Boston-based crime fiction writer Dennis Lehane, author of the Oscar-winning Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shelter Island, swore an oath against the Hollywood machine. Disenchanted with producers and studio insiders breaking promises, stalling talks, or letting opportunities wane, Lehane told his agent to tell anyone from that industry looking for him to look elsewhere. There’s one call I think you should take, his agent said. Lehane was firm. No really, she urged again. You should take this call. Lehane refused to budge, becoming what Bostonions lovingly refer to as “wicked pissed off.” It’s Clint Eastwood, she told him. Lehane decided to pick up the phone. This is only one of the anecdotes Lehane recounted during his panel appearance at the second annual Boston Book Festival, which took place in downtown Boston on October 16. It is a part of a larger experience not available online or in print, but involves the rewards that come from bringing writers like Lehane in proximity with readers to discuss their work, take audience questions, and sign books at book and literary festivals gaining support and momentum around the country.
Kindles, Nooks, and other eReader devices or apps might provide instantaneous access to thousands of literary works and may trump paper and hardbound works for their portability, but they cannot breathe the writing process and the literary industry to life nor can they, in most instances, gather hundreds of similarly inclined individuals together to celebrate, talk about, argue over, and share their relationships with books. Book festivals possess the capacity to not only bring many different kinds of genres and literary works to the mass public, but they also invite people to participate as members of a literary community.
In some of the largest and longest running book festivals such as the Decatur Book Fest and the National Book Festival held in Washington D.C., organizers offer comprehensive workshops, in many cases, facilitated by well-known authors, academics, or others pursuing professional lives as writers. Authors have the opportunity to learn, but to also showcase their work and convene and network with fellow writers in an atmosphere different from a retreat or conference. There is also the opportunity to meet new artists and trade recommendations literary works or texts that have proven helpful and inspiring.
Accessibility to the literary community is another factor that makes literary festivals critical. Festivals are typically happily inclusive events, giving the emerging poet and children’s book illustrator their chance to get their work seen and heard alongside literary heavyweights such as Bill Bryson and A.M. Holmes. For readers, they can discover new favorites, for agents, they may discover new clients, and for the seasoned pros, they may discover new writers that influence their own work. Moreover, the formal and informal dialogue between writers or between writers and readers that unfolds during book festival events gives literature a different dimension. People are fascinated with a writer’s process, do they sit down to write every morning at 6 a.m.? Where do they like to work? How do they deal with rejection? A reader who learns the inspiration behind an unfamiliar novel, may be inspired to read that novel and more works by the author. There is a sense of familiarity and intimacy that arises in these exchanges, which reminds people of the subjective, human elements that make books of all kinds compelling and enjoyable.
Most importantly, book festivals put books center stage. Hundreds of vendors from large chain stores like Barnes & Noble to independent book sellers and independent presses set up their wares. People can browse, leaf, handle and preview books surrounded by hundreds of other literary enthusiasts, taking more home with them than a novel or two, taking home with them a unique experience that constitutes the best of where books can take us.