• Are Literary Festivals the New Coffeehouses?

    By Justin Lancy

    This weekend, the 13th annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival gets underway — bringing together a mix of Indonesian and international authors to discuss books and culture in beautiful Bali. LARB correspondent Justin Lancy will be there, Tweeting and Instagramming during the event and will also file this year’s “Bali Blog” dispatch.


    The dismal politics of 2016 seem to have unearthed at least one uncontested fact: the internet, which offers us an unprecedented degree of human connection, can, in a somewhat perverse irony, also have a stupefying effect on our ability to respectfully disagree with one another.

    While virulent comment threads and angry online mobs attacking vulnerable individuals might immediately spring to mind, the greater threat to public discourse might actually be our increasing isolation inside communities of people who think just like us. Unseen algorithms often reinforce a false consensus, shaping the news items and the social media posts we see — even altering our search results based on where we live or what we’ve already searched for. This filtering — and our collective embrace of quick and clickable “hot takes” — is a dangerous extension of our predisposition toward confirmation bias. The troubling reality is that we’re less frequently exposed to opposing viewpoints and less practiced at constructively engaging with those who disagree with us.

    Repairing our damaged discourse will require us to create a modern, more inclusive equivalent to the enlightenment-era coffeehouse. In recent years, literary festivals have shown an eagerness to fill that role. Shaking off their reputations as sleepy marketplaces, they’re transforming themselves into cross-cultural events where people who disagree can encounter one another and safely explore complex and controversial ideas — together.

    This year’s Brisbane Books Festival provides an interesting case-in-point: it started when American novelist Lionel Shriver was asked to make a keynote speech about “Community and Belonging” but, instead, delivered a broadside against identity politics. (Adding to the provocation, she did so while wearing a sombrero, a reference to a recent incident at Bowdoin college.)  Several audience members walked out on Shriver’s speech even before its conclusion, including author Yassmin Abdel-Magied, whose written rebuke to Shriver attracted global news coverage.

    Rather than retreat from the controversy, festival director Julie Beveridge embraced it. She quickly assembled what she called a “Right of Reply” panel as a counterpoint to Shriver’s speech, and allowed dissenters like Abdel-Magied to continue the discussion with the Brisbane audience, face-to-face. This, too, stirred debate — this time about journalistic ethics and “off the record” comments — when author Suki Kim found her private remarks made at a post-panel social gathering published by the New York Times (her criticism of this was shared by the paper’s own Public Editor).

    Though the discussions which started in Brisbane have continued to roil across the internet, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they began as extended, in-person exchanges. “Most festival sessions broach ideas whose nuances can’t easily be expressed in 140 characters,” says Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. “And that’s good, because they provide an antidote to the digital ideas marketplace which encourages differing viewpoints to become memes — simplified and entrenched info-bites — rather than creating genuine dialogue.”

    With careful planning, he says, literary festivals can offer a breadth of opinions on controversial topics: “I believe it’s my responsibility as a programmer to invite people who will contribute to a healthy and productive discussion — even if they are sometimes provocative too. The important thing is to give all sides the opportunity to have their say.”

    Sadaf Saaz, a Director and Producer of the Dhaka Lit Fest, agrees: “Controversy to encourage a wider debate can be positive. Not to stay in ‘safe’ and sanitized topics, but to have the difficult conversations — that’s the challenge. We also have seen the phenomenon of simplifying complex issues to ‘sound bites’ to cater to the lowest denominator. Literary festivals should allow for a more in-depth, rather than superficial, exchange.” Creating a safe place where different viewpoints can be heard is key, she says. These spaces “are shrinking everywhere — either due to corporate interests, government interference, intellectual hegemony, or extremist intolerance.”

    That last item is more than a theoretical concern for the organizers of the Dhaka Lit Fest. In the aftermath of the recent Holey Artisan Bakery attack, Saaz thinks it’s especially important to encourage discussion that sparks debate and thoughtful reflection: “The attack was a wake-up call that shook the conscience of the country. We should have spoken up strongly against the previous murders of writers, publishers, and minorities. So it is more important than ever to celebrate our rich heritage of pluralism, syncretism, creative expression, and debate, and talk about these issues.”

    Janet DeNeefe, who founded the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in the aftermath of the 2003 Bali bombings, echoes Saaz’s sentiment. “There was a real need to bring the community together in the wake of something so socially and culturally divisive. I believed we needed a place to talk about the things affecting us — all of us.”

    Maintaining an open space for discussion can present additional challenges in places like Indonesia, where the open, unfettered exchange of viewpoints is often a controversial idea in itself. Last year, the Ubud festival was forced to cancel discussions about the country’s 1965 communist coup, due to police pressure.

    “Right now, the stakes are much higher in Indonesia when talking about free speech because the walls are closing in, in many ways,” says DeNeefe. “Our festival has always opened the platform for talk and this year will be no different. Perhaps in some ways, that we are a ‘writer’s festival’ enables us to pose some of those questions that other forums might not; people so often underestimate the power of literature.”

    The upcoming Ubud Writers & Readers Festival should be a good test of that premise, as it reunites Shriver, Kim, and Abdel-Magied for the first time since Brisbane. Will they use the platform to continue their discussion in person? DeNeefe says there’s no plan to put them on the same panel. “Our program had already been completed before this incident but I have no doubt [Brisbane] will be a hot topic…I’m actually more interested to hear from our other writers and artists on the issue — not just these three — so let the debate begin!”