(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)
One of the nice things about the IFOA is the amount of interaction possible between readers and writers–and writers and other writers, and publishers and writers–during the festival. In a lot of literary events there’s a very prescribed sort of interaction . . . the writer’s generally up on a podium speaking to the audience from a distance, and if there’s any interaction it occurs during the brief Q & A at the end of the event. I’m not sure this is the best way to present writers to the public.
One of the interesting things they do at the IFOA is that they tend to keep authors in town for about a week, and they’re encouraged to attend as many of the events as possible. What happens in that case is that: 1) a lot of authors and various members of the publishing industry start to get to know one another, and there’s a lot of opportunity to cross-fertilize and develop connections, and 2) to a lesser (but far from non-existent) extent audience members and casual readers are able to feel in touch with the writers themselves.
It should be fairly obvious why the first point is a good thing. As to the second point: while I do tend to be a “just the books, please” kind of reader, I can see the value for something like this in helping to build a literary culture, particularly by tearing down the distance that is often placed between authors and readers. Obviously some writers are extremely talented and dedicated individuals who deserve a kind of cultural cache, but I also think that putting readers in touch with authors as actual humans–as opposed to quasi-mythic beings who tend to stand behind podiums–is a good thing for promoting literary culture in general.
I tend to think of it as somewhat like an open studio or an art gallery with the artist in attendance. Certainly I’ve always enjoyed exchanging a few words with an artist after seeing an exhibit of her work (at least when said artist doesn’t feel the need for pretense). It doesn’t have to be the most cerebral, intense interaction possible, but if you can chat for a few minutes it does go a long way toward making you want to come back to the gallery next time, as well as keep an eye out for that artist’s work.