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.

“Most books don’t have a good narrative, they’re too fucking long,” Bissinger said.

"Bissinger, Cohn, and Dubus" (BBF 2012) © Martha Nichols

“Film adaptation is snuggling with the Devil,” countered Dubus. “Ninety percent of me hates the whole Hollywood scene.”

For Handler, “parts are like prostitution.” He added that “I wasn’t that interested in whether I liked” the movie version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

All in all, a cynical interpretation of artists vs. hack filmmakers (“we’re talking about art vs. commerce!” Dubus cried), and one that did little to celebrate the creativity of adaptations or literary mashups. Stay tuned for a different spin in the next issue of Talking Writing.

But if this event tapped too much insiderish anxiety, the last session I attended on Saturday boosted my hopes. “The Future of Reading” attracted an overflow audience in the venerable Boston Public Library, with a panel that included Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab; Robert Darnton, director of the University Library at Harvard; and Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black and formerly of the Onion.

“Technology is driving a fundamental change in the way we apprehend text,” Darnton said. While he sees pros and cons to the digital future, like others on the panel, he worried about short attention spans and “losing deep reading.” He even argued that “tweets are eroding our language of adjectives and adverbs.”

Thurston, for his part, noted that books now get to audiences through many channels, including Twitter. “The book isn’t the thing,” he said, “the story is the thing.”

Still, the best observation (at least for this TW editor) came from a questioner in the audience: Because of digital publishing, she said, “we’re becoming deep writers.”

Yes! And if there’s any doubt about where my allegiance falls—or if you’re wondering what’s really going to happen to Newsweek—check out my TW paean to the future in “Hurray for Digital Magazines!”


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