in Brazil where a literary festival, inaugurated a few years ago, is held annually in the beautiful colonial city of Paraty (pronounced Para-chee), south of Rio, to which any writer would be thrilled to be invited.The media coverage in advance of and during the festival is impressive, with Rio newspapers printing literary essays of high intellectual content; the more distinguished of the visiting writers are treated as celebrities; the bookshops display heaps of books by participating writers. There is a feverish excitement among book lovers who throng to Paraty. It truly seems like a festival. But again, what is staged as a celebration of literature is essentially a homage to the god of commerce. In the end, it is all about selling books.
For the occasion to be a real festival, the invitees should include, first of all, two or three of the very best writers in the world. Secondly, a small group of writers native to the country where the festival is being held ought to be presented to showcase the nation's contribution to world literature And thirdly,the invitees should include two other groups: one drawn from those whose talent has been attracting increasing attention and from whom a major new work might emerge and the other drawn from the youngest generation whose early work shows a promising freshness.
I observed some of that freshness at the first two Karachi festivals that I was privileged to attend. For me personally, it was emotionally poignant and intellectually thrilling to meet Pakistani writers half my age whose work reverberated with the ring of distinction. I also thought the idea of running a creative writing workshop for students was an excel-lent event to add to a literary festival and I hope it will become a regular part of the programme in future festivals. It is excellent because it creates an opportunity for an older, established writer to pass on to the young the best of what he has learned over a lifetime of practising his art, and for the students, the vivid living experience of having their work critiqued by the author, even when the criticism seems cruelly severe, can be a source of lasting inspiration.
Surely, book selling and book signing should remain an essential part of a literary festival; but we should never forget that what drives us to come together in joyous celebration is the supreme pleasure the human mind derives from a work of art. There are other reasons,too, of course. In a country like Pakistan, with such a troubled history, cultural involvement of the kind fostered by literary festivals can have a uniting and positive effect. The more other cities follow Karachi’s example, the better it will be for the nation.
More festivals in Pakistan will have the positive effect of letting the world see us for who we really are. Not the thugs who shoot girls going to school. Not the poor indoctrinated kids sent to blow themselves up among Shias. But a highly cultured people who have created, are now creating, and will continue to create works of art of great beauty. How many nations can claim that they have taken the language of their former colonial rulers and are producing a literature in it that surpasses that being produced by writers native to the language?
The writer is the author of twelve books of fiction, six volumes of poetry, five of literary criticism and an autobiography written in his twenties.
This article was published in the Herald's March 2013 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.