What Happens When Literary Events Move Online?

A Look at the Book World’s New Digital Reality

1.
Literary Events in Days of Yore

One Saturday each month, the gallery-esque space of a United Methodist Church serves as an intimate venue to showcase writers from all around, its white walls and deep hardwood floors the perfect backdrop for the Argenta Reading Series. In what began as a one-off, the series started in 2017 when Guy Choate refused to let Little Rock, Arkansas, be another flyover spot for writers on tour. Seventy-five people turned out that first night when Nicholas Manieri showed up to read. Many hadn’t heard of Manieri, but that didn’t stop them from buying the book or asking Choate when the next reading was scheduled.

“It changes the cultural landscape of a place like Little Rock to have a literary event like this that didn’t exist before,” says Choate. Writers like Molly McCully Brown, Kai Coggin, Allison Joseph, and Maurice Carlos Ruffin have stopped there, and they not only increase the city’s literary profile but also open up residents to a more diverse—and often more challenging—scope of literature.  When you pair that with wine, conversation, and even homemade cookies from Choate’s mother, you have a reading series that does more than promote any one writer’s work—it fills a need in the community. “I want to help shape [Little Rock] in a way that … my son will grow up in the city and be proud of it,” Choate says.

In March 2020, the pandemic put a halt to these events. After a few attempts to refit the series to Facebook Live, Choate found the format incompatible with his mission. The Argenta Reading Series is now on hiatus until in-person gatherings can resume.

2.
Community and Audience

Historian and author of Hearing Happiness (August, 2020) Jaipreet Virdi shares similar feelings with Choate. “A big part of literary events is communication and connection,” she said. “Sharing not just the messages of your work, but also your thoughts as they arise during the Q&A session.” Virdi has her doubts about how well this translates digitally, where the audience is not limited to—or even primarily directed to—an immediate geographical community. “There’s a sense of intimacy there, I believe, that cannot be replicated online.”

Wordplay, a literary festival started in 2019, was among the first large-scale community literary events to make the shift from in-person to online programming. Founding Director Steph Opitz told us the organizers decided in March to switch formats instead of cancel, in part because she was concerned about all the other cancelled events for authors with new books and in part to curb financial losses. “It happened so fast and it was new to us, so we thought we might as well try it,” Opitz said. Wordplay leaders quickly reached out to organizers of other book festivals to collaborate, which worked out especially well. Wordplay, for instance, hosted an interview with Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, Oregon Public Radio produced the audio, and The Believer published the transcript.

Opitz emphasizes that the rethinking of event format depended heavily on staff with technology skills, though she also admits, “We were not holding ourselves to the standard of great tech beyond operating on Zoom.” To manage the lineup in this new format, Wordplay spread events throughout April and May, and re-envisioned all aspects of the festival, including audience and the financial model, going so far as to waive the organization’s usual percentage cut on book sales. “It certainly hasn’t been a money-making year,” she said.

Despite the financial hit, attendance was exceptionally high. More than 80,000 people attended Wordplay events this year, an eight-fold increase over its inaugural year. Opitz attributes the enormity of that increase to high-profile writers like children’s author Kate DiCamillo and to going big online before other organizations shifted to a remote format.

While Wordplay defines itself as a community celebration, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has a different mission: “to foster literary achievement, to advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.” This past March, on the verge of the pandemic, AWP went ahead with its annual conference, but next year’s conference will take place largely online. While the AWP conference webpage suggests there may be an in-person component in Kansas City, Missouri, all programming will be available virtually to accommodate shifting travel restrictions and cuts to university travel budgets that have resulted from the pandemic.

While the conference schedule is not yet available, the tentative list of panel presentations is available. In addition, board member Stephanie Vanderslice is especially excited about the conference’s virtual bookfair. She explained that attendees will navigate exhibitor portals displayed on the screen and be able to pop in and out of the virtual booths. How might such a format encourage the happenstance discoveries made while meandering down an exhibit hall aisle, now that attendees can’t be tempted to stop for free candy? How might up-and-coming presses and programs find virtual ways for their portals to catch the eyes of passers-by, who may be sorting through screen images for the well-known press and journals? What is the equivalent for a personalized book signing? It remains to be seen how exhibitors will reimagine how to make eye contact, create a portal that stands out, and engage conference-goers over the course of three days.

The potential traffic of online events is a big bonus, of course, and AWP is excited about the ease of attendance. In fact, Vanderslice says the capacity is unlimited: “As many people as we can take are going to be at each session, sitting in the comfort of their own home to attend.” No one will have to squeeze in to stand in the back of a packed room.

3.
Tradition and Adaptation

Unlike Wordplay or the AWP Conference, many literary events are based at universities with creative writing programs, where big numbers are less important than serving the primary audience—students. Even if Victoria Chang, chair of the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University, wanted to cancel readings, she couldn’t because they are an integral and expected part of the educational program. For the Antioch residency, including the public readings, to realize its potential, there had to be significant attention paid to training in both technology and presentation techniques. “For every event, we had hosts, emcees, co-hosts,” Chang said. “We trained every person giving a seminar, reading, or workshop, not only on how to use Zoom, but also on how to bring their presentations alive.” She recognizes how difficult it is for presenters to maintain their energy and keep the audience engaged when everyone is staring at a screen. “We also shortened all presentations by just a little to avoid as much Zoom fatigue as possible,” she said. “We loaded the residency up with breaks and self-care time, as well as 12-step meetings, socials, and stretch breaks.”

Utah’s Poet Laureate and founder of Utah’s Poetry Festival, Paisley Rekdal also understands the need for both presenters and audience members to adapt if we are to take full advantage of this shift in literary culture. She’s seen readings lean more toward models similar to those she’s attended in Paris, London, and Rome, where presenters aren’t expected to read directly from their work as much as talk about their books. She notes, “This keeps writers from going over their reading time, and it usually intrigues readers more.” Attendees get more than what they can read themselves in the book. Readers get to know the author’s thoughts beyond the book.

Many university-based events see that sort of conversation with the author as imperative. The Tabula Poetica Reading Series is hosted by Chapman University, where this article’s authors are based, and it is as akin to the Argenta Reading Series as it is to Antioch’s residency. Tabula Poetica events have always been free and open to the public and usually include cookies, but the primary audience is the students in poetry classes who are reading the visiting poets’ books—a particular community. Genevieve Kaplan, guest curator for this year’s series, is working with the staff to ensure that students have as personalized experience as possible via Zoom, with the ability to ask questions at both the afternoon talks and the evening readings. To extend the reach while maintaining security, the public has real-time access through live-streaming on YouTube. The events will also be video-recorded and archived on YouTube, which adds closed captioning as well. These different levels of access reflect how the series perceives its audience and is allowing Kaplan to experiment with different kinds of engagement this year that will likely carry over in the much longer term.

4.
Accessibility

Importantly, while a few Tabula Poetica events in past years have included ASL translation, Kaplan and her team is looking carefully at various options for closed captioning, transcription, and linking to published poems to make events more accessible. In-person literary event programming has often been inaccessible for those who are deaf or have low hearing, and the nationwide switch to online events has led to an overdue acknowledgment of that shortcoming. Virdi sees recent technology developed without accessibility in mind as “a reflection of how society denies and ignores disabled people rather than perceive them as full participants who should have access to all sorts of content.” As event organizers switch modes and platforms, Virdi asserts, “As a standard, captioning, ASL interpreters, and image descriptions should be mandatory at all online events.”

Of course, online events eliminate a lot of physical barriers to access. In its first year, Opitz said, Wordplay struggled with cobble stone streets and inaccessible entryways to venues. Physical accessibility was an important improvement when the festival moved online. Vanderslice also points to this advantage for the virtual AWP Conference. No one will have to run from one side of a convention center to get to a panel on the other side, only to find a broken escalator or that the designated seating is full. “I’m not going to say it’s not going to be overwhelming,” she said, but added, “people can walk away, take a break … and know they can come back to see the session any time because it will be recorded.”

That’s not to say that online events don’t come with distinct barriers to access. Not everyone has a reliable internet connection, and not all software has been built with accessibility in mind. Accessibility should have been a standard part of event planning all along, just like budgeting and scheduling. As they rebuild their events now, organizers are in a position to build in accessibility, instead of tacking it on.

5.
Who’s Buying This?

Ease of attendance is definitely a big payoff for many at these online literary events. “I don’t have to think about where to park, what to wear, who to bring with me. Instead,” Kaplan says, “I can think about if I want to have my camera on, if I want to sit on the couch or on the porch, if I want to light a candle or get myself a cup of tea, if I want to invite my partner to listen too, if we might want to listen together while we’re making dinner.” Invisible to the presenter, the attendee can multi-task instead of sitting in rapt attention, which seems great.

Unless you’re the presenter. Both the act of writing and the act of reading are largely a solitary act, but literary events offer authors and readers opportunities for interpersonal exchanges. In a conversation during the Albany Book Festival this fall, novelist and short story writer Edwidge Danticat said, “There are certain things I now realize we could have done…from the house, you know. I didn’t have to get on a plane for that particular thing.” Despite the time and effort the new Zoom reality saves her, she added that writers festivals “are basically where writers met. That’s where we…exchanged ideas.” In addition, literary events allow authors to see the effect of their words on readers. With the shift online, however, such feedback is not always perceptible. Attendees can mute their own mics, replace their faces with avatars, or leave altogether. “You feel like you’re doing well,” says Choate of reading aloud online. “But you don’t really know.”

In addition to losing personal connection, writers and booksellers are taking a hit in sales. “[Free online] events attract many people, but they do not often buy books,” says Rob Eckman, marketing manager for The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Events that are ticketed attract fewer people and therefore fewer book sales. It is frustrating.” For Lauren Zimmerman, owner of Writer’s Block Bookstore, attendance at digital events has been all over the place. The store has experimented by offering attendees signed copies, swag, and other forms of entertainment along with the event, but Zimmerman admits: “We are still trying to figure it out.” Even Wordplay organizer Opitz agrees, saying, “If I was an author, I wouldn’t want to go to a bunch of events if I wasn’t going to sell books.”

While we no longer see long lines of chatty readers waiting for their moment with the author, virtual hosts can tell viewers how to purchase the author’s book, and events can be hosted on platforms that allow for purchase buttons on the screen. The AWP Conference is partnering with Bookshop.org as a shopping option. Powell’s is hosting some events featuring well-known authors—Allie Brosh, Barbara Kingsolver, Roxane Gay—that require attendees to purchase the book to get the Zoom link. Ultimately, supporting writers is something people have to do, as poet and nonfiction writer Rekdal says, “out of their own curiosity and good will.”

6.
Literary Events of the Future

As event organizers explore the possibilities of online formats, they are realizing that merely replicating the past doesn’t cut it. Authors, too, are recalibrating their priorities and their delivery for the screen. Even attendees who welcome the chance to attend previously inaccessible events face tough decisions about which events and how many to attend. For all of us involved in literary culture, the pandemic is fueling a thorough rethinking of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it—and why.

Organizers, authors, and book lovers are discovering tools and approaches that are redefining cultural events. For example, while the Writer’s Block Bookstore in Winter Park, Florida, plans to host its first socially distanced reading with Nicholas Sparks in October (an event in which the guests RSVP in segments for specific time slots), it does not plan to stop its digital readings. Now able to reach authors and viewers beyond the southeast region, Zimmerman hopes to continue to increase audience and community by merging the digital with the brick-and-mortar. “Hopefully when we are able to meet live, we can have the virtual events in the store and set up a projector so that people can enjoy the author among other book lovers and be in their favorite bookstore.” When shared online, such readings not only become more geographically accessible, but they can gain longevity with channels like Literary Hub’sThe Virtual Book Club,” which archives all of the events it live-streams.

The new problem that’s emerging is the feeling of simultaneously not knowing where to look for a comprehensive list of literary events and becoming overwhelmed by the multitude of options. Poets & Writers has a calendar where organizers can list their events, and Literary Hub offers a curated selection of the week’s live online readings and author talks in “Your Week in Virtual Events.” There are also several writer-oriented Facebook groups that encouraging sharing literary event information, but it’s easy to click that you’re going and then get overwhelmed when Facebook tells you that you’re interested a dozen events this week.

While a calendar gets the word out and offers choices, a comprehensive listing would also offer ways to understand competition for audience, resource distribution, and other factors that shape how literary culture thrives. Importantly, such a calendar would help reveal the big picture of diversity and inclusion so that, together, organizers, authors, and readers have another tool to address long-standing disparities that continue to shape education, publishing, and promotion.

We remain curious about how we—event organizers, publishers, writers, readers—will all adapt over the longer term. The online environment has some of us clinging to assumptions that intimacy means in-person, shoulder to shoulder with other readers, the author’s voice carried on the air around us. Others are considering whether a different kind of intimacy exists online. As Choate says, “Understanding that people are living their lives in normal spaces across the globe—no matter how famous they are—that’s been satisfying for me.” Through the screen, writers and readers get a glimpse of where we live our daily lives. We see each other’s bookshelves and family photos, the color of each other’s walls—and now even rate the Zoom room. We hear an author’s toddler, or the cat who jumps onto the host’s lap. We’re getting to know each other differently as writers and readers.

Anna Leahy, Sam Risak, and Tryphena Yeboah
Anna Leahy, Sam Risak, and Tryphena Yeboah
Sam Risak, Tryphena Yeboah, and Anna Leahy are all affiliated with Chapman University’s MFA program. Risak is an MA/MFA student and has work published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, and Anastamos and has others forthcoming in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Terrain.org, and Crab Orchard Review. Yeboah is an MFA student with pieces in Narrative Magazine and Commonwealth Writers. Her chapbook is available in the New-Generation African Poets series from Akashic Books. Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor and the poetry collection Aperture. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University. See more at www.amleahy.com.





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