You want to get a writer’s attention? Don’t say I loved your book.
Lit fests attract people who read and want to be around books (and writers). And people who don’t read but think hearing about books (from writers) would be an acceptable substitute.” — Shashi Tharoor
The mother of all literature festivals is under way in Jaipur. And ‘tis the season of lit fests everywhere else, each one joined to the other like some kind of an endless daisy chain. If you are a lit fest virgin and ashamed to admit it, fear not.
This is the handy guide to surviving lit fests for beginners – both newbie attendees and writers.
If you are going to Jaipur remember these cardinal rules. This is a lit fest on Viagra.
But you must remember a few things to get your bang for the buck at the lit fest. Well, it’s actually free, so there’s no bucks involved, but you know what I mean.
The seat is your most precious possession. If you find a seat, grab it. Otherwise it’s going going gone. If you want to see a Germaine Greer or a Yann Martel and they have sessions at 3 but it’s only 11:30, don’t dither if you find a seat. Sure, you might have to sit through a session on Russian history that you are not really interested in but it’s worth it. And heck, you might even learn something. They will keep telling you not to hold seats. No one around you will be paying heed.
The selfie is the new autograph. But going to a writer with a scrap of paper and saying “Autograph please” is rather tacky. Don’t do it if you are over the age of 13. You could say you have her book at home, and you are going to paste that piece of paper onto it. Google the name of her book first. Ruskin Bond once said someone asked him when he was going to write another Mowgli book. Also, if you are pretending to be an autograph collector, get a damn autograph book. Don’t bring last year’s diary from Singhania and Sons PVC Pipes and pretend you are a “collector”.
You want to get a writer’s attention? Don’t say I loved your book. That’s cool but talk is cheap. Say I know where the free alcohol is. Or I have a power bank you can use to charge your phone. That’s useful information. The lit fest is a party. The Delhi Khan Market crowd, which has invaded Jaipur this weekend, knows it. The writers know this. If the bar is open, do not get in the way of the writer trying to inch towards the bar. Offer them an extra drink coupon instead. Above all, do NOT go near them on a dry day. Writers having to socialise with other writers without alcohol close at hand can be injurious to your health.
Beware the audience question. Keep in mind it’s a question not a comment. Giving a long-winded comment in three parts and then saying “What do you think of that?” at the end of it does not magically turn the comment into a question. Also please don’t put your hand up, jump up and down. Wait for the microphone to make its tortuous way to you and then say “I just wanted to say Rupi Kaur, I love your poetry”. Also “How can I write like you?” is not an acceptable question.
Buy books but remember the 15-kg weight limit on the flight home.
The early tweet gets viral. Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, just told the crowd at Jaipur, “The penis is not my enemy. In fact, it’s the only part of a man I know what to do with.” If you get to tweet it first and it goes viral, you have arrived. Be ready with the phone. Just remember 5,000 others are doing the same and it’s often more than the network can bear. But keep trying. Follow JLFInsider for stinging anonymous commentary. Design your tweets to get their attention.
Attend at least one session featuring someone you have not heard of. Surprise yourself.
Befriend a volunteer. That might be more useful for a perk or two than sucking up to a writer who is anxiously trying to figure out where s/he is in the pecking order. Don’t ask a writer when her next book is coming out. She’s come to the lit fest to not think about that.
If you truly love a writer, think long and hard before your go to see them at a lit fest. Some writers are meant to be read, not seen or heard. The magic on the page might just translate to pettiness on the stage and ruin his/her books forever. That’s a risk that comes with the territory. Lit fests are a performance and writers suffer from performance anxiety.
If you are a writer and making your lit fest debut, you can have no better lit guide than my friend Prajwal Parajuly. He wrote two much-acclaimed books and parlayed them into lit fest invites from Kenya to Gibraltar to Pokhara and is still dubbed the darling of lit fests.
He says, “Don’t take lit fests seriously. They don’t do anything to advance your literary career.” Since Parajuly just attended his 75th lit fest in five years he must know something about it. He even went to fancy lit fests like Storymoja in Kenya that pamper writers and pay them for attending. “Shouldn’t we at least monetise our lit fest attendance?” he wonders. Or at least move to the next generation of lit fests, says stand-up comic Anuvab Pal, with massages and author arm wrestling contests included.
Parajuly also has an advice: “Do not ever go back to a lit fest that you’ve hated. I did that. I hated the second time even more.” So I am definitely not going to go back to the lit fest where I found that the soap in my bathroom was a sliver of medicinal Rexona. Especially after I found out that other writers got bathroom with shampoo, conditioner and body wash.
If you have written your debut book, just make sure your signing station is not next to Sudha Murthy’s. Her long line of admirers, all clutching their books, will make you feel like it’s entirely pointless. Also a Bollywood celebrity, no matter how minor, will always trump you. Do not take it to heart.
But gird up your loins. As award-winning writer Mahesh Rao warns, “Exaggerating your literary achievements to people who have never heard of you is exhausting work, my friends.”
Also remember that as a writer you have to stop lit-festing at some point and write again because not all of us can be professional lit-festers. Among other things, it’s bad for your waistline. Parajuly says, “I haven’t written jack since Land Where I Flee. Well I wrote a few Facebook updates, but who’s counting.” He even imposed an embargo on lit fests but then “if they want me in beautiful Sri Lanka, why the hell not?”
Finally if you really want to be a writer, be careful. Lit fests can be a petri dish of writerly insecurity in full bloom. But remember like the flu, lit fests are seasonal. They too will pass.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.