The National Book Festival has been going on for 17 years in DC, and I’ve never been. Not because I didn’t know about it; some of my colleagues go every year and one proudly displays their posters (which are quite beautiful) around her office.
I don’t go because I really don’t like big crowded events, and I’m not terribly into standing in line and having books signed. I spent years working in a used bookstore where people eagerly brought in their treasures and were always told that signed books aren’t worth much (except to the person who got it signed). I also remember vividly a book signing with a beloved children’s book author who just seemed annoyed to be there, which rendered my signed book more of a disappointment than a treasure.
But this year the festival was on a three day weekend where I was in town and didn’t have much to do. The lineup looked fantastic, including a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and speeches/readings by Jennifer Egan, Tayari Jones, Celeste Ng, Jacqueline Woodson, Andrew Sean Greer, and Richard Russo (and many others).
Justice Sotomayor was speaking at 11:30, and I arrived at the event around 10:45. I swam through a sea of crowds and got in an insanely long line. Forty-five minutes later I was still in that line, and 15 minutes after that I called it and went off to see other authors. The nice thing about the lineup is that so many authors were speaking in different parts of the convention center, if you didn’t get into one thing there were plenty others. So I didn’t get to see one of my heroes, but at least it was recorded. And it’s nice to know how many people were willing to wait for hours to get in to hear her speak.
I was able to get into a speech/reading by Tayari Jones, who wrote the fantastic An American Marriage. Jones was funny and humble and inspiring, all at once. She talked about how if you’re someone who feels you should never quit and never disappoint anyone, that actually works against you – sometimes you need to quit the thing you’re doing in order to do what you love. She talked about what led to writing the book, some of the issues she wrestled with, and the research she did on incarceration. She talked about the trouble she’s had with the publishing industry, and how Judy Blume actually gave her a leg up one day. She advised one aspiring writer to write her novel first, and not to worry about the business of publishing until afterwards. If you worry about the business first, she said, you’ll never even start.
I decided to skip the next speaker, Min Jin Lee, so I could get something to eat. Not bringing a protein bar with me was a huge mistake. It took quite a while to find food and the lines were huge, the options overpriced, and most people were eating on the floor of the convention center. I ended up eating while walking and standing in line.
I waited in line to see Andrew Sean Greer, and that was worth it. His Pulitzer Prize winning Less is on my Kindle, and it’s risky to go to a reading for a book you haven’t finished. I probably learned much more about the story than I wanted to, but Greer was lovely. He talked a lot about why he wrote the book as a comedy, rather than a drama. His first version was quite serious, and it wasn’t working for him. In part, because his character is a fairly affluent white male, and he said he couldn’t take the character’s problems seriously. So he threw out the book, keeping only a few pages, and started over, but this time making fun of the character. He seemed amazed and honored to have won the Pulitzer Prize, and I loved his humor but also his passion about his writing.
One thing that was very cool about the event was that you could walk by televised interviews happening right in the convention center by C-SPAN and PBS. I walked right past this interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, and was able to stand and watch a fascinating interview with Celeste Ng.
A common theme that Ng, Greer, and Jones talked about was feeling they had to represent their communities, rather than just writing for themselves. They talked about how writers who are gay, or Asian, or black all seem to get pitted against other writers who are gay, or Asian, or black. Ng asked why there couldn’t be more than one successful Chinese-American writer, for example, and why she’s always viewed as competing with Amy Tan. Greer talked about how older gay authors used to feel they had to tear each other apart to succeed. He talked about the importance of finding a community of writers that support each other instead of competing.
I went to a really interesting session on graphic novels (or in this case biography/memoirs). Tillie Walden wrote Spinning, which is a memoir of her experience as a young ice skater. Penelope Bagieu wrote Brazen: Rebel Ladies who Rocked the World (a book I’m planning to get one of my nieces for her birthday).
In between all this great stuff, there were lines, and crowds, and more lines. There were nice people in those lines, but I’m not terribly chatty when I don’t know someone. I came away from the day not sure how much it was worth it. I did see some great authors, but was it better to see them live in a giant room than it would be to hear them interviewed on NPR?
I went by myself, and while it might have been more fun with friends, I think with big crowded events, it’s easier just to be able to move around on your own. I wanted the flexibility to just go where I wanted to go.
Part of my reason for going was that if I found this festival overwhelming, I would probably hate Book Expo. I’ve always wanted to go to Book Expo but also suspect I wouldn’t enjoy the experience. And I’m still undecided. This Festival was different in at least a few ways: it’s free and it’s much less commercial. There weren’t publishers handing out free books; I didn’t even pick up any swag (not even a poster, sadly). This event probably has a more diverse group of authors. And there was a lot more emphasis on political and historical writing, in addition to fiction. Still, it gave me more to think about in case I do go to Book Expo one of these days.
Have you been to Book Expo or the National Book Festival? What was your experience like?
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