Reflections on 2014

The 2014 edition of Open Book Literary Festival took place in September, and as we begin planning next year’s festival, it seems worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on this year’s festival and think about the challenges facing us going forward.

The five days of the festival consist of a series of over 100 events. These events provide an opportunity for readers to engage with writers (and vice versa), readers to engage with other readers, writers to engage with other writers and for issues to be discussed in open forums. The events include book launches, readings, panel discussions and more light-hearted events such as Writersports. The events are designed to stimulate and entertain, to provoke thought and discussion, to celebrate writers and their books and, of course, to encourage reading.

The relative success or failure of Open Book rests primarily on the experience that both audiences and participants have in the events they attend and the feedback that we’ve received from both audience members and those on stage has been overwhelmingly positive. There are always some events that don’t go according to plan (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but overall the comments about the events at this year’s festival (as in previous years) have been heart-warming and sustaining.

Of course the writers who join us from across the globe play a crucial role and once again this year I was struck by the generosity of many of these authors. They are not paid to attend Open Book (we cover their flights and accommodation) and while festival organisers around the world love sharing stories about difficult writers who arrive at festivals and promptly do everything to make the life of the festival organisers an absolute misery, our experience has almost always been the opposite. For the most part, when we invite authors from other parts of the world, we know something about their work, but little or nothing about their personalities and there’s always a level of nervousness associated with this process. Will author A actually rock up at the airport to catch their flight? Will author B expect a queue of 5000 admirers jostling to get close to them wherever they go? How will author C engage with South African writers who they would not have heard of?

When I talk of the generosity of authors, I think of Geoff Dyer asking me for a copy of Imraan Coovadia’s essays so he can spend the two free hours he has before an event with Imraan reading as much as he can out of respect for his co-panelist. I think of Raymond E Feist (a legend of fantasy writing who generated queues of adoring fans whenever he signed books at the festival) saying to Dave de Burgh (a debut South African author) in front of a packed Fugard audience, “I was trying to find the words to capture that thought and you’ve just done it perfectly – thank you”. I think of Fiona Leonard and Zukiswa Wanner both happily jumping in to do extra events at the festival to help us make up for the last-minute cancellation by Taiye Selasi.

A festival such as Open Book provides many special moments – and the most special ones are the ones that we as organisers have no role in creating. Rabih Alameddine (an author unknown to South African audiences before Open Book who was shortlisted for the US National Book Award for 2014 during the festival) was an engaging, erudite and entertaining presence throughout the festival. At one point he was asked by a couple of festival goers to just wait where he was. After patiently twiddling his thumbs and wondering what he was doing, he was incredibly touched when the couple returned with a copy of Zapiro’s latest collection as a gift for him. I think of the poignant moment when André Brink arrived at the front of the queue to get his copy of Good Morning Mr Mandela signed by the author, Zelda Le Grange, and the tears that flowed after a few quiet words between the two. And there were countless more moments like that which capture some of what Open Book is about.

There were also issues and arguments aplenty at Open Book this year. At a festival such as Open Book, which seeks to provide opportunities for debating what’s going on in our beloved country, I would be shocked if this wasn’t the case. Some of the issues relate to the festival itself and it is crucial that we engage with these issues going forward.

I had the privilege of chairing an event with two fine writers, Zukiswa Wanner and Thando Mgqolozana, framed as Writer’s Rage, at which a range of crucial issues were discussed. For some context to this discussion, see Zukiswa’s blog published earlier this year:

It raised some of the issues that were discussed at this event. During the discussion, Thando questioned why writers are not paid (or at least compensated for their time) to appear at festivals such as Open Book. There are two elements to this question: Should writers be paid to appear at literary festivals and can Open Book afford to pay writers?: Thando stated that he was no longer prepared to appear at festivals such as Open Book without some form of payment and that if Open Book cannot afford to pay writers, perhaps it shouldn’t continue to exist. I’ll come back to this in a minute…

Malaika Wa Azania was scheduled to appear at two events at this year’s Open Book. I heard that after her first event she expressed disgust at the fact that audience members had to pay R40 to attend events and that if she’d known this was the case, she would never have agreed to participate. Adding some substance to her argument, she then didn’t pitch up to her second event (a one-on-one discussion about her own book) and refused to answer our calls.

In comments about Open Book, Zukiswa Wanner commented that she found it sad that when participating in an event at Harare Library in Khayelitsha during the festival, she discovered that the people she met there knew nothing about the festival. She suggested that this was something we needed to address.

There are two related issues at play here – money and ethos. Open Book is not a rich festival. I’m not sure what a rich festival is, but I know that every year we draw up an operating budget and seek to attract funding (from both private and public sources) to meet our projected costs and each year we have failed dismally in this regard and ended up slashing our budget drastically and compromising in all sorts of ways. Open Book has one full-time paid employee and the rest of the work is done by myself, Book Lounge staff and partners who curate different elements of the festival (such as Toni Stuart with Poetica).

I would dearly love to pay writers to participate in Open Book, but at this point in our development it’s just not feasible. And while I respect Thando’s point, I believe that Open Book is a good thing for South African writers, despite our inability to offer payment for their participation. The festival provides opportunities for South African writers to engage with potential readers, to promote their books and to meet and engage with their writing peers both from South Africa and elsewhere. In a country such as ours, in which such a low proportion of the population devote significant leisure time to reading books, I believe festivals such as Open Book can play a crucial role in building a culture of reading. Incidentally this is a responsibility we take seriously throughout the year, not just for the five days of the festival itself. It is of course each writer’s choice as to whether they choose to participate in Open Book given the lack of payment and if Thando decides not to accept invitations from us until such time as we can afford to pay him, then I will certainly respect that decision.

In relation to Malaika’s anger about tickets for events being sold for R40, similarly, income from ticket sales is (at this stage) an essential income stream which enables Open Book to run. I would dearly love to reach a point where all events are free but that point is far away right now. What Malaika failed to acknowledge (and given her refusal to discuss these issues with us she had no way of knowing this) is that every year we give away a large number of free tickets, precisely because we feel strongly that we do not want the R40 ticket price to be a barrier to attendance. These free tickets are distributed through libraries, universities and a variety of other partners. However, the point that Zukiswa makes (and which Malaika has also stumbled upon) is that our efforts in this regard are insufficient. We need to find ways to increase participation in the festival by those who are currently unable to access the events (either through a lack of awareness or a lack of income). This is the reality of operating a literary festival in a city as divided as Cape Town. And while we are committed to improving on access to Open Book, progress will be incremental until we manage to attract more meaningful support from either the private or public sector.

At this point, let me acknowledge the tremendous support we have received from our headline sponsor, Leopard’s Leap Wines, as well as the City of Cape Town. Without the support of those two entities, Open Book could not have run this year. The support we received from various publishers and other in-kind sponsors who helped to bring certain writers to the festival and helped with other costs is invaluable, but we have up to now been unable to attract the kind of financial support that a festival such as Open Book requires to start addressing some of the issues raised above.

Quite simply, if we don’t increase our income for 2015, I’m not sure that we’ll have a festival next year. Having said that, I’m confident that we will – quite simply, because we have to. I believe (and I hope you agree) Open Book is too important(and fun!) to die a quiet death.

Mervyn Sloman

Open Book Festival Director