PEN World Voices: Make it New, Make it International (Dammit)!

In Guest Contributors by Chad W. Post

Less than 33% of the participants in this “international” festival speak a native language that isn’t English.

Editorial by Chad W. Post, Publisher, Open Letter Books

It’s really hard to organize a festival. There are a million details and a billion complications, all of which have to be taken care of by a relatively small underpaid and overworked staff. (Such is the life of working for nonprofits.) Just envisioning the logistics for orchestrating a eight-day festival is enough to give most everyone an instant migraine. For that reason alone, everyone from PEN deserves the highest of praise for pulling off the 8th annual PEN World Voices Festival that took place in New York City earlier this month and featured 48 different events and 105 participants. It’s impressive that any of this worked at all.

I have to say though, and I say this like a baseball catcher trying to motivate his pitcher, this was one of the weakest PEN World Voices Festivals I’ve been to. I’ve been going since the very start, have seen various coordinators come and go (the lovely Esther Allen and equally lovely Caro Llewellyn), have watched the festival establish itself, and, up until this year, have hosted PEN WV satellite events in Rochester, NY. So any criticism that can be read into the comments below isn’t being written flippantly or off-the-cuff. For any number of years I’ve written glowing pieces about PEN WV and have always supported the festival in every way I could. It’s just that the festival has gone from brash newcomer to a NEED-TO-ATTEND event to a thing that, well, just happens. That’s sad; that’s maybe inevitable. But I’d like to see the festival regain its glory and become a really integral part of international book culture instead of the self-serving, industry-catering set of disconnected events that I’m afraid it’s about to become.

Goals of the Festival

Before I start explaining what I think would make for an Ideal World Voices (IWV), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what a festival like this is trying to accomplish. According to the “Letter from PEN” at the front of the program, “we seek to present the best of national and international literature and by doing so we adamantly focus on reinforcing the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence and the essence of brave and great art.”

OK. That’s great grant writing speak. Seriously. I’d drain my life savings to fund “brave and great art” that gets at the “foundation of meaningful existence.” (Although the line about focusing “on reinforcing the importance of the premise” is pretty weak.) But this program isn’t written for the National Endowment for the Arts . . . or at least it shouldn’t be.

In my vision of the IWV, the festival would set out to accomplish a few things that I think are central to preserving and enhancing a healthy literary culture in America:

  1. Raise the profile of international literature and translation, thus expanding the horizons of readers and fostering an international dialogue about art and writing.
  2. Get books in the hands of new readers, because without readers none of this means anything, and sales will help expand the reach of the festival as a whole, thus encouraging more publishers, readers, and foundations to support it.
  3. Focus on the average reader, NOT the members of the publishing industry who already are overwhelmed by book events and rarely actually buy anything.
  4. Be entertaining, otherwise you’re just shoving medicine down the throats of the unwilling.
  5. Offer something unique, something you can’t pull off anywhere else in the world.

To me, those things seem totally obvious, and like they were part of the original WV DNA. Perhaps it’s all a bit lofty to think that a festival can help improve book culture. I just don’t see the point of not trying to do this. And not to take grant-speak too seriously, but I don’t think anyone walked away from this year’s festival suddenly aware that “freedom of expression” is important. Readers don’t want to be preached at — they want to enjoy themselves and find out about interesting things.

Every Goal Contains a Challenge

Is it possible to imagine that WV could do all that? It’s a beautiful and idealistic vision. But every goal comes with a set of constraints. No one has unlimited money, time, influence, and space. Money being key here. For worse, WV is teetering on the precipice of becoming a pay-to-play festival. If you—you being a cultural organization, you being a publisher—can’t pony up the cash for your author/event, it’s probably not going to happen. I may be wrong, but my sense of things (from personal publishing experience) is that this festival is run on less than a dime. That’s all sorts of unfortunate. But rather than only run events that the XXXX Cultural Institute can pay for, PEN should focus on raising money for the festival in general that can be spent to include and highlight fantastic events that small presses/small countries can’t afford to sponsor on their own. Not all international works come from France or are published by HarperCollins.

chad post

There's got to be a better way, says Chad Post of Open Letter Books

Aside from money (and the lack thereof) there are a number of other roadblocks to creating the IWV. First off, this is currently taking place in New York City, which is home to more readings and events of this nature than any other city in America. Is there anyone in NYC counting down the days till PEN? If they want this sort of content, they can get it most any day of the week. Want an example? Here’s the listing of events from one of the pages in this year’s brochure: “In Conversation: Ludmila Ulitskaya,” “Jennifer Egan on How to Create Your Own Rules,” and “Street Smarts” (Def Poetry Jam co-founder Bruce George talking about his book). All three of these events are fine in and of themselves, but this kind of stuff is always going on in NYC. Jennifer Egan? There isn’t a night she’s not reading somewhere.

Everyone knows space is a major NYC issue and WV took place in 28 different venues this year ranging from the High Line to The Standard hotel (barf) to the Bowery Poetry Club to Cooper Union (ugh). One of the problems with having a festival in NYC is that it’s spread out, and there’s a big advantage to dropping an event right into their neighborhood. But this just makes it all feel like an unfocused mess. Yes, to only have one venue in Manhattan is ignoring a huge population of hipsters and potential readers in Brooklyn, and vice versa (not to mention, Queens, the most ethnically diverse borough of all, or NYC’s ugly step-sister Staten Island…). And going back to the money thing, it’s likely that PEN is paying bottom dollar (or getting these spaces donated) and when that’s the case, you work with what you get, not what you desire.

In terms of content (and the goals stated above), one of the most difficult things about WV is trying to get people to attend an event featuring an obscure foreign author. Conventional Wisdom states that people are weary of going to things they don’t already know about, and don’t read books written by foreigners. This bit of conventional wisdom may well be bullshit, but it still takes balls to set up an event with a Hungarian author who only has one book available in English (which, as is likely the case, was poorly reviewed) and a Chinese author (whose book is currently being ignored). This is why WV tried to incorporate “big name” American writers right from the start. Throw in Rick Moody! People will come because they love The Ice Storm (which, mind you, is only 18 years old now) and will be consequently exposed to Hungarian, Chinese writers, like you might expose a kid who hasn’t had it yet to the chicken pox.

I may be totally jaded, but this never seems to work. Well, the chicken pox thing does, but it’s not a way to get readers to fall in love with authors.

As a sometime event-programmer myself, I acknowledge that it’s really hard — especially given all these constraints — to keep things fresh. Because of funding and name recognition, it’s really easy to fall into certain traps and invite the same people year after year after year. See page 35 of this year’s program. The first three participants listed are: Daniel Kehlmann, Etgar Keret, and Elias Khoury. All fine in their own right (I’m not a believer in Kehlmann’s talent or value, but that’s neither here nor there), but they’ve all been to WV at least one previous time. Do we need more of this? I hate to over-react (love to over-react), but it makes it seem like WV is a showcase for a certain set of already accepted and exposed authors. That’s not one of the goals I articulated above.

My Ideal World Voices Festival

If I ruled the world (or at least PEN World Voices) this is what I would try and do in order to make this the Most Important Festival for International Literature in the World. (And not to digress, but NYC doesn’t do things half-ass. If you’re going to put on a “pretty OK” event in NY, don’t even bother. In NY it’s world-class or nothing. Take your “totally adequate” performances to Chicago.)

  1. Create a Central Location
  2. Attendees have been advocating for this for years. I know it’s costly and difficult to pull off, but to increase the energy and excitement surrounding the festival, this is totally necessary. Not only would it make it a million times easier to attend more than one event a night, but it would allow for readers to mingle with authors and translators, thus improving the festival-going experience and increasing the likelihood that anyone would buy/read international works of literature.

  3. A Bookstore with All the Books
  4. As it is right now, outside of each event there is a small table with books from the authors who participated in that event. Logical, but if you’re running from one event in the Village to one on the Upper East Side, you don’t necessarily have time for that. And maybe you want to see five events and buy the 2-3 books that most interest you. Where will you do that? How? Ideally, there would be a massive book display/store in the Central Location where you (as an attendee) could return and buy books from any/all the attendees. At worst, set up an online ordering system, PEN. Even if you’re just providing a bibliography and links to Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s that would be immensely helpful.

  5. More Foreign Authors
  6. Now that’s an ironic suggestion for a “Festival of International Literature,” isn’t it? Well. I just went through the new program and counted everything up. There were 105 total participants, 34 of which were “truly foreign” (I’m counting the 2-3 participants from Canada and Great Britain as “not foreign” because, well, c’mon…). So, less than 33% of the participants in your “international” festival speak a native language that isn’t English. Great. Really excited to see all the American authors I can see on a regular basis. No, really, I’m willing to spend $2,500 to fly into NYC and stay for your festival to be exposed to more of the same. Uh, no. And keep in mind that there were exactly zero New Directions and Open Letter authors included in this year’s festival. How international is ANYTHING if it doesn’t include two of the largest publishers of literature in translation? One last bitchy point: the Americans included in the festival are predominantly from Brooklyn and Manhattan. I’ll bet there are Texas or Florida or California authors with more insight into issues in international literature and politics than half the people participating in this festival. Can you spell “myopic”?

  7. A Festival Pass
  8. OK, PEN needs money. Plane tickets (even for writers from remote places like, say, Chicago) cost money. But to charge $15 a piece for most of the events seems pretty insane. I’m a culture whore, but I wouldn’t spend more than $15 or at most $30 on any given festival. So, I’d be limited to seeing one, or maybe two, key events. Sure, there are free things, and they are great, but such a huge percentage (67%, or 32 of the aforementioned 48 events) are ones you have to pay for. Who is this catering to? And if you paid $15 or $25 for a ticket, would you buy a book afterwards? Doubtful. So why not create a $25 All-Access Pass? Many, many more people would buy this, would bounce around, wouldn’t feel weird buying books after events, etc.

  9. Evening Events Only
  10. It’s totally weird that this year’s festival had daytime events on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, as opposed to the “all day” John Cage and “Revolutionary Plays” events that took place on Tuesday and Friday. Who really shows up to a 2:30 p.m. event? The unemployed? The elderly? Great.

  11. Three Days is Enough
  12. Tied into the last comment, I think the IWV would only be Thursday night, and all day Friday and Saturday. Unless it’s the…oh, say…Frankfurt Book Fair, a week is totally overkill (and even Frankfurt isn’t actually a full week). Pack in events into 10-12 slots over 2-1/2 days and make EVERY EVENT AMAZING. I’d pay all the money I could afford to go to that. Sharp, compact, loaded: three days of amazing. That’s what you want from a festival of this sort.

  13. Promote the Damn Thing
  14. Did you read any articles about PEN World Voices? Me neither.

  15. Drop the Esoteric and Political Panels
  16. I love me some high-minded literature, but at a festival like this, I just want to discover new, interesting voices. I don’t really need this all dressed up in academic talk and pretensions to political world changing. Obviously, revolution and censorship are huge issues (I was recently quoted in a major news piece as stating “I fucking hate Citibank,” so I’m on board philosophical with takedowns and risings up), but a festival of political grandstanding that masquerades as a literary gathering is uninteresting. More of the “New Korean Writing” panels (which I attended last year and LOVED) and less of the “Censorship in the Modern World, hosted by The Standard!” events would instantly improve this all.

This probably seems pretty harsh. And it maybe is. But I think for things to truly be the best they can be, they need to be investigated with a critical eye. It’s easy to praise PEN and WV and gush over the fact that it exists…In the long run though it’s my belief (and I await all your angry comments, e-mails and calls) that organizations/programs should strive to accomplish everything they can accomplish — everything that might make the world a better place. And if you think this is harsh, you should overhear the thoughts I have about the organizations I run…

Chad W. Post, a frequent contributor to Publishing Perspectives, is the Publisher of Open Letter Books and editor of Three Percent, a website covering translation and other international publishing issues.

DISCUSS: How Would You Change PEN World Voices?

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.