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.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .