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The Book is Dead: A Literary Festival?

An interview with The Scream’s Artistic Director Bill Kennedy
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By Leigh Nash

The Scream Literary Festival, now in its 17th year, has grown from a one-day event in High Park into one of the largest literary festivals in Canada. The festival is committed to showcasing Canadian writers from all genres, styles, backgrounds and communities on a unique stage. Bill Kennedy, the Scream’s Artistic Director, sits down with Leigh Nash and a bottle of wine to talk about why the Scream is inviting all its friends to help bury the book.

LN:

In the last few years the Scream has taken a themed approach to looking at issues in contemporary literature. Why did you choose the death of the book as the theme for this year’s festival instead of last year, or next year, or five years from now?

BK:

Yes, the "death of the book" is pretty old news. The publishing industry has been on a twelve-step program for years; they've stopped their denial, pushed through their anger, long since admitted that they are powerless against it, and some have taken a few more brave steps towards serenity. The media are still handwringing about it, largely because journalism is so tied to print, but the weight of inevitability is against the physical book and people are genuinely looking towards alternatives.

The festival, however, isn't really asking about the effects of the book’s demise on the publishing industry — that much is pretty clear. What’s less clear is the effect of the book on literature, which is a different concern than publishing in general. My contention is that literature is far more tied to the book than we realize. This relationship between books and literature is so strong that it is hard to imagine literature without a physical form. Here, at the close of the Gutenberg era, we're no longer able to avoid the questions that arise from that separation: what happens to literature when it's extracted from the book? How much of our sense of literature presumes the printed word? How is literature diminished outside of the book? How is it liberated? How much does the physical, material nature of the book contribute to literature itself?

It’s this last question that intrigues me the most. I love books, as a collector, as a book designer, as a reader, as a theorist. It seems to me that there's something valuable about books, and not just as a technology for reading or a medium for distribution. I think the material nature of books themselves have an aesthetic that contributes to literature: the weight and composition of the paper, the typesetting choices, the feel in your hand, the printing errors, the physical degeneration over time, the defacements and marginalia of previous readers and other peculiarities of individual volumes contribute to the meaning of the writing itself. The physical book doesn't contain literature, it inhabits it.

Perhaps this is the comeuppance of the naive belief that literary writing is divorced, or divorceable, from the book. As a book designer, I was always amazed when writers had little to no opinion on elementary things like typeface and general staging on the page. Most were happy to defer to you (though, working for Coach House Books, they did tend to request the classy cream-coloured paper stock, Zephyr Laid, that is unique to the press). It’s almost as if they didn't really care what their book looked like, as long as it looked literary. That alone was a sign that the book had something intrinsically literary about it, that the same poems in some other form — typescripts, blog posts — were somehow lesser works. Nascent, perhaps. Not real literature yet.

There is, of course, a whole line of artists who have focused on this very thing. Concrete poetry, if nothing else, is an extended meditation on materiality, occupying the tumultuous zone between what things are, how things look and what they mean. Xerographers, chapbook publishers and samizdat artists have all challenged the supremacy of the book as a literary medium. Visual artists and sculptors are well ahead of this curve, with so many artists taking their media as their very subject matter.

I think it's important, then, that we take a hard look at what books contribute to literature, even as we try to conceive of a future without them. In the short term, we needn't have fear; the literary presses will find a way to publish, and books will soldier forth in their undead state. One hopes that the festival, in burying the book, helps us to appreciate its contributions as an object to literature itself.

LN:

Do you believe that the book as we know it is dead? If so, what’s the date on the book’s death certificate?

BK:

Publishing is pretty much simulacra as far as I can tell. There’s little case to be made that books, especially literary books, are necessary, at least in the way that you could when books were pretty much the storehouses of the world's knowledge. Now they are aesthetic objects. Decadence.

How can a literary industry, which takes government subsidies, cuts down perfectly good trees, prints 500 copies of a poetry book to sell 100 to the public and 200 to the author, and pulps the rest, be considered anything but decadent? Walter Benjamin provides one of the lead quotes for the festival: "Only in extinction is the collector comprehended." What the collector loves about books is not their need for them, the use case of the book — it's their decadence, the having of them. The book as necessity is dead and decadence is its undead corpse.

When did this happen? The seeds of the book's death were likely there in Gutenberg's printing press. Moveable type was designed for efficiency, a kind of efficiency that the Roman Catholic Church feared. The Gutenberg Bible began as a way of quickly disseminating ideas — dangerous ideas. Not surprisingly, the primacy of the printed word beyond its interpreters was the key theological point of Lutheranism: everything you needed to know was in the book itself. The internet, the most obvious culprit in killing the book, had identical motivations. It was just better at it, as the reproduction and transmission of words approached instantaneous. The book, then, killed itself by always striving to be better at what it was born to do. The internet is the idealization of moveable type.

There is no date. I think the book, the necessary book, faded away, quietly, imperceptibly, replaced by this decadent book. The publishing industry and the copyright lobby are fighting tooth and nail to preserve models based on the necessity of their products (and the resultant profits), when instead they should be marketing the decadence. Our books are dead. Want them.

LN:

How ironic is the theme meant to be, given that the Scream as a festival is very much about books? What’s the feedback from the writing community been like?

BK:

I struggle with this a lot. I’d be hard pressed not to think of myself as an ironist, for sure, but I hope I’m in keeping with the best traditions of satire, which used humour as a way of broaching tough subjects and nudging change. In fact, a deep love of the book and a concern for its fate underlie this festival. It is meant as a gathering place for book lovers, a chance to celebrate what we love about it even as we face a new digital horizon.

That said, the primary target is still our pretensions, which some cling to more tightly in the face of uncertainty. Literature is filled with pretension, in many ways it trades on it, selling its importance back to its audience like some sort of confidence trick. What we're hoping to do is to strip that pretension bare, in hopes of finding the sincerity beneath, that meeting of good writers and engaged readers.

So far I sense a little nervousness around the theme, though no one has confronted me directly. We're talking about people's livelihoods, and people get rightfully protective when it looks like you're making fun at their expense. Writers, publishers and independent booksellers work hard, and have been forced to work harder, and know the looming sense of futility around the book better than anyone else. Who are we to mock them?

All of this said, my hope is that the festival is viewed as a chance for the friends of the book, the bibliophiles, to come together and celebrate what they love about the book, and to dream about the possible futures for the art that they love.

And make no mistake: literature will survive. In fact, low expectations make it better positioned to survive than the big press purveyors of self-help books and celebrity tell-alls, whose primary products are available for free across the internet. Literary writers are cockroaches. When it's all over, they'll be crawling across your bookshelves.

LN:

Ideas about the book/print being dead have been appearing in the media for years. What does the Scream have to add to the discussion — and how will the festival tackle issues surrounding the book’s death differently than the usual obituaries given by blogs and newspapers?

BK:

While I think I get at most of this in my first answer, I do want to reiterate that we're more concerned about where literature is going than where it's been. Artists are already rethinking literature beyond the book, as they have been for a while now. You can argue that the public reading itself - literature in performance - is one such rethinking. In fact, our primary concept in devising events is to create novel contexts for literature, to make the literary event itself part of the art.

In the end, our job is to showcase artists and their competing visions for the future of book. One hopes that the prevailing sense among our audiences is optimism.

LN:

What’s stuck a bigger knife in the book, Kindle or Twitter?

BK:

I am willing to stand corrected, and there is some evidence that I will be, but I'm not a fan of the eBook format, whether it be Kindle or the Sony eReader or whatever. Those devices seem fundamentally wrongheaded, because they can't seem to think of themselves outside of the product they're imitating. It seems like the worst of both worlds — none of what is good about the book and none of what is good about digital realm. They remind me of some vegetarian foods, like veggie hamburgers and tofurky, which go out of their way to suggest the very thing that they're not. There’s a supreme lack of confidence in them — instead of raising the spectre of meat, as if to say that they're almost as good, why not just claim to be what you are, a chick pea patty? eReaders strike me similarly — they're so tied to the book as a paradigm (look at how realistically the pages flip!) that they inevitably seem diminished in the face of the real thing.

Twitter, on the other hand, makes no such backward claims. It is what it is: a 140-character venue for moronic prattle and funny web links. It’s its own idiom, and there are artists, such as the Montreal-based writer Arjun Basu, that are writing 140-character stories in keeping with the medium.

I’m a fan of the material analysis of writing, and believe that our writing tools not only condition how we read, but what we write. Different technologies have trained us to read differently, but they also help determine what can be written. At first glance, for instance, a blog looks like a glorified online journal; the journal form, and its cousin the epistolary, are obvious precedents, being dated, first person accounts.

The key difference between blogs and journals, however, is that blogs are presented backwards: last post first. While journals are read chronologically and thus give a sense of narrative, blogs are read in reverse chronology, with the reader starting with the most recent post and looking back over a thread (or not). Bloggers understand this intrinsically, and write to the medium; good bloggers point back to previous threads, but most just ensure that each post stands alone. Readers, likewise, have no troubles navigating this format, scanning backwards in time for other posts of interest.

It seems to me, then, that eBooks are largely duplicitous, guileful even. They're trying to be what they're not (books, that is) and aspire to be the very thing they are designed to replace. It’s the transparency of the eBook sales pitch that, to me, makes them unthreatening. Twitter, on the other hand, has no such pretenses. It is what it is: a social networking tool with a business model that has nothing to do with books. Emerging services like Twitter have no interest in creating a book-like experience. By abandoning old models of reading, Twitter and the like are creating new forms, new ways of writing, new, often collective, models for authorship and distribution. What's more, while these services have no mandate to create literature, but the very fact that they're creating new ways of writing and reading means that new forms of literature will find expression in them. They're doing to print publishing what print publishing did to the scriptorium. It's like they've wrestled the book's own knife from its hand, and the book had a mighty big knife indeed.

The Scream Literary Festival runs from July 2-13, 2009. For full festival details, event descriptions, tickets and directions, and a downloadable PDF calendar, visit www.thescream.ca.

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Leigh Nash

Leigh Nash is a writer, editor, and is this-close to completing her MFA in Creative Writing. She an editorial assistant with Mansfield Press, a member of the Meet the Presses collective and the co-founder of The Emergency Response Unit, a Toronto-based chapbook press. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Carousel, Exile: The Literary Quarterly and This Magazine.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
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