Lit fests have become schmoozing get-togethers. They need to be rethought

The Bollywoodisation of literary festivals is ongoing. There is always a need for the presence of a film star. Whether they really engage with books or ideas is irrelevant.
Last Updated : 16 December 2023, 20:24 IST

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When December dawns in Chennai, afficionados of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam look forward to a month of performances. From being an event catering to those in and around Chennai, the music season grew to draw audiences from Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, etc. When the cultural elite who migrated to the West became financially stable, coming to Chennai for the season became an annual ritual for them. Most people connected with these art forms see January 1 or thereabouts as the end point of their artistic immersion. Little do they know that once this season ends, another begins -- one that is quite unconnected to the talas and ragas of December. The Literary Festival season!

I don’t even know when it actually begins or ends! If you add all the spin-off online and offline events to the actual festivals, then the entire year seems to be full of literary festivals. Big cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Jaipur, smaller cities such as Lucknow, Bhubaneshwar, Pondicherry, hill stations like Ooty, Dehradun, and even remote locations such as Corbett are hosting literary festivals. On the surface, this seems like a very good trend. Imagine a country that is so robustly engaged in literature! But the truth lies elsewhere. Before I proceed any further, I have to confess that I am a participant in this culture that I am critiquing.

These festivals have become a compulsive disorder of sorts, and the psychological pressure on authors to be present in these weekend jaunts is immense. Everyone who writes desires an invitation. And if one is not received, then jealousy mounts. Barring a few significant exceptions, most of these festivals are schmoozing get-togethers. You want your picture alongside other so-called intellectuals, to be sitting in on panels of assumed significance and part of the Page Three happenings that follow every evening. One can argue that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Of course, this is perfectly fine as long as we are all aware of what we are doing. But this is not the case.

We have convinced ourselves that these conversations are significant, even though they are often tiring and pointless. Eloquence and pedantic humour holding fort rather than substantial substance. Between multiple other sessions of mundanity, there will be moments of brilliance from an author. But these flashes of magic are accidents and surprises rather than the norm. There is something intrinsically wrong with the environment created in these festivals. Much like music, the ambience matters for thoughtful sharing. And this does not suddenly happen at the venue. It begins much before; from the first conversation authors have with the organiser about their participation. We know the weightiness of the event even before we arrive.

The curation is abysmal at times. No thought is put into what is to be discussed by whom. It is more like the names that they want are first listed, an ‘interesting’ panel cobbled together and then a topic conjured up. Authors are sometimes stuck with conversationists who know little about the book and the questions are clearly coming out of Google. We all know this, yet we go: to be seen, hang out with friends and have a paid holiday.

Authors are not innocent beings, either. They can be as self-indulgent as film stars! Don’t let the content of a book fool you into believing that a writer is grounded. The lavishness in these literary festivals can be staggering. If only some amount of that money could be used to promote the non-bestselling, yet valuable, books and support publishers and authors! But, this is a difficult argument to make because defenders will inform me that these events help sustain the larger eco-system. I am not convinced.

Publishers, too, want to be present. They will confess in private that excepting a few literary festivals, most others do not really yield very high returns in terms of sales. Yet, the publisher cannot be seen missing. The hope is that the publicity that is generated at these festivals spills over to the marketplace.

The Bollywoodisation of literary festivals is ongoing. There is always a need for the presence of a film star. Whether they really engage with books or ideas is irrelevant. Alongside movie stars are politicians, who use these platforms to fight their party battles. Phrases like ‘idea of India’ will be used, history will be recalled, but nothing will go beyond their own political needs. I am sure trained historians, political and social scientists often watch these debates in disbelief. I can reel off every general discussion topic that festival organisers come up with in order to accommodate these folks.

Sponsors may have a role in making such invitations a necessity. Everyone wants crowd-pullers. Questions like number of footfalls will be put forth by corporations before they dole out the cash. In order to satisfy these needs, festival organisers have to make compromises. But this is a fine balance, and I am afraid that we are now teetering on the edge, if we haven’t fallen off already. Today, little differentiates literary festivals and media conclaves. Then there is the obvious English bias. These events are for English publications and authors. The regional languages are treated like an extra-curricular subject. Regional writers, unless it is someone like Perumal Murugan, also find themselves marginalised.

There is a need for publishers, writers and literary festival organisers to rethink these gatherings. If literary festivals turn into reality shows to provide noisy applause and titillation, then they have failed. My critique is not literary elitism, it is a demand for literary seriousness.

Published 16 December 2023, 20:24 IST

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