Are literary festivals only for the elite?

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

What is the point of literary festivals? Festival-goers want different things from literary festivals; some attend to see their favourite authors on stage, hear them read from their books or in conversation, meet them, queue up to get their signatures in first editions, and/or maybe even to discover new writers they never heard of before. While the attendees may have their own agendas, festivals have different priorities.

Regardless of what is actually achieved, literary festivals maintain our sense of the old physical reality in a new digital age. It’s a place where we could pick up a real book, meet the real person who wrote it, and get the writer to sign it. This would then become a prized possession to pass on to our children.

However, nowadays, more often than not, instead of celebrating literature, these events have turned into promotional fairs that have been given the grand title of “literary festival”, with the aim of creating a sense among the public that attending this annual event makes one privileged to be amongst the “chosen” few – a charming illusion.

The story in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there are very few such literary festivals. However, there is a handful that have garnered some fame, one such festival being the A&K Lit Fest (Annasi and Kadala Gotu Literature Festival) usually held somewhere around October annually.

Entrance tickets are priced at only Rs. 100. Held at Mount Lavinia Hotel and conducted in all three languages, the festival s a 100% local affair and the brainchild of Capt. Elmo Jayawardena.

Since its inauguration in 2015, A&K has remained widely accessible and focused entirely on furthering the careers of local artists, notably helping many get their manuscripts off the ground and making them published works.

Considering the importance of getting your work published and the role which A&K plays for local authors, we spoke to photographer Dominic Sansoni who added that while he cannot make a reference to the role of the festivals, “publishing in Sri Lanka has remained largely the same but has also changed vastly in that it is more accessible, and if you have a good story, you can expect some success”, referring to the fact that services like Amazon and Kindle have now allowed for digital-only publishing, which is also a great way to get your work out into the world.

A&K is currently put together by an organising committee consisting of a handful of volunteers, one of whom is Dhananath Fernando. He enlightened us on how A&K has remained so accessible. “The festival is not organised to generate a profit. One major component in our longevity is greatly owed to Mount Lavinia Hotel coming onboard as a venue sponsor, which really takes care of 60-70% of our costs. However, even with the sponsors, we are mostly breaking even and if there is a surplus, it is taken over to the next festival.

“From its inception, we have maintained the entrance ticket at Rs. 100, and that’s because we want to host the festival for the common man. And, of course, many have criticised that move, asking us why we won’t have it free of charge, but we like to think that it is a fair and reasonable price and we do have expenses,” he said.

A&K Lit Fest, when compared to the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), the other more widely talked about festival in the country, is rather young and is on the rise. Its more accessible nature, including a central location, has allowed more people to truly reap the benefits of the literary festival, but the fact remains that it’s exclusively local authors and artists who attend the event and so is rather different in what it offers compared to GLF.

There’s also the fact that while GLF is situated in Galle, a refreshing change from everything usually happening in Colombo, the majority of the English language-consuming community is located in and around Colombo. However, a festival such as A&K would truly benefit if located somewhere else – Galle or anywhere else in the island – as it is a trilingual effort.

GLF is easily the most well-known literary festival in Sri Lanka; while a whole lot of local people may not attend it, everybody still knows about it and is often aware when it is happening.

GLF sets itself apart from other literary festivals in the island by being possibly the largest gathering of international and local authors within the island.

It is traditionally a three-day affair, with multiple foreign authors being flown in, some of whom are rather commercially successful and are global celebrities in their own right.

Of pricing and accessibility

Owing to a number of reasons, over the past few years, however, GLF has developed a reputation for being quite niche and inaccessible. With a day pass that costs around Rs. 6,000, it’s rather pricey, and these expensive passes don’t even begin to cover the more attractive and exclusive events such as the intimate gatherings with authors, workshops, tea parties, and other engaging artistic activities.

To get a fair idea of how truly pricey it is to experience GLF, in 2019, a festival pass was priced at Rs. 15,000, which covered all three days. However, this did not allow access to any of the workshops, all of which were individually priced at Rs. 3,500, nor did the festival pass cover any of the other events like master classes, coffee events, excursions, etc.

These ticket prices determine the audience – people who can afford tickets and the time to attend aren’t a particularly accurate sample of Sri Lanka’s diverse society.

Sri Lankan author and GLF alum Ashok Ferrey added to the conversation about accessibility and the issue of pricing at GLF versus other festivals like the aforementioned A&K festival, saying: “I am glad for any and all literary festivals; the more the merrier, and as for the accessibility of it all, yes, there is a concern with the expenses with GLF. However, the issue remains with a considerable lack of sponsors. It is unfortunate that potential sponsors are yet to realise that associating themselves with a literary festival can only do well for their brand. I do believe that the prices can come down in order to encourage and allow for accessibility.”

Dhananath Fernando of A&K shared his thoughts on this issue of pricing and how GLF is considered to be more exclusive, saying: “Our festival and GLF serve different markets. GLF is more expensive and gives a more exclusive vibe, and we believe that there is no harm in having an ‘elitist’ festival, as they say, because at the end of the day, literature is discussed. Concept-wise, GLF brings icons to the island and our goal is to feature local artists who can reach the international level, and we believe both are necessary.”

However, it can be seen that GLF has picked up on this slowly developing elitist nature and attempted to remedy it by arranging for a few free events so that school students can participate and allowing some musical acts to be accessible with the festival pass.

However, the fact remains that GLF is not for everybody. The ticket pricing and its location in Galle means lodging and transport costs will be incurred, and it quite simply separates the everyday Sri Lankan from the GLF festival attendees. Let’s not forget to mention the unavailability of affordable food stalls, and food at Galle Fort is notoriously expensive.

Speaking to Chef Koluu about the two literary festivals. “A&K is simply more accessible, isn’t it? I’m not too familiar with it myself, but at what it’s priced and where it is situated, it just seems far more advantageous for local authors and local literary enthusiasts,” he said, adding: “GLF, on the other hand, is a whole other story; it supposedly hosts the who’s who of Lankan society, with many attempting to act intellectual, taking advantage of its more exclusive nature, when in actuality, 70% of them haven’t even read a book in their lives.”

Grace Wickremasinghe , public personality and published author who conducted a fringe event at GLF a few years ago, said: “As a local artist, I do prefer A&K as a platform – it gives more prominence to the local authors. Only a handful of local artists get to even be on a panel at GLF.

“When it comes to price points, these two festivals are at the two ends of the spectrum and back when I did my fringe event at GLF, we were conscious of striking a balance to make it accessible to the target audience, and I think that’s what’s important – to focus on that balance to allow more opportunity.”

While A&K is less glitzy, GLF quite clearly sits at the showbiz end of the spectrum, and as Dhananath said before, mounting a festival of this calibre is surely an expensive undertaking. Additional festival expenses include staff wages, office overheads, venues and technical production, and marketing and publicity, to name a few key areas.

The experience

GLF has a standard model where it features authors sitting on stages in tents, usually with a journalist or another writer to introduce them, having a conversation, and mediating an exchange with the audience. Many have come away from expensive, ticketed events – a little disheartened by how minimal the personal interaction is with an author and how the publicity circus that surrounds it all can make attendees feel further away from their heroes than ever.

However, we cannot ignore the impact GLF has had on the numerous writers who were inspired by their experiences at the festival. We spoke to GLF Media Co-ordinator Saluka Kotagama. “GLF has earned its spot as an important cultural event, and it plays a key role in inspiring literary enthusiasts to take the next step to becoming a published author, or even students who have been inspired to put pen to paper because of their experience at the festival,” she said. “It’s a great place for community, where people who admire and take joy in the same things can come together to share something that will stay with them for a long time.”

Ashok Ferrey also added: “I think GLF has had a huge impact in inspiring budding young authors and it’s done a tremendous service in bringing so many people under one roof, dragging authors kicking and screaming into the limelight.”

Ashok also shared with us his experience with international festivals, how he’s been to multiple in India, and the primary reason why there’s so many – because the corporates are behind them for support.

In the international sphere, there are multiple renowned literary festivals the world over, one of the more popular ones being the ILB (International Literature Festival in Berlin), a fantastic platform that offers unparalleled access to everything new and innovative in the world of literature. There is also the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York, a free event which attracts thousands who come to seek out new and emerging writers. There’s also the Kerala Literature Festival which is fairly new considering it was first held in 2016. However, it has garnered fanatic patronage from its countrymen and has grown into one of the biggest, most highly anticipated festivals in the country.

Room to grow?

There’s also an area that Sri Lanka is yet to even think about – the virtual literary festival. And while it’s not exactly groundbreaking to say that digital platforms can connect readers effectively, in terms of events and book festivals, there’s a lot more potential waiting to be discovered here.

Audiences tend to be pretty savvy in navigating across media literary spaces and online literary festivals like the Digital Writers’ Festival and the #TwitterFictionFestival, which have proven to be quite successful over the years.

It is interesting to note, however, that the literary festival and the live event as an institution have continued to flourish when traditional book publishing and CD sales have become increasingly more challenging. Giants like Amazon and Google are taking on the distribution of literature, publishers are trimming their lists, and writers have to resort to self-publishing via the internet to keep their work in circulation. However, while sales of physical copies of anything have declined, live events like concerts and literary gatherings continue to draw large audiences.

To see writers in the flesh at literary festivals, hear them speak, read from their work, buy a physical book, and get it signed by your favourite author, this reality still holds its uniqueness and fosters a connection between reader and writer that the e-book, for all its convenience, cannot.