Imagine that your city hosts a book festival that attracts authors of international acclaim and readers of virtually every genre. Exhibitors representing publishers, writing centers, universities and colleges, writing groups, and booksellers (not to mention the best local grilled cheese company) fill a beautiful, historic square in town, and their booths have lines throughout the day. Tourists mix with locals walking, biking, and popping out of the subway stations nearby. Most events—whether in a church, a hotel, or the historic library; whether featuring a bestselling YA author or a scholar-activist—are standing room only.
The next day, you open your city newspapers and see nothing about the festival. Did it happen? Was it just a book lover’s dream?
The Boston Book Festival took place in Copley Square, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, for the ninth time on October 28. Around 200 authors appeared throughout the day, and attendees filled around 18,000 seats and standing room, to boot. Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Daniel Handler, Chris Hayes, Lisa Ko, Dennis Lehane, Claire Messud, Eileen Myles, and Jacqueline Woodson.
Local media in Boston primed the pump ahead of the event, with pieces in the Boston Globe and on NPR, but once it happened there was radio silence. I suspect many people who participated in it in whatever way, like I did, are frustrated, as I am.
Part of this frustration stems from our interest in seeing something we enjoyed broadcast back to us. For some of us, we could also use that reporting for professional reasons—it’s particularly important for writers trying to build their readerships. Anyone with a professional interest in literature may also be disappointed not to see evidence of this beautiful day. This last frustration speaks to bigger issues.
The Boston Book Festival provided many venues for breaking down the wall between readers, writers, and so-called gatekeepers (publishers and media producers). This goes well beyond the exciting moment when a reader meets one of her favorite authors at a reading—though that interaction happened, too, many times over.
How often can a fan of the stylish New York Review Books’ reissued paperbacks meet someone in marketing from the company? In what other space can writers watch agents consider new work, as they do at the massively popular Writer Idol event held each year at the Festival? Not covering this unique space sustains the myth that the walls between readers, writers, and gatekeepers are high and getting higher.
In addition, it hides evidence that there is an active literary community outside of New York. Boston was once a hub of publishing activity, and admittedly that has changed (much of the editorial staff of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Little, Brown have decamped, for example), but publishing still has a strong presence here. Local publishers came out to support this event, with booths and slots in the program. We university press people stood with both corporate and independent trade presses and children’s publishers, alongside a number of other schools and literary nonprofits.
My session at the conference focused on the importance of vetted information in the age of fast news, with two university press folks and two university press authors. Host and participant Amy Brand, director of MIT Press, asked the crowd of 120 or so, some standing, who had read a university press book in the past year, and most of the hands went up, much to our delight.
Boston is famous for underselling itself. Some blame its Yankee spirit that calls for being demure rather than grandiose. But in the lack of media coverage that followed the Boston Book Festival, I see a denial of an exciting space for new connections between producers and consumers, between readers and writers and publishers of all kinds, and an underselling of the vibrant literary community that makes this city a more creative and exciting home for many of us.
Brian Halley is senior editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, based at UMass Boston.