What makes literary festivals so popular? Are writers themselves fascinating to meet in the flesh, or is it the lure of a spectator sport for intellectuals, conferring a greater cachet than rugby or baseball and just as exciting? The Vancouver International Writers Festival in October sets out its aim in what is perhaps a typically Canadian way, by calling it a mission: “…to encourage an appreciation of literature and to promote literacy by providing a forum where writers and readers can interact”.
In striking contrast with this sober document, the occasions themselves were colourful and high-spirited, audiences eager, expansive – and apparently well-read as well. The lively atmosphere fitted the location and was perhaps partly produced by it: Granville Island is an artistic community built some years ago by an arts-conscious federal government. Connected to the city by bridges and a tiny ferry, it is a sort of artists’ playground, alive with adventurous architecture and bright colours. The festival office sits among craft workshops, theatres, markets, rehearsal rooms, performance halls of many shapes and sizes. The festival’s emblem of a yellow building-high pencil fitted its background perfectly.
In the same mood bright, indeed occasionally electrifying, phrases leapt out of the festival programme. Not only Poetry Bash and Tantalising Tidbits, but Bubble Speak, Murder and Mayhem, Authors à la Carte, Who’s Sleeping with Whom…
But the promises of “literary gossip, insider stories” and “..who massages the therapist…” were deceptive. The events turned out to be the readings, discussions, book launches, public conversations that are the main offerings of literary festivals everywhere. Many sessions were made up entirely of readings by writers from their own works and this was what people came mainly to hear. The chairing (“moderating”) was usually plain and direct.
But this is the west coast of North America. Performance is self-expression; if we no longer hear about making love, not war, it did seem that poetry is to be preferred to pedantry, that energetic and agile performance is greatly admired and variously practised.
The local appetite for poetry reading seemed inexhaustible. The annual Poetry Bash is the highlight of the festival and was booked out long before its due date. There were 10 performers, including the host, a specially printed, very elegant programme and a show that lasted till nearly midnight. Even then the audience, at least half of it made up of young enthusiasts, was still clamouring for more.
This was not because performers themselves were, despite any slight overheating in programme introductions, either drunk or hysterical. One distinguished guest, Cadia Maraini, read quietly in her native Italian, strange, beautiful poems which were then read in translation by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter. Dennis Lee, known internationally as a children’s writer, read in slow, hypnotic cadences a sequence of adult love poems; Dorianne Laux from Los Angeles read detailed, dreamy verses about sex. Two women known as T Begley and Olga Broumas did a sort of dance with closed eyes and weaving bodies, in an apparently passionate declaration of love for their microphones and each other; I read in a colloquial New Zealand way. A Canadian called Robert Bringhurst delivered long, thoughtful poems in a sonorous roll, like some sort of singing parson.
Crowds gathered round us at the end (then filed honourably into the bookshop and bought heaps of books). By that time we, the readers, were as excited by the occasion as they were.
The Vancouver organisers declare themselves for diversity. They had invited children’s writers, editors, biographers (notably Gordon Bowker on Malcolm Lowry), poets, of course, novelists, including Margaret Atwood and Vikram Seth, the brilliant young Indian who has just written the longest novel in the world, Timothy Findley, a Canadian national hero, several native north American writers, crime writers, including Ruth Rendell (“very cold”, people said), several student authors. There were also journalists, playwrights, a cartoonist, the Czech satirist Josef Svorecky, who was impossible to understand but somehow made everyone laugh, several science fiction writers, a Japanese woman, Karen Yamashita, who lives in America but writes about Brazil. And of particular fascination to Canadians, and indeed to us all, there was Carol Shields whose Stone Diaries had been short-listed for the Booker Prize; she turned out to be charming, friendly and riotously funny when she read.
I suppose in the end it’s the atmosphere of a festival that makes it memorable. This develops gradually over the days it lasts – five, in this case – and has many components. Essentially, it is the mutual pleasure in meetings between writers, who work in isolation, and readers who ponder their works similarly in private. Suddenly it’s a social act, highly charged, full of the possibilities of new revelations. It doesn’t matter that these don’t usually eventuate; or if they do it isn’t because writers utter greater truths in conversation than they already have in their work. It’s that they are real – and that somehow seems to be extraordinarily reassuring.
And the sense of discovery is mutual. Readers, too, appear in the flesh, talk about the connections with their own lives of poems or stories they have read, say the most touching things to authors who have not known and cannot know where their words will go and what they may influence or change “out there”, beyond their own desk and typewriter, the solitary agonies of composition. It is the meeting of two unknown yet passionately connected worlds.
This act of recognition has all sorts of incidental aspects. For one thing, you come to feel a delicious familiarity with the places where again and again it takes place. Granville Island is charming in itself, but now for me has a thousand personal associations (not to mention the minor one of learning my way round a perplexing mixture of angles and directions).
Meals eaten there I remember as occasions because they were with this person or that. Already Karen Yamashita and I have written notes recalling ours; mail since I returned home includes books from other writers whose work I liked, one or two cards from people I met and got to know quickly, as one does in the tingling atmosphere of a festival.
If it’s a good one, that is. Vancouver was very good. Alma Lee, its organiser, is an inspired practitioner in the art of cultural management. As part of his introduction to the final session, Findley said he’d been to many good festivals, but this one “blew him away”.
He was delivering the Duthie Lecture, named for a distinguished local bookseller, and his subject was political correctness. He spoke of it as a force in the community, a political weapon, as an ideology with powerful implications for writers – an impassioned plea for tolerance, and the critical awareness without which tolerance cannot exist, a ringing declaration of the responsibility of writers to defend and practise independence of mind.
And it was very, very funny. His props consisted of a table piled with books, rather in the school prize-giving manner. He read an occasional extract, but with the true actor’s flair kept us guessing for most of the lecture (would he read from them all? would he go on till morning?)
Then he speeded things up. He picked up one book – “won’t do, can’t have this – Hemingway talking about a woman when he isn’t one – nothing politically correct here” – and with a splendidly abandoned gesture he threw it over his shoulder. The little book skidded across the wooden floor of the stage, satisfyingly disposed of.
Others followed. Lewis Carroll, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Mark Twain … everyone who matters, more or less. All those who’d been guilty of creating characters, and the worlds they occupy, from outside their own immediate experience; women daring to write about men, white about black, gay on straight, young on the lives of the old and so on.
By the time he’d finished, the floor was littered with his rejects (rather old paperback editions. I noticed); some slid farther than others or went faster. He didn’t look back to see, but like any good performer, kept his eye on the script, while we all fell about laughing. No amount of pontificating on the subject could have made the point half so well as this brilliant satirical charade.
And then we all went home, to our own countries, our own houses and workplaces, full of love for (almost) everyone. I did, in fact, particularly like the Canadians I met. They seemed somehow familiar – rather like New Zealanders, I thought.
Lauris Edmond is a poet and autobiographer. Her most recent publication was The Quick World, in 1992.