The LA Times Festival of Books is one of my most favorite events of the year. I don’t always manage to attend — it depends on my travel schedule and what else is going on — but if it is at all possible, I go for the entire weekend. The festival takes place over two days and features a combination of open-air stages with performances, readings, etc.; panels and interviews held within the classrooms of the University of Southern California (and previously UCLA); and tent after tent of goodies from the various exhibitors, ranging from bookstores to literary magazines to writing programs to publishers and more. There is music, cooking demonstrations, poetry readings, and random moments of entertainment. This year I spotted a man in full cowboy garb, doing rope tricks in front of one of the tents. There are plenty of activities geared toward beginning readers, as well. Best of all, the festival is free to attend, though tickets are given out on a first-come, first-served basis for the indoor events due to limited seating. Needless to say, they draw a huge crowd every year.
There are always more panels that I wish to attend than actual time to go, with things overlapping all over the place, forcing me to make hard choices. I try to get a balance of subjects, but inevitably I find myself gravitating toward certain speakers. This year I seemed to be following John Scalzi, Deborah Harkness, Aimee Bender, and Lev Grossman around, not through any conscious effort but just because it worked out that way.
The first panel I attended was Lev Grossman interviewing John Green. Green, for those unfamiliar with his work, is a successful author of several young adult novels, most recently THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Grossman is a senior writer and book reviewer for Time magazine, and gave Green’s novel a stellar review when it came out at the beginning of the year. They discussed the book, of course, and Green’s own background and how that led him to write STARS. They also discussed how books about star-crossed lovers often seem to feature other books within them — books one of the characters finds important or inspirational — and how Green himself used this in his own work. He made an intriguing comment that the book within the book — unlike the book you actually write — can remain the perfect vision from your head, exactly as you imagine it without getting muddied by the actual effort of writing it down. It remains perfect because it’s not real.
He also talked about shitty first drafts. About writing hundreds of pages that eventually got discarded because they were more about him showing what he’d learned while researching for the book than they were about what worked for the story. It doesn’t matter where an author is in their career; shitty first drafts are inevitable.
From there I went to a panel on Writing Young Adult Fiction, featuring authors Libba Bray and Pete Hautman. These writers are notable for the diversity of their subject matter. Neither has allowed themselves to get too focused when it comes to genre or story type; they write the books they want to write and readers keep coming back for the quality of the worlds they create, be they realistic or fantastical.
The discussion kicked off with a look at the young adult market overall. There’s been a great deal of talk about how popular young adult books have become, with some going so far as to call it a golden age for YA lit. Hautman pointed out that there were more people writing, which made for more competition and a need to bring your A game to the table. Distribution has also improved, making it easier for readers to get hold of the books they want to read.
Bray added that, despite all the progress that has been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done to improve the young adult books in the market. She stressed the need for more diversity of subject and of characters — race, religion, sexuality, geography, etc. She and Hautman both suggested that this is not just the job of the publishers, but of writers and readers. People need to demand the books they want, and support the appearance of books that fit the categories that interest them. If a certain type of book does well, publishers look for more of that type of book — regardless of the characteristics making it popular.
I’m going to end this recap here. Check back for more on the festival tomorrow.