Saturday, October 18, 2008

The world of books and writers

For a writer stuck at his desk for years, a literary festival is an opportunity to meet fellow authors, publishers and readers. But there are downsides too

(Photo of Patrick French)

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1990 when writer Patrick French was just out of college, he attended the world-famous Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales. However, he got a shock when he realised that to attend a talk he would have to pay 12 pounds. But that did not prove a deterrent to the quick-thinking French.

“I noticed that if you walked in through the exit nobody asked you for a ticket,” he says, with a grin, at the Kovalam literary festival. “So I was able to attend several talks.”

In 1991, former diplomat and author Shashi Tharoor was attending the same festival. “The programme advertised a dialogue between the Israeli writer David Grossman and British author Martin Amis,” says Tharoor.

What he found interesting and odd was that numerous policemen and Special Branch agents were hovering around. Everybody assumed it was because of the presence of Grossman.

Suddenly Salman Rushdie appeared on stage. He had been in hiding because of the fatwa issued against him in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’.

“That was extraordinarily exciting,” says Tharoor. “I was in the front row and had a chance to ask him a question and have a chat afterwards. At that time many of us wondered whether we would ever see Rushdie again.”

For French and Tharoor, who have attended dozens of festivals over the years, they have had exciting and not-so-exciting experiences. So what are the pros and cons of attending a festival? Says author Jaishree Mishra: “Since writing is a solitary occupation, you sort of lose touch with what is going on. So it is useful to talk to other writers and feel a sense of camaraderie. It is also a good place to meet publishers.”

At some events, like at the Jaipur festival, last year, agents landed up and authors had a chance to promote their work, she says.

V.K. Karthika, chief editor, HarperCollins, says she enjoys the intellectual stimulation that occurs at festivals. “As a publisher I am usually concentrating on what my company is doing and am involved with our writers,” she says. “But at a festival I get a chance to meet other writers and publishers. It gives me a new perspective, and I am able to see the big picture.”

For Jnanpith Award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair, a festival is a place where you can meet a writer you admire. “It is the best place for an interaction,” he says.

Tharoor feels the biggest plus point is in seeing writers in the flesh. “They are not just bylines in newspapers or names on the covers of books,” he says.

Of course there are negatives, too. Karthika says there is a tendency on the part of organisers to focus on a writer’s body of work. “What I mean is that the spotlight is on the bigger writers and not on those who are coming up,” she says. “There should be an equal focus on emerging and established writers.”

Tharoor says that talking about writing does not make one a better writer. “It is taking away from what it is that has brought you here,” he says. French has similar views. “You become a performing writer, rather than a writing writer,” he says.

Meanwhile, Malayalam writer K. Satchidanandan repeats an oft-stated complaint: the alleged bias against regional writers at English festivals. “At the Kovalam festival only Malayalam and Urdu writers were represented,” he says. “However, this is just a beginning.”

Yes, indeed, this is the inaugural festival in Kerala and south India. Festivals are slowly catching on in India while in countries like the UK, USA, Japan and Australia it has been around for decades. And it seems Indian festivals are quite different from those abroad.

Says French: “Festivals here tend to be more official. They have felicitation ceremonies. They propagate the idea that the writer, especially those in the regional languages, is a major cultural figure.”

This can have a stifling effect on writers. “It can stop people from producing good work,” he says. “At the same time it is nice to give writers this elevated status, which we don’t enjoy in Britain.”

Karthika agrees: “In India the spotlight is always on the writers while abroad, it is on the public.”

However, the public at huge international festivals, like the Hay-on-Wey rarely get a chance to interact with writers one-on-one. “In Hay there is one entrance for writers and another one for the audience,” says Jaishree Mishra. “You need a security pass to get through.”

In stark contrast there is a homely atmosphere at Indian festivals where readers are able to have off-the-cuff conversations with writers.

Jaishree says British author, Ian McEwan, a 1998 Booker Prize winner, told her how enjoyable it was for him when readers came up to him at the Jaipur festival and said they loved ‘Atonement’. “You don’t get this sort of buzz at other international festivals,” he said.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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