How to organise a successful lit fest
A good lit fest needs a foolproof controversy plan, which is why one must always invite a high-profile guest.
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Several years ago, I promised myself that I would not go to a lit fest until my first book had been published. I couldn’t resist the temptation when The Hindu’s Lit for Life cropped up at its original venue at the Hyatt, a kilometre down the road from my house, in 2011. That lit fest was sober and sedate, as if tailored to the tastes of the paper’s clientele. It made me wonder whether I should break my vow. In the time between my first lit fest and the last one I attended, my first book was published, my second is under way, I moved from the audience to the stage, and my perception of lit fests changed drastically.
Unlike those authors whose publishers interrupt their schedules to force them to market their books, I have no gripe with the commerce behind lit fests. I’m unemployed, I don’t have a schedule, and I quite like talking about myself. I also enjoy coming up with snide replies to questions such as, “To what extent is your book autobiographical?”, and “What advice do you have for aspiring authors?”
The only awkward experience I’ve had on the festival circuit is Chetan Bhagat cutting ahead of me in a queue for drinks, calling, “Yaar, ek Black Dog dedo”, nodding to me, and saying “cheers” before he left. That aside, I got to talk to writers whose works have influenced my thought, ideas, principles, and even my life, since I was in my teens.
Also, with at least one major lit fest for every metropolis – and another for every national daily, it seems – and about 200 writers and assorted celebrities being invited to each, they make for rather lovely all-expenses-paid reunions. At last count, there were over 60 annual lit fests of varying size and consistent shape. During the day, panellists try to decode "-isms", after which the well-known ones sign books their readers have bought, and the newbies autograph scraps of paper for students. During the evening, everyone grumbles about the day, and over good wine and bad food, some authors corner agents, and the others befriend each other.
However, my chief takeaway from the lit fests I’ve attended – or followed in the papers – is that I now know how to organise one.
Aim: To create a successful, and enduring, lit fest.
· Three hats, a pen and lots of paper
· Six-seven Nobel Prize winners, Booker Prize winners and nominees, and other inhabitants of the literary and cultural stratosphere
· Ten-15 bestselling authors, ranging from those who write grammatically incorrect now-a-major-Hollywood-motion-picture-type novels, to those who write grammatically incorrect could-have-been-plagiarised-by-Bollywood-type novels
· Two-four lit fest item numbers – film stars and sport stars
· Random assortment of tabloid journalists, serial house-party attendees, magazine editors, or anyone else who can be found in Market Café or Pali Village Café on weekday afternoons
· Eight-nine writers who have been freshly unleashed into the market
· Two-three academics whose books are only available in the libraries of the universities in which they teach, usually because these are their PhD dissertations
· One person whose presence would offend either liberals or fundamentalists
· 1,000 or more audience members who chiefly want to know how to get published, and why Indian writing in English is in English, rather than in languages which would be inaccessible to most of them Procedure:
There are several intricate steps involved here, of which the first is determining the topics. In order to impress an audience, one must have at least three parallel sessions through an eight-hour day, and a self-respecting lit fest lasts between three and five days. So, that’s over a hundred discrete topics.
No worries. Algorithms will solve all your problems. Here’s how. First, cut all your paper up into tiny bits.
Step 1: Fill one of the hats with papers containing words like "writing", "expression", "subjugation", "dynamics", and "rule”.
Step 2: Fill a second hat with papers containing words like "modern", "subaltern", "post-colonial", "Western", "Asian", and "vernacular".
Step 3: Fill the third hat with papers containing words like "alienation", "feminism", "race", "women", "colonisation", "rape", "languages", and "independence".
Step 4: Pick a random word from each box, and link using a random preposition.
Inevitably, the resulting string of words will sound like an important topic, providing scope for panellists whose work has nothing to do with the string to discuss it for an hour, and even inspiring the audience to ask long-winded questions.
If one is feeling particularly creative, however, one may want to customise topics for certain panels. There are several ways to go about this, but the Stretch-Till-You-Retch school of wordplay is time-tested.
The methodology depends on whether one is in the mood to single out each inhabitant of the literary stratosphere for ignominy, rage, and angst, or whether one is in the mood to punish each inhabitant of the literary stratosphere by forcing him into the company of either his fellow-inhabitants, or those he derides, envies, and fears – the writers of bestselling-major-motion-picture-type books.
The former case calls for derivative topics like "The Master of Johannesburg: The Life and Times of JM Coetzee". Yes, I do know where he’s from, but factual errors and offensive topics are key ingredients of all lit fests, especially when you’re an advocate of stretch-till-you-retch wordplay.
In the latter case, one could do a mash-up of the authors’ book titles. So, you’d have "A Million Point One Mutinies Sometime: The Revolution in Indian Literature", maybe, starring VS Naipaul and Chetan Bhagat. Or, "The Famished Code: Is Popular Fiction Given its Due?", starring Ben Okri and Dan Brown. Or "My Name is A Suitable Enchantress". You get the picture. But, do note that a panel comprising more than one star writer must be moderated by a vacuous panellist who hasn’t read any of the books they have written.
Now, a lit fest which invites only authors is barely worthy of its epithet. You must have a celebrated chef on board, to discuss food with one of the erstwhile royals of the country, or perhaps with a sex-and-gossip columnist. In that case, you could give it a suitably asinine title, like "Meals and Bun: The Story of my Love Affair with Food".
The session topic is crucial when you have an incompatible star panel – let’s say, off the top of my head, Amartya Sen, Prannoy Roy, Amitabh Bachchan, George RR Martin, and Vishwanathan Anand – because the topic must acknowledge all of them, while sounding equally esoteric to each. Something like "Game of Thrones: Is the Indian Sarkar making the right moves in the West?" would ensure that each of the panellists is as confused as his neighbour, and topics about which no one can speak with authority are important components of a lit fest. Any Indian lit fest must devote at least an hour to discussing Pakistan. Twitter, Bollywood, cricket, and diplomacy must feature prominently. This is best done with a topic such as "Jab We Didn’t Meet: Does the Future of India-Pak Friendship Depend on Social Networking?"
Of course, the press will not take notice of a lit fest unless it is associated with a protest. That poses a problem, because writers welcome affronts and bizarre experiences – they make good raw material for forthcoming books. So, one must rely on the phalanx of journalists and columnists who praise each other’s forgettable forays into poetry and magic realism, while eschewing most good fiction until it is nominated for, or wins, a prestigious prize. Hopefully, one of these people will fail to recognise an Arjuna Awardee, or hold forth on the importance of forgiving rapists.
But a good lit fest needs a foolproof controversy plan, which is why one must always invite a high-profile guest who has earned the wrath of religious fundamentalists – or, even better, bleeding-heart liberals – and then revoke the invitation on public demand.
Conclusion: You know how music festivals are all about bands playing their music, and driving their fans crazy, and everyone getting stoned and... having fun? Unless you want your lit fest to be about literature and those who love it, do follow the directions above, lest you end up with sessions that panellists actually enjoy.