Literary festivals suck. Specifically, the Jaipur Literary Festival sucks. Recent incidents have confirmed me in my resolution never to attend it. Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi and Hari Kunzru, all of whom I respect and admire, have been asked to leave it for reading excerpts from The Satanic Verses. The organisers felt they had to be punished for reading from a book banned within the borders of India. Previously, Salman Rushdie, whom I also respect and admire, was asked not to come because of an alleged ‘death threat’ made against him by persons unknown. The source of this information appears to be a section of the police. Needless to say, the authorities of the Festival caved abjectly under pressure, no doubt because their festival represents big money, big names and plenty of bling, and we can’t let that be endangered, can we? Just think how unsafe it would be for Bollywood celebrities to mingle with the crowd if banned writers trailing clouds of death threats were allowed to wander about.
The Jaipur Litfest has always taken the three ring circus as its business model. It calls itself ‘The Greatest Literary Show on Earth’. Its website says
The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival is now widely acknowledged as the Kumbh Mela of Indian and international writing, drawing writers and readers from across India and the wider world: from the Americas, Europe, Africa and across the breadth of South Asia, the brightest, most brilliant, funny, moving and remarkable all come to Jaipur in January.
It likes lots of quantity, so everyone and her brother are invited, provided they have some kind of kitsch cachet such as having written for the Chicken Soup series. It also likes quality of the Shobhaaa De sort, complete with excess vowelage and unnecessary accents. They don’t have to be photogenic, but it helps. It also helps if they are on first name terms with at least one A list film star/have had a life-changing experience/have done holistic yoga/ designed their home according to vastu, because it gives the poor things something to talk about. God forbid that they should talk about the books. The last thing this circus is about, is the books. So if there is a pair of authors who are known to cut each other dead in public, there will be thrilling speculation over whether they will share dais space, and whether someone will misbehave if they do.
Public relations officers talk guff about the public getting to put faces to beloved names, but really it’s a kind of literary peep show. Authors don’t like interviews and publicity for a reason: the kind of author who writes to get famous is like the doctor who cures people to get papers published in the medical journals and thereby get invited to conferences in the Bahamas. The Jaipur Litfest is our conference in the Bahamas.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that authors are benefited by literary festivals. Festivals may up the sales of their books, but authors are essentially the proletariat of the publishing industry. They labour, and they are given a fraction of the returns for their work. Every penny that a publisher spends on making books is made by the sweat of authors, and to a lesser extent freelance editors, designers, marketers and printers (the latter two get paid more, the former two the same or less. A festival is just another means of earning their bread (by upping sales) by participating in a circus sideshow act.
Authors are not critics; it’s not their job to explain what their books may or may not mean. The fools often get this wrong and sit there prosing on about why they chose to set their book in Prague and make the central character a postal clerk with allergies and a frustrated wife. That’s not it at all: they are on display because the public wants to know what sticky furtive processes go on in the creative head. Since no ultrasound machine can look into the womb of creativity, we’ve invented the festival to get shy authors to take their clothes off in public. Presumably if they do it in a group, it’s less traumatic.
Stripping in public is a politically transformatory act only if the public doesn’t actually want to see what’s underneath. If they do, it’s just striptease dressed up as intellectual fuckery.
The next level of hopeless marketushiness is going to be a select club of authors who have been banned from literary festivals. Some social entrepreneur smelling of baby soap and garlanded with android phones is going to invent another genre of litfest: the litfest for authors who curse litfests. All sessions will be conducted in absolute darkness, with only a laser pointer for picking out members of the audience permitted to ask a question. The authors will wear masks designed to look like their main character at all times. Authors who do not show an uptick in sales by the end of the week will be allowed to go home; the rest will be thrown in a nearby river. If their sales actually drop after the public inspect the unspeakable workshop of dreams in which they perform their acts of intellectual onanism, they will be awarded a prize: their most popular book will be banned and will thereby become the bestseller of the century, while they will acquire an enduring reputation as the literary crusader of conscience of our times. Money, book contracts and members of the opposite sex will flock to them, and anything they publish, however puerile, embarrassingly self-revelatory or just plain bad, will sell in the millions.