What Does the Blossoming of Literature Festivals Mean for Arabic Books (in Translation)?

‘Tis the season for summer lit festivals. Last Friday, the Financial Times looked at “The Economics of Book Festivals.” With bookshops (in Western countries) on the decline, and quality book reviews falling away (or becoming harder to find), what’s to give a reader of Arabic literature in translation hope? Is it the blossoming of literature festivals?

The Financial Times reports that, “just over 30 years ago, in 1983, when the Edinburgh International Book Festival was launched, it was one of only three [in the UK].” Whereas today:

festival_family“according to literaryfestivals.co.uk, a website that tries to keep up with them all, there are more than 350 in Britain alone and a further 100 in Australia and New Zealand. Not to mention others in Gibraltar, Colombia, India, Spain, Kenya . . .”

Iraq, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates

An appearance at a book festival has become, in the last decade, an important way to connect authors and readers. The mere printing of a book does little to get it into a reader’s hands, and book reviews don’t touch 90 percent of what’s translated from Arabic. Even remarkable books by well-known authors, such as Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping, can go almost completely ignored. So getting an author to a festival — or two, or three — has become a critical way of connecting readers and books.

Most Arab authors probably aren’t filling large tents full of readers, so most appearances need some sort of sponsorship. But it’s not just Arab authors who have a hard time selling tickets. An anonymous festival organizer explained the economics of author appearances to FT as such:

“Bands can sell far more tickets to a live event than an author can at a far higher price. A £10 ticket might seem like a lot for a literary event but for most bands that’s absolutely nothing. They could sell 1,800 tickets in an hour and a half for £35. It’s easy to get a mid-level author who can sell 80 to 100 tickets but trying to find an author who can sell 800 to 1,000 tickets is hard. There might be hundreds of bands or comedians who can sell at that level but there aren’t many authors.”

The Literature Across Frontiers report on literary translation from Arabic into English (1990-2010), published in December 2011, suggested that festivals might bring longer-term gains for Arabic fiction in translation:

There is a common festival strategy…of featuring unknown foreign writers in joint appearances alongside known domestic ones, as a way of getting them exposed. So the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim appeared with David Constantine in Manchester in October 2009, and — not that it can be conclusively linked — he was on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010 longlist. These early appearances can prove to be crucial, as Hanan Al-Shaykh remembers. She describes an appearance she made at the prestigious Adelaide literary festival, early in her career, when her novel Beirut Blues was still just a manuscript. It was important to her to be heard not only by a large audience of readers, but by industry representatives, too. “Because it was a very prestigious festival, my manuscript ended up getting fought over by four mainstream publishers, just because of that public appearance. So festivals are important, especially when you are not very well known.”

But the report also wondered whether festival appearances have become over-emphasized.

…for example, a book may be cancelled at quite a late stage due to a shortfall of £2,000, which is roughly what the Beirut39 event spent on each panel member’s attendance at an event with an audience of ten people.

Of course, book fairs aren’t just an English phenomenon: They’re growing around the world. The Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, which had a list of impressive authors, just ended. The Palestine Festival of Literature is going on now. Karachi has an impressive literature festival, and the Emirates LitFest in Dubai has attracted big-name authors and seems to do a good job of selling tickets.

In all likelihood, authors will never get as much out of appearances as do musicians or comedians. And many authors could legitimately hate the idea of going out and speaking to audiences — after all, the test of an author’s mettle is on the page, not in speeches. But festivals do offer a an important way of reaching new readers, particularly where the “familiar” and the “foreign” authors can be buddied up. And with a little elbow grease, audiences should be significantly (!) more than ten lonely souls.