When a literary festival hits town I always take those days off and spend them listening to the talks and meeting whoever I can. I have been going to Mumbai’s Literature Live since it began and this year I attended Jaipur literary festival, which bills itself as the biggest free literary festival in the world. It certainly lived up to its billing. I have never stood in so many queues in my life.
Crowds everywhere at Jaipur
Jhumpa Lahiri speaks at Jaipur
Of course, I enjoy it. Listening to writers, discussing books, interacting with the literary community – which writer does not enjoy that?
In the last year or so literary festivals have been booming in India, every small town is proudly holding them. Srinagar had a literary festival. The Bombay Gym club had a literary festival. They are everywhere and extremely well attended. Jaipur had two lakh people this year.
So of course, they are cutting edge, right? Well, no. Not really.
It’s not what they are saying. It’s what they are not saying.
Literary festivals in India – I have no idea about anywhere else – are a closed eco system – shut off from the outside world.
Inside the festivals you have thousands of young writers, dying to catch the nod of an agent or publisher. Outside, in the real world – publishing is in the throes of change and not doing well at all. Privately, even publishers admit to that.
In the festivals every young author who has got a three book deal is invited to grace the stage, but some things are never mentioned. No one talks of eBooks, or the internet – or worse – self publishing. The changes which are sweeping the world are non-existent here.
The bookshops sell physical books, which is fine, but they don’t sell Wink, Infibeam, Kobo or Kindle eBook readers alongside. Here, however, they don’t exist.
It bothers me when the panelists in a session know nothing at all about the subject they are supposed to talk about. Who choses these panels?
In the Mumbai festival there was a panel on fantasy writing – a favorite read of mine – and at one point the foreign moderator asked, “Does fantasy sell?” What was she doing on the panel if she did not know the answer to that? Well, no one answered that question that day.
If you want to know the answer it’s only too easy to find.
What sells superbly well in India, even though publishers until a few years ago were saying, no one will read it? Mythology.
What sells all over the world despite the mystification of the publishing world? Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings. The biggest bestsellers lists of any time have a very healthy dose of fantasy.
This year in Jaipur there was a session on short stories. I had to stand in queues a mile long, in the rain, to get in and then I had to stand in the back for quite a while. Was it worth my while?
One writer on the panel said openly, I don’t know why I am here because I don’t write short stories. Another writer, who had published a book of shorts a long time ago, said there was no market for short stories.
And she was right. Publishers don’t publish short stories. There is no print market for them.
That is, if you ignore the internet, where there are hundreds of websites which – gasp – pay – for short stories and whole communities devoted to them.
But, of course, the internet does not exist in the minds of Literary Festivals.
It’s a world of publishers and the authors they publish.
Never mind that publishers are struggling under the costs of bringing out print books which they will then sell to physical bookstores which are cutting back or closing.
The physical book is in trouble under the assault of the eBook.
Bookstores are in trouble under the sweep of the one click shopping sites.
Publishers are feeling the heat from self publishing.
But go to a literary festival and you will see none of that.
So are literary festivals relevant? For entertainment, yes, always. Just don’t mistake that gated community for the whole wide world.