Last year, Benjamin Painter (SMU ???09) and I revived the SMU Literary Festival, dusting off the old Lit Fest posters tucked away in various corners of the Hughes Trigg Student Center and the SMU Library system. Most students on campus didn???t even know there had ever been a Literary Festival???that greats like Alice Walker, Kurt Vonnegut, and too many other greats to name once came to Dallas to talk to our students and the community. The Literary Festival was a huge part of our university???s history, but it was almost as if it had been hidden.
We started talking to our professors about the festival. Some professors shared with us stories of depravity the likes of which cannot be printed in any format???stories of visiting speakers terrorizing sorority houses, visiting local establishments for ???relaxation??? over a pitcher of beer, and wandering off into the recesses of Dallas.
The Literary Festival in its current iteration, thankfully, does not cause the campus to shut down and be declared a disaster area. However, it???s interesting to think about literature bringing a campus to a standstill. People were excited about the authors coming. Rooms were packed with people and auditoriums stuffed with bodies just to hear the thoughts of our country???s greatest (literary) minds. Sure, we could focus on the wildness of past festivals, but I think that doesn???t do them justice.
Of course, times change???people???s tastes, more importantly, change. So many students would rather watch television and movies, go to parties, or stay at home than meet with authors. A few days ago, I had a conversation with Evelyn Day who works at Fondren Library. We were talking about how few people actually read for pleasure anymore. She told me her kids were the only two at their high school that read for fun. Looking at the current state of the publishing industry, the numbers seem to support the fact. I???m not claiming people do not read; I???m merely stating a fact that people do not value books as much as they used to. Yes, there are still those dedicated few that attend book readings, but even those people sometimes would rather ???tune in, drop out,??? as the old adage goes.
How can we encourage more students to come out to the Literary Festival, then? Obviously, we can???t promise them the wild parties of the past, but I think the current iteration of the Literary Festival brings a good ratio of formal to informal events. This year, we added a luncheon, where students were given free food and the ability to freely talk to the authors???no supervision, no censoring. If you had a question, you asked it. The event was a huge success, although the vegetarians weren???t so pleased with the choice of barbeque (we???ll try harder next year, I promise!). Take into account the one-on-one workshop between students and writers and the closing cabaret featuring a unique combination of poetry and jazz, and the Literary Festival is a great example of how intellectual stimulation can be???gasp???fun.
The readings themselves were entertaining as always, and I marvel at how first time attendees seemed surprised to be laughing or to be engrossed when listening to the visiting authors speak. Yes, I want to say, these authors are people. Too often we think only of the opposite, that these people are authors, and that they will be cold, serious, and distant. However, the reality is at a reading, the public gets a glimpse at writer-as-person: we realize they are funny, engaging, dramatic, but most importantly, they are experts at what they do???which is to say, telling a story.
Therein, I think, is the beauty of literary festivals???the ability to interact with the writers on a person-to-person level. This interaction is such a unique experience. The experience becomes a catalyst that inspires the love of literature. In some people, this love might have become dormant; in others, these festivals simple tend the fire. Speaking personally, after every day of the Literary Festival, I went home and I wrote. It didn???t matter if it was any good???and I didn???t care. I was writing without inhibitions or self-censorship. I read more pages than before, read to the point where, even if I was tired or had homework to finish, it became almost a necessity to finish a section, a short story, or a poem.
I hope other people had similar experiences. I hope the Literary Festival inspired people, reminded them why we love literature. To those who might have given up on literature, literary festivals represent a way to get back into the world of storytelling and poetry. Festivals are a reminder that literature is still important, not just to a few of us, but to society in general. As the festival grows, I hope the organizers remember that there are more people not-reading than reading out there, that the festival needs to appeal not to literature-lovers but those who have given up on reading as well. Reaching out to society in general through events like the luncheon and informal discussions, the Literary Festival might encourage people to sit down, open a book, and remember the simple pleasure of enjoying a good piece of writing.