Anyone who walked into Northwest Bookfest and saw what I saw on Saturday morning could tell you in an instant what's wrong with the "embattled" festival. "Embattled" is the word the Seattle Post-Intelligencer used Monday in the headline of a story about Bookfest's uncertain future owing to the festival's abysmal attendance this year: just 9,000 people, compared to 20,000 last year and 25,000 the year before. The P-I reported that the "executive committee of the Bookfest board will meet... [to assess] whether Bookfest, which costs $150,000 to produce, can be continued with such a steep decline in attendance." It is something on the level of a travesty that attendance at a literary festival in such a putatively literary city has plunged at such a staggering rate, but as far as Bookfest is concerned it is not unexplainable. Many have attributed the overall feeling of deadness (and, specifically, the lack of living people) at this year's festival to the fact that, for the first time ever, you had to pay $10 to get in, and while I'm sure that was a deterrent for some, there are plenty of people I know who'd be happy to pay the price of a movie for a smart, lively, and important once-a-year literary festival. But Bookfest isn't smart or lively or important. It is ridiculous, irrelevant, and infantilizing.

The cash-strapped festival was stripped down this year, and just by seeing what had been added and taken away you got an immediate and appalling sense of the festival organizers' priorities. Gone this year were the exhaustive exhibits devoted to antiquarian books and book arts (Bookfest has long housed the largest juried exhibition of book arts on the West Coast). In their place was such commercial garishness as a Target-sponsored area where you could sit in a chair fashioned out of giant plastic books and get your photo taken in front of a wall of Target logos, and such elaborate displays of intellectual condescension as the bizarre tableaux on little stages throughout the festival featuring actors excitedly reading--one in an armchair, one at a kitchen table, one in bed--as if to illustrate, I suppose, that reading is fun and exciting and that, to paraphrase the great children's book, you can do it here or there, you can do it anywhere. Which is a fine thing to teach children, of course, but a patently patronizing premise for a serious book festival charging serious admission prices.

If the sharp downturn of Bookfest's attendance this year is any indication, this is not the kind of cultural content people want to pay for. If Bookfest wants to drown itself in unliterary, book-shaped Target promotions and stagy, cloying, bogus reading-is-fun! crap, it can't afford to be restrictively priced to boot, because no one will come. My God, if it's going to be stupid, it should at least be big.

frizzelle@thestranger.com