Monday, October 29, 2007

Texas Book Festivals adds a little pop

BOOKS: Austin event takes on a pop culture tone
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, October 28, 2007
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Now in its 12th year, the annual Texas Book Festival in Austin is evolving from an event for literary swells into something more populist.

In addition to the usual literary lineup of national prominence (Jane Hamilton, Diane Ackerman, Judith Thurman, Joseph Ellis) and notable Texans (Kinky Friedman, Rick Riordan, Dagoberto Gilb, Shelby Hearon), the organizers of next weekend's festival have injected a pop culture element.

The last two years, the opening speakers in the state Capitol's House Chamber (the festival's premier venue) have been politicians, specifically Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but this year it is the best-selling thriller writer Michael Connelly. Later, Tom Perrotta reads in the House from his new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, which depicts suburban turf war between Christian evangelists and liberals.

It marks a change in the otherwise self-serious festival from only a few years ago, when writers of such a, well, democratic (with a lowercase "d") sensibility would have been unlikely candidates to appear in such an august forum.

Noting the changes, Texas Book Festival literary director Clay Smith acknowledged that politics have always been important to the festival – it was originally championed by former first lady of Texas Laura Bush. But, he said, the festival remains "a mutable creature that's based on what's being published each year around the country."

Publishing, like much else in the culture, has been transformed by television, and increasingly publishers are producing books purely for entertainment rather than edification. Pop books such as Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) outsell any of the National Book Award finalists by a ratio of approximately 1,000-to-1.

Unsurprisingly, some of the events in Austin are looking more and more like television brought to life. One example is the "Cooking Tent," which this year features Padma Lakshmi, hostess of Bravo reality series Top Chef. A new "Lifestyle Tent" is offering sessions covering diverse topics, from parenting to Texas wineries.

Even children will find themselves faced with printed byproducts of the big and small screens: Longtime Sesame Street regular Roscoe Orman ("Gordon") and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin will present their children's books, as will Rob Kidd, who has written a series of books based on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Does this all mean that literature – or, as Roy Blount Jr. (another 2007 festival attendee) calls it in Long Time Leaving, "stories that have no selling point" – is being edged out of the festival?

No. Numerous literary luminaries, such as George Saunders, Vendela Vida and Sherman Alexie will be there, but these are authors best known to fans of inside the book review sections, rather than those who simply glance over the best-seller lists.

Fans of literary fiction can take solace in that, starting next year, the Texas Book Festival is co-hosting a Spring Fiction Festival with the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The first event is scheduled April 25-28.

And fans of politics will still find the politically connected likes of Jenna Bush, Kristin Gore, Lynne Cheney and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

There's a reason festivalgoers are more likely to get the likes of Ms. Lakshmi, Salman Rushdie's soon-to-be ex-wife, instead of Mr. Rushdie himself, who appeared in 2005: Many top-tier and even some midlist authors are demanding speaking fees to appear at large events. The most prestigious publisher in the land, Alfred A. Knopf, has even opened its own speaker's bureau to arrange such appearances.

The Texas Book Festival (one of the three or four largest in the country) operates as a nonprofit charity and does not pay honorariums, which often limits selections to authors with a new book and those who are still on tour. Increasingly, competition for authors may become even more intense, since booksellers from across the state, many of whom rely on author events to bring in customers, have begun complaining to publishers that the festival is absorbing much of the pool of authors touring Texas.

"We don't make an apology for having a lot of great talent. I do think that in many cases the festival is the engine for spreading authors around the state who would not otherwise make the trip," literary director Smith says.

Cyndi Hughes, who ran the festival from 1995 to 2004 and is now producing the Kansas Book Festival in Wichita, is glad to see the festival evolving.

"The purpose of the festival is to raise money for Texas public libraries," she said. "So the more people who come, more books get sold and more money gets raised. It's a win-win-win for everybody."

Another fan is Dallas novelist Will Clarke, who will be making the drive to Austin, where he'll be introducing Joshua Piven, creator of the best-selling series of The Worst-Case Scenario handbooks and author of Bad vs. Worse: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lose-Lose Decisions. "My favorite thing about the festival is meeting writers whose work I admire and getting them to sign my books," said Mr. Clarke. "I'm a book nerd and I always come back to Dallas with a trunk full of books."

That, ultimately, is the point.

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