Literary festivals have been around, but it is only lately that they have gone ‘viral’. India alone now has 100 annual literary festivals.
Lit fests have proliferated in Nepal too with scores of book jamborees from Dhangadi to Dhankuta, and even in far-flung places like Rolpa. They have changed the cultural and intellectual landscapes of our society by widening the public sphere, giving space to diverse ideas and ideologies, generating interest in reading and writing, and enriching the culture of debate and discourse.
Sadly, the COVID-19 lockdown means literature festivals in the first half of 2020 like the Hay Festival in the UK and the New Orleans Literary Festival in the US have been cancelled.
All lit fests may be cancelled until a vaccine for the virus is found, and that may mean book gatherings will be suspended till the end of 2021. But even if a cure or vaccine is found, the literary landscape will change.
The first impact is economic, and this is already being felt. Economists say the global recession will be the worst in 150 years and its fallout will be felt long after the pandemic itself is over. This means companies that had been providing financial support to lit fests will no longer be able to do so. Nepal will be especially hit since there are not many companies or government agencies to fall back on for support in the first place.
The second impact will be on travel. Both national and international flights will continue to be restricted, and people will be flying only if absolutely necessary. And if they do they will need to be tested before boarding, and may have to isolate themselves for 14 days on arrival at the destination.
Very few authors will be accepting invitations to attend lit fests, even when they can be organised again. Air fares are also bound to go up, and without international authors, literature festivals will not retain the same charm as before.
Then, it is the audiences that breathe life into these festivals. With people cutting down on mobility and avoiding large gatherings, it will be difficult to attract people to the events, even if there are no government restrictions on the maximum numbers allowed to gather.
They can be physically distanced, but this option will not be viable for events like India’s Jaipur Literature Festival, which draws more than half a million visitors over five days every year.
Given this, literature festival organisers like me worry about the fate of our labours of love. Some have already risen to the challenge by going online. The Hay Festival launched Hay Festival Digital 2020, so audiences could enjoy the sessions virtually.
Similarly, the Jaipur Literature Festival has started an online series titled the Brave New World to make sense of the difficult times that we are going through. In Nepal too, the Kitab Jatra launched a virtual festival and the online reading group Bookaholics is organising a series of conversations with writers. In a weeklong virtual event, Srijanalaya recently launched six Tharu language books with live readings.
While these possibilities exist, they can only be a stop-gap solution, and there is nothing like a physical festival. The grand stage, an electric and eclectic ambience, music, teeming crowds, world renowned writers, public intellectuals and celebrities coming together in one place make literature festivals milestone events.
In addition, there are bookshops and merchandise stalls which boost the publishing industry, restaurants and coffee shops that contribute to local economies. Online literature festivals will not be as exciting and glamorous, will draw limited media attention and sponsorship money.
Besides, people are already suffering from webinar fatigue, and there is research showing that people constantly attending online meetings are stressed and Zoomed out. We cannot rub shoulders with celebrity authors anymore, or stand in line for an autograph, and without that a virtual lit fest will not be as vibrant.
Writers will also miss the physical presence of an audience in an on-ground literature festival. And, the perks: all expenses paid travel to exotic locales, the parties, networking, media coverage, book signing and meeting fans face-to-face.
It is just a question of time before we go back to real-life literature festivals. How quickly depends on how soon the world of travel, and our economies, recover from this pandemic.