The Bay Area has long been known for its literary happenings. From Mark Twain’s reading about his travels through the Sandwich Islands at Maguire’s Academy of Music in 1866 to the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, when Allen Ginsberg first performed “Howl,” the area has always buzzed with literary life. That spirit lives on today through the extensive network of literary series, festivals, and programming that serve the needs of Bay Area readers.
One of the best-known annual events is Litquake, a nine-day festival that takes place each fall. Litquake first began in 1999 as Litstock, a one-day series of readings in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and has since grown in size and scope, from an all-volunteer group with no budget to having a paid staff that puts on programming throughout the year.
Founded by Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl, Litquake hosts events at a variety of venues all over the city. Boulware says the fact that San Franciscans consume a lot of books and alcohol helped inspire Lit Crawl, the bacchanalian literary pub crawl held on the festival’s closing night. The event is now franchised, taking place in several cities in the U.S., as well as in London and Helsinki.
Litquake breaks down the distance between authors and their readers. “Many festivals position authors as superstars to be revered on a pedestal,” Boulware says, adding that the event aims to represent a diverse literary community, including writers who aren’t necessarily big stars. Because the Bay Area boasts quite a few digital book enterprises, Litquake also offers panels and seminars on nontraditional publishing. Litquake is “platform-agnostic, and our mission is to showcase great writing no matter the medium,” Boulware notes.
Boulware says Litquake faces the same challenges that many other organizations in the Bay Area do: primarily, it needs more money and better access to real estate. Despite those challenges, Litquake has thrived, much like what Boulware describes as the “terrifically fierce mafia of independent bookstores” that he praises for their ability to adapt and innovate their models for long-term survival.
In addition to the established Litquake, 2015 brought two new festivals: the Bay Area Book Festival and the Oakland Book Festival. The latter took place on May 31. Cofounded by Kira Don, an editor-at-large at Lapham’s Quarterly, and her husband, Lapham's Quarterly art director Timothy Don, the Oakland Book Festival offered the usual tables for authors to promote their work, but the emphasis was on engagement through a series of interdisciplinary conversations, presentations, and panel discussions. “It has been our plan from day one to start as a small, focused, highly curated festival that gets it right the first time,” Kira Don says. The programming draws on local talent, including Elaine Brown, Vikram Chandra, Adam Johnson, Anthony Marra, Mary Roach, and Ben Fong-Torres, and on national literary figures such as Paul Beatty, Edwidge Danticat, Lewis Lapham, and Tracy K. Smith. Timothy Don adds that literary events and festivals are “absolutely crucial,” noting, “Arts and letters, the life of the mind, great fiction, committed politics, and profound thought—these are not things that spring from the earth like grass. You have to make them, and making them takes sweat and time and work.”
The inaugural Bay Area Book Festival was held June 6–7 in a 10-block radius in downtown Berkeley. The two-day free festival featured over 300 local and international authors giving lectures, conversations, and performances, as well as an area for children and teens. The Bay Area Book Festival also offered free books for children who attended, donated by Half Price Books in collaboration with the East Bay Children’s Book Project.
Designed by the Flux Foundation arts nonprofit, the temple-like Lacuna installation was built on-site and featured 50,000 books donated by the Internet Archive. The books were removed from the walls of the art piece throughout the weekend as festivalgoers took them home.
The festival also featured music, dance and theatrical performances. Other highlights included an evening with Judy Blume, a keynote by Google’s Laszlo Bock, and interviews with Pico Iyer and Mac Barnett. Cherilyn Parsons, the festival’s founder and executive director, says the festival celebrates new forms of publishing, pointing to the region’s status as both a literary mecca and the “global capital of digital innovation.”
Since 1980, City Arts & Lectures has offered cultural programming for a theater and radio audience. Operating in the newly restored 1,600-seat Nourse Theater in S.F., the series presents some of the city’s largest literary events. The often sold-out shows pair speakers together in conversation, and the programming has grown to include multimedia presentations, live music performances, and unusual pairings like chef David Chang with screenwriter David Simon.
Associate producer Holly Mulder-Wollan says that City Arts & Lectures has worked hard to “establish San Francisco as a routine stop for any book tour or author event. Our public radio broadcasts bring literary conversation to an even broader audience—our programs air on more than 130 public radio stations across the country.”
Some recent programs that stand out to Mulder-Wollan include academic Cornel West in conversation with documentary filmmaker and author Astra Taylor, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik with philosopher Alain de Botton, and actress Frances McDormand with author Dave Eggers Mulder-Wollan says she hopes people “trust our curation over time, and are willing to take a chance on seeing a writer, artist, scientist, or cultural figure they may not already know. We are also working to expand our audience by presenting programs that appeal to a younger, more diverse demographic.”
Also looking to tap into S.F.’s diverse population, Radar Productions is a nonprofit organization that produces literary happenings with a focus on queer and underground literature throughout the Bay Area, including its Radar Reading Series. Started by S.F.–based author and literary maven Michelle Tea, Radar Productions is undergoing a changing of the guard. Tea is stepping down after 12 years as artistic director and passing the torch to local author Juliana Delgado Lopera, who begins July 1.
Lopera stresses the importance of preserving community spaces in the face of soaring rents. “The queer community has been hit disproportionately hard by these changes, in particular queers of color,” she says. “We know how important spaces like Radar are for the survival of our communities. There are few reading series left that focus on radical queer artists in San Francisco. Radar is one of those.” Lopera hopes to disrupt the homogenous landscape with “glitter and fabulous storytelling” and that her priority is to “create a fiscally stable organization that engages deeply with the queer community.”
Radio producer Ninna Gaensler-Debs launched the Litography Project, an interactive multimedia literary map, in 2014. She got the idea when crafting her own literary tour of Dublin. “I connected deeply with the city because I knew the literary history wrapped up in its streets,” she says.
Gaensler-Debs wanted to create something similar for S.F.. The Litography Project mixes her favorite things, “radio, the Bay Area, and books.” She notes that S.F.’s small size means that even though events are “literally all over the map,” they aren’t hard to get to. The Litography Project’s goal is to look at literature from as many perspectives as possible, and through a variety of mediums. Beyond the online mapping tool, the Litography Project holds live storytelling events and collaborates with other local literary organizations.
Gaensler-Debs says that literary events are “beyond crucial,” noting, “San Francisco is what it is because of a history of literary, artistic, and musical diversity and creativity. When that goes away, we lose a lot.”
John McMurtrie, book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, launched an interactive digital literary map of S.F. in 2013. McMurtrie, a self-professed “map geek” says it’s not just the geography of maps that appeal to him, but the ways in which maps can present information creatively.
The project was developed from a printed literary map that McMurtrie made in collaboration with illustrator Ian Huebert in 2009. They wanted an online version “that not only brings the region’s rich past alive through such relevant passages and landmarks, but also features hundreds of authors and booksellers who make it such a thriving literary city.” He regularly updates the map with new writers and bookstores and locations, and says he gets feedback from people around the world.
McMurtrie says much of S.F.’s allure is embedded in the beauty of its landscape, which is reflected in the writing about the city, this “end-of-the-earth place where anything seems possible. Waves of people have been coming here for generations, not just from around the country but from around the world, and the writers among them—from Mark Twain and company to the Beats to Isabel Allende—have been swept up, like so many others, by what they’ve seen. As Maya Angelou wrote, ‘I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kira Don's title; she is an editor-at-large at Lapham's Quarterly, not a founding editor. Also, Timothy Don is Lapham Quarterly's art director, not a designer as originally stated. One quote was misattributed to Kira Don instead of Timothy Don.Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage