Singing for our Supper – Open Book Festival 2013

I just attended the Open Book Festival 2013 in a gently bracing Cape Town spring. This is one of South Africa’s 4 major literary festivals, the others being Franschoek, and the Kingsmead/RMB and M&G events in Johannesburg. It has its own personality though, because it is set in and around the Fugard Theatre downtown, which is surrounded by a strange mixture of trendy pubs and some really, really down and out inner city denizens. These blighted people, huddled in doorways against the cold or loudly arguing or procaiming incoherently give a truly third world feel to the event – while we sit and listen to intellectual fare in the various snug venues and then retire to the bar for Merlot, right outside the door (and I mean literally) the real world of survival and despair intrudes.
This and the short walks to the bars and restaurants of the slightly ratty neighbourhood make the festival feel, um, authentic. Although I am not sure to which standard the authenticity cleaves. Perhaps writing and inner cities are closer blood relatives than writing and picture postcard venues.
The event itself is ambitiously curated (curated? can I use that?). There were numerous global superstars to attract the rump of festival goers – our own Lauren Beukes, The Sisters Brothers author Patrick De Witt,  Noviolet Bulawayo of recent Booker shortlist fame, Iain Rankin, creator of flawed detective Rebus, a couple of super-agents from the UK, and others). Then there was an interesting slew of exotic fare – Africa writers from the continent, new young black talent from South Africa, a comic festival on the fringe,an appearance by the redoubtable Helen Zille, a nod to poets, serendipitously timed book launches, the nurturing of shool-age writers, and a nice full lineup of the current crop of lesser and greater known South African writers across hte ficton and non-fiction landscape.
At the centre of the cauldron is one Mervyn Sloman  the proprietor of the indestructible indie book store Book Lounge, who orchestrates this entire complex literary architecture with flair and passion. I sat on a few panels with some smart people and moderators, had fun, ate and drank, mingled and made merry. Hung out with the famous, not so famous, and the happily anonymous. It was, I suppose, all that one would wish for for such an undertaking.
But that is all background to the real question that I have, which is why in the world people go to these things? You read a book and move on to the next – why does anyone want to see the author talk about it?  Or even worse, see an author opine on matters unrelated to her work (which happens a lot at these events). Obviously the celebrities in the the line-up have their own external magnetism (would I pay to see Philip Roth speak about anything? Yes). But the rest of us who toil in the barren fields of SA book-writing? What could I possibly say that would interest anybody? Anthony Altbeker made the point that non-fiction sessions defintely have a place as a specator sport, sort of like going to a lecture. But fiction?
Of course, I tread lightly here. Authors appear on panels. Audiences come year after year, so some value must have been extracted. People like to talk about about books with friends, why not hear what authors have to say? People seem to be endlessly fascinated by authors musings about the writing process. Sometimes there is even blood sport (Rian Malan and Antjie Krog at Franschoek some year ago, and an apparent rout with Judge Denis Davis and the Agliotti authors a few days ago).  Some authors sell a few more books, if they have given an ace performance. By the same token, those who do a live epic fail on stage (like getting stage-fright, as one new young author did this year, to the excruciating discomfort of the moderator) would have done better to stay home. Many authors are smart and funny – if you are lucky it can be like watching improv comedy. Some authors are really, really awful to their audience or moderators – I will never buy a Lionel Shriver book again because of this.
It would be a perfect world indeed if buyers made their choices on the quality of the book itself, which is a kind of a catch-22, because you will only know when you’ve read it. So we rely on reviews. Friend’s recommendations. The back page blurb. The risk mitigation of author’s body of work (although this doesnt always work, given Tom Wolfe’s latest).
And if you have a spare R40 for a ticket, perhaps the somewhat anxious and desperate faces of the authors pleading with you to like them, singing for their supper, dancing for their dimes.