National Books, Books, Books Festival
Saturday marked the 15th National Book Festival. I remember going to the first one, which was held on the National Mall, in massive tents, with chairs that tilted more than a little on the grassy lawn. The Festival was a brain-child of Laura Bush, and it brought thousands of readers to a common space, where they received brightly colored cloth bags, listened to dozens of authors, and had a chance to buy books by those speakers.
I wasn’t always a huge fan of the Festival. I somehow wanted it to be more than it was — to have panels relevant to my interests, to have authors more interesting to me, personally. (Also, the Festival was often the victim of horrible weather — heat or rain, which made spending a day outdoors an unattractive prospect.)
This year, the Festival was bigger than ever. It moved inside a couple of years ago (for a number of reasons, including ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the grass on the Mall.) It now takes over the Washington Convention Center for a single day, each “tent” becoming a huge meeting room, with projection screens to better see the speakers, with an entire exhibit floor of booths from supporting entities (AARP, Scholastic Books, the Washington Post, etc.)
And this year, I adored nearly every panel I went to. Gone are the days when authors primarily stood at a lectern and read from their works (with varying degrees of skill — truth be told, my finest National Book Festival memory remains watching Neil Gaiman read from Anansi Boys, while an extraordinarily animated sign language interpreter signed a chapter about a horrendous hangover…)
At this year’s Festival, only one author read from his work, and that reading was about two pages long.
Instead, authors talked. They talked about what made them right. They talked about what is important to them. They talked (a little) about process and (a lot) about how the publishing world told them they weren’t likely to succeed at various points in their careers.
I discovered that, in the future, I will pay good money to hear Walter Mosley speak — any time, anywhere. I heard David Baldacci tell a wonderful story that would make every author on earth feel better about people who are more successful than they. I listened to Laura Lippman talk about family and writing and balance and dark stories, and I felt as if I’d known her for years. I laughed with Stephan Pastis, getting new insights into the daily grind of creating a comic strip.
Alas, the weak point in the Festival was its inclusion of Romance as a genre. This inclusion was a Big Deal — it’s rare for Romance to be recognized as “legitimate” on a national stage. The Festival, though, seemed to be betting against Romance — they only included two hours of programming (compared with at least ten for most other genres), and that programming was from 7:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., when most Festival-goers had left for the day, or were taking dinner breaks before some of the big evening activities. While the speakers were good (and Beverly Jenkins, in particular, drew a huge crowd), they weren’t of the same national prominence as most other genres’ speakers.
I hope that, next year, the Festival will take steps to treat Romance more like other genres. But even if that is not the case, I’ll return. Because I can always use a reminder from other writers, about why they do what they do.
And because I now have a whole stash of new stories to tell. Did you hear the one about the author whose editor told him…