Art + Commerce: Notes from the Boston Book Festival 2012

Yesterday, warm fall weather brought crowds—crowds!—to Copley Square for the fourth annual Boston Book Festival. Lines snaked around Trinity Church for events like “The Short Story” (with Junot Diaz as the star attraction) and “Political Culture.”

"Boston Book Festival 2012, Copley Square" @ Martha Nichols

The BBF has grown since I attended its first year, including tented tables with local booksellers and far more indie authors selling their work. TW Executive Editor Elizabeth Langosy and I had great chats with other attendees, including Editor Christina Thompson of Harvard Review and Terence Hawkins who directs the Yale Writers’ Conference. (I even did some live tweeting, which you’ll find @talkingwriting.)

Yet, there was more commercial hustle than I remember, too, and much angst about the impact of e-books and digital publishing. Elizabeth and I were surprised to hear the three writers on “The Short Story” panel say they read almost no literary writing online.

Jennifer Haigh, a PEN/Hemingway award winner, recounted her first foray into publishing a story digitally on Byliner as if it were a daring experiment. After realizing how many readers saw it online, Haigh said, “it was a total revelation to me.”

One of the oddest notes was struck by the BBF’s opening event on Friday night, “Page to Screen.” Five writers squared off about having their books turned into movies, moderated by Wesley Morris, a film critic at the Boston Globe.

“Most books don’t have a good narrative”

A promising setup. But as it turned out, I could have been watching reality TV with a cast of “characters.” There was the funny chubby guy (Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket). The hardass journalist dressed in black (Buzz Bissinger of Friday Night Lights). The handsome keeper of the literary flame (Andre Dubus of House of Sand and Fog).

And there was the token woman (YA novelist Rachel Cohn of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist)—looking “lovely in purple,” said Morris (token person of color).

I like all these writers, but the event quickly devolved into talking about the commercial advantages of a movie adaptation—“it’s really freaking great,” said Cohn, “it’s like a two-hour advertisement for your book”—and chest thumping between Bissinger and Dubus about how pragmatic writers should be in angling books for movie deals.

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