Let’s try this again.
Originally, this week’s column was going to be dedicated to taking LitFest, our city’s annual literary festival—the 11th iteration of which kicked off on Wednesday—rather sternly to task.
I had it all laid out, too. I was going to list all of the ways the festival, which, since 2006, has been dedicated to non-fiction only, leaves fiction fans like me out in the cold. I was going to describe my envy at so many big-name novelists coming through Calgary and Vancouver around this time of year, and my frustration that LitFest organizers don’t even bother trying to lure them up here, too. I was going to explain that recent novels by several local authors (Lynn Coady, Marina Endicott, and this year Tim Bowling) have been up for big Canadian fiction prizes, only to get categorically shut out of the only literary festival within city limits. And I was going to point out that in the five years I’ve lived in Edmonton, I’ve attended a total of two LitFest events, and paid for neither of them. I know plenty of other readers in the city whose relationship with the festival is similarly distant.
That was the plan, anyway. But after calling LitFest producer David Cheoros for his thoughts on the matter, I decided to throw the whole column out and start all over.
What Cheoros did was convince me that LitFest’s decision to go non-fiction only wasn’t a dismissal of novels and novelists. It also wasn’t, as I feared, a marketing tactic (LitFest likes to announce itself as Canada’s only non-fiction festival).
Instead, it came down to a question of resources, and of scale.
Before going non-fiction only, “the festival was trying to do too much,” says Cheoros, who came onboard as producer in 2008. “In trying to cover all genres, we simply weren’t doing anyone justice.”
With the new mandate, Cheoros believes he’s also been able to program a more dynamic festival, since many of the visiting authors already share some common ground.
“It allows me to use authors in a number of contexts and in an interesting way,” he says. As an example, he mentions tomorrow’s Shadows of Afghanistan panel, which brings together four non-fiction writers—including Noah Richler, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About War; Edmontonian Janice Williamson, editor of an anthology about Omar Khadr; and Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells—who’ve taken very different approaches to understanding Canada’s role in the war.
Makes sense to me. After all, being in favour of one thing doesn’t mean you’re against everything else; nobody gets upset that the Oscars never give out awards for poetry. So if LitFest wants to forego novels and focus on being the best damn non-fiction festival it can be, who am I to tell them otherwise?
Well, except for one thing. This year LitFest’s plummiest spot went to Alexander McCall Smith, the commercial (and, Cheoros hopes, Winspear-Centre-filling) juggernaut behind the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, among dozens of other—you guessed it—novels. This mandate-defying gamble doesn’t sit well with me. And I’m not the only one: on the website Gig City, Wayne Arthurson, whose own novel Fall From Grace won this year’s Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, decried the booking as “hypocritical opportunism” and “the antithesis of almost everything LitFest stands for.”
Yikes. Still, the basic sentiment is, I think, the same: let LitFest be LitFest.
But if a guy like McCall Smith is ready and willing to come to Edmonton anyway—not to mention Canada Reads winner Terry Fallis and two-time Giller Prize recipient M.G. Vassanji, both of whom were also in town this week—then we’ve already got the building blocks for a new kind of festival, one dedicated to novels, and run by people who believe deeply and passionately in the form.
There’s huge potential here. I know of other novelists who’ve actively tried to come to Alberta to do a reading, but simply couldn’t find a way to get here. And that’s to say nothing of our local talent, who, of course, should never be underestimated. In fact, they would make up the foundation upon which any good festival is built.
It’s a big job, to be sure. But it could be wonderful.
(column originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, October 19, 2012)