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A literary festival by any other name may not always read so sweetly


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams draws dubitable conclusions about literary festivals from his most recent experience. 

All happy literary festivals are alike; each unhappy literary festival is unhappy in its own way.

As an inveterate attendee of literary festivals, I’m rather pleased that Tolstoy’s ever-adapted line sprang to mind, to kick off this column. 

The words ring true. Happy literary festivals have a certain aura of buoyancy and cheer about them that it’s easy to get caught up in. The experience of leaving a happy literary festival is like that of leaving a darkened cinema. You blink against the light outside; the magic stays with you for several steps; eventually you’re reduced, once again, to the status of a sated but wistful civilian.

All happy litfests being alike, you’ll forgive me for a moment of disorientation whilst attending the latest one. The scene was a little mountain hamlet thronged by pale faces and old heads. I had tickets to listen to some world-class authors who hailed from Africa. Somehow, I had attended this festival before. Many times. Little mountain hamlets, pale old heads, world-class African authors — I carefully inspected my surroundings to interrupt the dream and confirm that I was still in Santa Fe and not, in fact, in Franschhoek. 

Franschhoek’s litfest hasn’t always been happy, of course — its ups and downs are the stuff of legend — but the 2023 edition, just gone by, seems to have been positively jubilant. Meanwhile, Santa Fe’s litfest, which runs over the same weekend, hasn’t been around long enough to experience the depths which literary endeavours are given, on occasion, to plumb. The halls were as light as the town’s famous high desert champagne air. Long may the luck last. 

My social media feeds this past weekend, then, were reduced to a kind of bookish delirium, and there was no telling which photo popped up from which place.

A word on the writers I saw — two in particular, both in sparkling form. Laila Lalami, whose major work is the novel The Moor’s Account, gave a clue as to why writers so often seem so distracted. It’s because, she said, they have dual-track minds. One track attempts at all times to remain in the present moment as a functioning entity; the other track continuously explores ideas and notions for the book they should, most urgently, in that very moment, be sat down to write. Often, track two gains the upper hand on track one. It’s not that writers lose their trains of thought, then — it’s that one train has had to stop at the switch and give way to the other.

Then, the peerless Namwali Serpell, who is best known for her epic The Old Drift. She spoke with uncommon candour — for writers, at least — about her creative process, down to the titles that have influenced her work. I can’t tell you how validating it was to hear her mention Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in relation to her own fiction; as a repressed critic, I’ve always wanted to apply the word “modernist” to her prose, but never voiced the opinion out loud, for fear of some nebulous intellectual retribution. What Serpell reminded us is that writers not only can, but should freely use other models — styles, books, genres,  eras — when conceiving and constructing their projects. She left us all fairly drunk on the wisdom she poured out so liberally. 

And so we turn from sacred moments to those on the profane side. Unhappy literary festivals, as you may have experienced yourself, are pure halitosis in a crowd. You can smell the rot around and within their spaces, but only a practised nose can determine from whence the foul air emanates. Perhaps from the direction of the organisers, cowing the staff with their fierce glares; or perhaps from the program director’s desk, where the wrong mix of authors and interviewers has been conjured, leaving everyone involved to bare their teeth for two days straight. Sometimes a bad-egg author ruins the entire affair; sometimes an affair ruins the entire author, the wreckage extending to those in his proximity.

The unhappiest literary festival I ever caught whiff of I actually afforded a wide berth, instead watching the horror unfold online. Years before, this event counted as one of the most fulfilling literary moments of my life. But it turned, like a heart. One couldn’t set foot near it. Joy had become glee on its stages, and that augured the end.

Another unhappy festival masked its misery quite well, but in the end, its founder’s brooding egomania brought the decay under the spotlight. This particular person once reduced a good friend of mine, one of the best books people in South Africa, to tears — which, in turn, caused me to send possibly the rashest email of my career. One never forgets, or forgives, when it comes to literary skullduggery.

On balance, fortunately, there are more happy litfests than unhappy ones. A fervent wish of mine is to go on a grand tour of the former — like the Endless Summer, but for book chat. If I ever pull it off, you may one day find me ensconced in a little mountain hamlet near you, eagerly leaning in to a wise writer’s words, oblivious to the world without. DM


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