The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Books Festival
Northwest Bookfest is a ridiculous disaster. Meanwhile, Spokane just hosted an awesome book festival. Why can't we?
Vowell's reading was in a stately Eastern Washington University auditorium, and it was packed. She read from The Partly Cloudy Patriot and some new work--she absolutely killed; the audience loved it--and after the reading she said, "If I can get the houselights up, I'll take questions." The crowd sat there in a kind of stunned, happy silence. After a long pause, Vowell said, "I like the hand-raising method. I don't know how you do it out here on the frontier."
It's a fair guess that a lot of the people on this frontier had never been to a reading like this--except for Lynda Barry, at least, who was sitting in the second row. Barry is a comic strip artist and the author of Cruddy and other books and she was in town for Get Lit!, too. The next night, in a 100-year-old former vaudeville theater in downtown Spokane, Barry was the opening act for Kurt Vonnegut. That crowd was there to see Vonnegut, obviously, but Barry held ground in her own jumpy, terrific way--doing impressions of Ethel Merman singing "Silent Night" one moment, giving writing advice the next: "The problem with writing on a computer is I could delete what I felt unsure about--which, if I could do that with my life, I'd have like 27 minutes." Then she introduced Vonnegut, the creator of a spectacular constellation of political-surrealist novels that have cooled into classics (Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five), as "the kind of guy who shows up right on time for a lot of people. The thing about life is it's hopeless. Kurt Vonnegut shows you it's hopeless but not serious."
Then Vonnegut hobbled out--he's 81--and gave a long, discursive talk about President Bush ("You know why he's so pissed at Arabs? They invented algebra"), the Vietnam war ("catastrophically idiotic"), corporate power ("Big money has disconnected every burglar alarm in the Constitution"), drugs ("I want to say something about the war on drugs, and that is, it's better than having no drugs at all"), America's two-party political system ("If you aren't one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut"), science ("First there was nothing, and then there was a big bang, and that's where all this crap came from"), and life in general ("All great literature is about what a bummer it is to be a human being"). Then he said, "Now I'll teach you creative writing." And he did! There was a chalkboard and everything. He said, "First rule: Do not use semicolons."
The crowd roared.
I can't speak for the other Get Lit! events--Get Lit! is a week long, and I was only in Spokane for two days; in addition to what I've mentioned, I saw a daytime reading by Eastern Washington University's MFA program alumni on Friday and several daytime writing workshops and panels on Saturday, but didn't get to see Harvey Pekar, William Kittredge, Dave Barry, or Garrison Keillor, among others, since their events were scattered throughout the week--but Vowell's reading was a bona fide beauty and Vonnegut's was a barnburner. He got a standing ovation. A teenager in the lobby said afterward, "Now that was cool."
It's hard to imagine anyone describing Northwest Bookfest, Seattle's troubled annual literary festival, as "cool." It's not easy to think of any past national headliners at Bookfest who have had the cachet of Kurt Vonnegut. Joyce Carol Oates? Sort of, I guess. T. C. Boyle? Not really. And their appearances at Bookfest were years ago and years apart. This year's Get Lit! lineup in Spokane was more impressive than anything Bookfest has ever put together.
For obvious cultural and plainly practical reasons, it runs counter to logic that Spokane should have a better literary festival than Seattle does. The disparity between what Get Lit!'s organizers have to work with and what Bookfest's organizers have to work with is staggering. Bookfest has name recognition, a 10-year history, and a $600,000 annual budget. Get Lit! has hardly any name recognition, a six-year history, and a $180,000 budget. And don't forget that it takes place in Spokane. Get Lit!'s organizers--two well-read EWU Press employees and a slew of helping hands--have the thankless task of trying to appeal to the general population in a region known for Republican values, meth labs, and poverty. So how is it possible that Bookfest fails on so many levels where Get Lit! succeeds? How can it be that Spokane, a city so putatively inferior, does this book-festival thing so much better than we do?
The day before I left for Spokane, I went to a "kickoff" party for Northwest Bookfest at M Coy Books. The invitation promised "drinks, treats, and conversation." I consumed about nine pounds of white cheese and two glasses of white wine, and made conversation with several Bookfest board members and the new programming coordinator and the new executive director. (Bookfest has been through four executive directors in four years, which is telling.)
I mentioned Get Lit! to Sarah Greenbaum, Bookfest's new programming coordinator, and she said, "I've never heard of it." I brought it up to board member Gary McNeil that Spokane has a literary festival that this year was bringing in Sarah Vowell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Garrison Keillor, and he said, duly impressed, "Now have they done that [kind of event] before?" (He then said he had seen a poster for Get Lit! somewhere but had no idea it was an ongoing thing.) I asked Bookfest board president Jon Schorr if he had ever heard of Get Lit! and he said, "No, when does it happen?" I said it was happening as we spoke and that I was getting on a train the next day to go see some of it. I told him the names of some of the writers who would be there. Schorr lit up at the mention of Keillor; Schorr's a huge Keillor fan. I asked him: Why don't we have headliners like Keillor at Bookfest? (I'm not a Keillor fan personally, but whatever.) Schorr said, "That's a good question."
After a short chat, Schorr shook my hand and said, "Thanks for bringing this to my attention." He said it in that kind of happy, empty Bookfest way. The people who run Bookfest and the people who volunteer for Bookfest and probably the people who go to Bookfest are all extraordinarily nice, which is why it's easy to get wrapped up (as they so often do themselves) in their cozy, perky, self-satisfied pride. But this is not the year for Bookfest coziness. This is not the year for self-satisfaction or the year to be proud. Bookfest drew record lows in attendance last year (9,000 people, compared to 20,000 the year before and 25,000 the year before that) and was such an unqualified disaster that it prompted the Seattle Times, Bookfest's longtime presenting sponsor, to pull its backing. In the weeks after the 2003 festival, given the state of things, some were surprised the Bookfest board didn't decide to kill the annual tradition altogether.
If Bookfest is going to succeed in the future--and this is still a big question mark in many minds; I overhead one board member insist to someone, under her breath, "It's our 10th anniversary, we're not going to let it not happen"--its planners are going to have to radically revise the way they do things. But the folks I was having wine and cheese with before heading to Spokane frankly don't seem up to that task--a task that will have to include rethinking what people need to pay admission for and what they don't; booking the kinds of headliners who will draw serious crowds; restructuring the book fair so small vendors don't have to pay so much and can compete directly with the big vendors; and (maybe next year?) moving the festival to a more accessible venue (or to clusters of smaller venues throughout the city). The raison d'être for the party was, true to Bookfest form, not to discuss the abject failure of last year's festival or to have a conversation about what a mess Bookfest has become and what can be done to save it, but to sing in communal chorus about the supposed magic of a festival that--come on, people--hasn't done anything magical in quite some time.
In its 10-year history, Bookfest has gone from being big, serious, and well attended (it used to have headliners like Joyce Carol Oates and T. C. Boyle!) to being stagy, sentimental, and dead. If the programming initiatives announced at the kickoff party are any indication, this isn't about to change. Executive director Danielle Bennett made some enthusiastic announcements about several things they are already working on--a spelling bee, a writing contest for kids, and a collection of commemorative postcards made from past festival posters--and then she began describing, excitedly, "a visual retrospective to really show what this [festival] has meant for the community over the last 10 years" that would consist of written recollections about Bookfests of yore. "We want to get your favorite Bookfest memory," she said, and mentioned that a soon-to-be-featured function on the website would allow anyone to submit one. Then all the volunteers in the room were invited to introduce themselves and say what they liked best about Bookfest. A large woman in her 50s ventured that what she liked about Bookfest was that "the children who come to Bookfest are the nicest children I've ever met. They have really renewed my faith in the younger generation." Someone else leaned over and said to her, "You should write that down as a memory."
What the kickoff party renewed for me was a host of troubling questions. If Bookfest is so wonderful and beloved and important to the community, why doesn't the community show up for it? Is it just for people who want to remember earlier, better festivals, who want to spend the day gazing at 10-year-old posters? Is it for children? Why is the resource-wealthy operation so cash-strapped? Why is the board so unwilling to take a hard look at what's happening? And why aren't they asking these questions themselves? What exactly do they have to be self-satisfied about?
If you didn't go to Bookfest last year (and you're not alone), here's what you missed: row after row of small-press booths, local bookstore booths, and arts and crafts booths (increasingly, this book fair has become the festival's centerpiece); a Target-sponsored area where you could sit on giant plastic books and get your picture taken in front of a wall of Target logos; a bunch of small stages scattered throughout the festival featuring actors reading books in armchairs and in bed and at kitchen tables; and readings and panels with local cookbook authors and nature-hike-guide authors and two or three good local authors, like Jonathan Raban and Sherman Alexie.
And for the first time in the festival's history, you had to pay to get in. When you think about what you got for your $10--the opportunity to drive or take the bus out to the middle of nowhere so you could stand in a damp, cold hangar where bookstores and small presses tried to sell you things all day long, and where occasionally you got to see a local author like Jonathan Raban, who at the time had a new novel out and was giving free readings at comfortable, easy-to-get-to places like Elliott Bay Book Company and Third Place Books--it makes perfect sense why no one went. "That's like paying to get into a bookstore," Scott Poole, founder and director of Get Lit!, said two weeks ago in Spokane when I described the most recent Bookfest to him. (It says something about Seattle arrogance that no one from Bookfest has ever been to Get Lit! in Spokane to see how they do it, but Poole has been to Bookfest several times in the past--when it was free.)
The Get Lit! model Poole has developed over six years of trial and error is entirely different--which is to say, it actually makes sense. It takes into account realistic expectations of what people are willing to pay for, and it interacts with the city rather than standing apart from it. Unlike Bookfest, which is roughly located at the remote edge of the known world (i.e., an empty hangar at Sand Point Magnuson Park), Get Lit!'s events take place at several venues in downtown Spokane (an art gallery, a sports bar, a below-ground pub, an opera house, an EWU classroom building, and the aforementioned century-old vaudeville theater)--plus, this year, there was one event at a Borders bookstore seven miles north of Spokane and two in Cheney (one at a coffee shop, one in an EWU auditorium).
"Why not have it all over the city?" Poole said. We were having drinks in a Spokane bar called Mootsy's, where Get Lit! has staged several events in the past, including a slam poetry contest. "...In small coffee shops and bookstores and bars like this one. Get people involved. All these places are a vital part of the community. For me, that's what it's all about: trying to involve the city, rather than shipping everyone off to this one place."
He went on, "You're going to be in the opera house, and then you're going to come in here for a reading with 40 other people, and then you walk outside and see a street poet--and that's cool, you know, you just had a beer--and then you go see Garrison Keillor. Isn't that what it's all about? Being out on the town? Checking things out?" At Bookfest, where there's just one giant room full of vendors and half a dozen stages scattered throughout, Poole said, "You walk in and it's like a casino or something. There are six million slot machines and you don't know which one to go to."
There was a time when Get Lit! had a book fair, too, but it didn't work, so they scrapped it. Certainly a festival can have a book fair--most festivals do, and the new book festival in Portland, Oregon, which Poole has just been hired to direct, will have one. But the mistake Bookfest makes, Poole says, is that "they're building a book festival for the vendor. What happened to the goddamn reader? What happened to getting someone [to headline the festival] who's going to make the reader interested? Kurt Vonnegut onstage before Elvis Costello... or Dave Eggers... instead of just doing something that's going to draw the same 30 people? I hate going to a reading when I know all the people in the audience. People want to see someone they've never seen before. And while they're there, they'll check out the book fair. You have to keep your focus on the author and the reader."
Focusing on the reader--that's not what Bookfest's organizers are doing. They're focusing on visual retrospectives and selling booth space to vendors, who are, it should be said, increasingly unhappy with what they're getting out of the deal. It is still a question in John Marshall's mind whether Open Books, the Wallingford poetry bookstore he co-owns, will come back as a vendor this year. "We've thought about not being a vendor at Bookfest [this year]," he said last week, citing the attendance shortfall last year and the economics involved in closing the store and setting up shop at Bookfest for two days. (Marshall and his wife run Open Books without any other staff.) "The way we look at it is, when 20,000 people come through, that's advertising [for our store]. When it's only 8,000 people who come through, we have to think about it. So the jury is still out [on whether we'll be part of this year's festival]."
Michael Wells, owner of Bailey/Coy Books, pulled his store's participation in the festival a couple of years ago. He said last week, "From a small-business perspective, it didn't make a lot of sense for me. I have a small staff and a small store, and setting up another store [at Bookfest] was a lot of work and there wasn't a lot of payoff."
On the subject of getting rid of Get Lit!'s book fair, co-coordinator Joelean Copeland told me, "The festival has had to go through a lot of growing decisions like that." Bookfest's book fair doesn't need to be done away with, but some kind of change is in order--a big boost to the book fair, just to sharpen this point once again, would be to produce a festival that generated lots of foot traffic--yet Bookfest's leaders strangely don't seem to have the capacity to make "growing decisions." They do not seem to have the ability to see what has worked and what hasn't. They seem to lack the capacity to learn.
There was a time when Scott Poole, the guy whose hard work and vision have made Get Lit! what it is, was considering shuttering his festival altogether. Originally conceived as a fundraiser for EWU Press, Get Lit! was, even as recently as a couple of years ago, not much of anything. A couple of readings. David Guterson would come out. Or David Wagoner. One year, Poole set up an evening event that only drew one angry board member and two homeless people. Then, in year four, Poole told me, "I thought, 'Am I going to kill this thing or am I going to do it right?'" Galvanized by the crisis, he booked David Sedaris and Lynda Barry as headliners for the following year. The events sold out. Those profits generated money for smaller events. The current Get Lit! model was born.
The quickest thing Bookfest could do to get on better footing--and to build some early excitement for October's festival--would be to book a couple of headliners. Now. Instead, they're spending their time dreaming up plans for retrospectives of people's memories, which no one's going to pay $10 to see. (I'd pay $10 not to see that.) The economics of booking a headliner or two are not as intimidating as a Bookfest board member would have you believe. More than half of Get Lit!'s $180,000 budget goes toward paying national authors' speaking fees, and the festival recovers that cost through sponsorship and ticket sales to individual events--a ticket to see Kurt Vonnegut in Spokane went for $34, for example, though Vowell's event, as a gesture to the community, was free. As with Get Lit!, money made off major Bookfest acts could go toward funding other events and readings by authors no one's heard of, and book-fair space for small presses, and subsidies for small bookstores like Open Books and Bailey/Coy who have to pay extra staff and stock extra books, plus it could go toward the cost of all the tables and tents and sound systems and bunting and signage and splashy decorations that Bookfest is always so eager to amp up at the expense of thought-provoking programming. Since Bookfest has become such a sponsorship machine--$600,000 is a hell of a lot to work with--they could charge a lot less than $34 for any one headlining event. They could probably get away with $3 or $5.
But for some reason, even spelling all this out feels useless. There is something obviously annoying about Bookfest's irrelevant, infantilizing gestures--in the way they program the festival, in the way they throw their parties--and there is also something about it that's unaccountably smug. People are not going to pay to go to something just because it's a sentimental tradition for the people who organize it. People would, however, pay to see Kurt Vonnegut--people did pay to see Kurt Vonnegut--and they might even travel to Sand Point to see him. (I'm thinking positively.) But they won't travel all that way to spend the weekend with actors miming the act of reading, a couple dozen kids, and the good folks at the Target photo booth.
If nothing changes, this year's Bookfest turnout will make last year's depressing gathering, by comparison, look like a stampede. You need a lot of people to fill that giant void that is Sand Point--that unending parking lot, that paved outdoor area, that huge hangar that has increasingly become a monument to Bookfest's stubborn, stupid attachments.