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PEN World Voices 2012 and Beyond

So, as with years past, Publishing Perspectives asked me to write up something about this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. I did so, but unlike years past, I wasn’t as effusively complimentary . . . I feel bad criticizing PEN WV because the festival has been such a huge boon for book culture over the years and because it was thanks to WV that Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie spoke here in Rochester back in 2008.

That said, no one can rest on their laurels, and after the past couple festivals, I think it’s worth taking a more critical look so that the festival can move forward and reach its full potential.

Here’s a bit of my piece:

Goals of the Festival

Before I start explaining what I think would make for an Ideal World Voices (IWV), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what a festival like this is trying to accomplish. According to the “Letter from PEN” at the front of the program, “we seek to present the best of national and international literature and by doing so we adamantly focus on reinforcing the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence and the essence of brave and great art.”

OK. That’s great grant writing speak. Seriously. I’d drain my life savings to fund “brave and great art” that gets at the “foundation of meaningful existence.” (Although the line about focusing “on reinforcing the importance of the premise” is pretty weak.) But this program isn’t written for the National Endowment for the Arts . . . or at least it shouldn’t be.

In my vision of the IWV, the festival would set out to accomplish a few things that I think are central to preserving and enhancing a healthy literary culture in America:

1. Raise the profile of international literature and translation, thus expanding the horizons of readers and fostering an international dialogue about art and writing.

2. Get books in the hands of new readers, because without readers none of this means anything, and sales will help expand the reach of the festival as a whole, thus encouraging more publishers, readers, and foundations to support it.

3. Focus on the average reader, NOT the members of the publishing industry who already are overwhelmed by book events and rarely actually buy anything.

4. Be entertaining, otherwise you’re just shoving medicine down the throats of the unwilling.

5. Offer something unique, something you can’t pull off anywhere else in the world.

To me, those things seem totally obvious, and like they were part of the original WV DNA. Perhaps it’s all a bit lofty to think that a festival can help improve book culture. I just don’t see the point of not trying to do this. And not to take grant-speak too seriously, but I don’t think anyone walked away from this year’s festival suddenly aware that “freedom of expression” is important. Readers don’t want to be preached at — they want to enjoy themselves and find out about interesting things.

Click here to read it all, including my recommendations on how to make this a better festival.



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