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Anybody who’s cared about culture in the past decade has had reason to hope for more subsidies from billionaires. In 2002 pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly gave a surprise $100 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. The following year Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, died and left $200 million to NPR in her will. And last year mall developer Herbert Simon saved the book-review outlet Kirkus Reviews (for which I’m a regular reviewer) from death’s door by buying the publication. As hordes of dudes hit the strip malls every day to load up on Cialis and Angus Third Pounders, be grateful for all they’re doing to support fine arts in America.
The National Book Festival, founded by the Library of Congress and then-First Lady Laura Bush in 2001, is also enjoying some of this largesse. Last May the Library announced that David Rubenstein, co-founder of the investment firm the Carlyle Group, pledged $5 million to help keep the fest running. What the pledge meant at the time was uncertain: A press release said only that it would help “expand the one-day festival into a fully integrated program that emphasizes books, reading, and the library as a place of discovery and learning,” Earlier this week the picture got clearer: This year’s event, scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25, will be the first time it’s been held for two days instead of one.
That’s good news for book lovers. (Though it’s displeased solar decathletes.) According to a press release, the two-day arrangement means that more than 90 authors will be included, and they’ll get a little more Q&A time with the audience. That’s around 20 more writers than appeared last year, and many more than the 32 that showed up for the first one. But more authors alone isn’t necessarily an improvement. If the fest is eager to change how it’s done things, here are five more routes it might consider:
1. Give poetry its own stage back. As the fest has grown bigger, poetry’s presence has only seemed to get smaller. After having their own tent from 2003 to 2008, poets have been folded into a “Poetry & Prose” tent the past two years.
2. Surprise us. To corral big-name corporate sponsors, the fest has traditionally seemed obligated to present some big-name speakers, from Jonathan Franzen to Bob Woodward to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even the poets who get selected, such as Rae Armantrout and Kay Ryan, are essentially the Coldplays and Lady Gagas of their field. Finding some room for lesser-known writers, and/or those from smaller presses, would go a long way toward presenting the fest as a representative cross-section of American letters.
3. Cultivate some off-site events. Multi-day festivals for film and music are generally smart enough to put together a few events that happen away from the main stages. It’s true of book fests too: The schedule for the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, held earlier this month in D.C., was stuffed with semi-official readings and parties well away from the Woodley Park Marriott.
4. Be more D.C. The fest has done plenty for D.C. authors, giving the stage to Thomas Mallon, Louis Bayard, E. Ethelbert Miller, George Pelecanos, Edward P. Jones, and the many historians and journalists in the area. But a little bit of outreach to the locals cultivated by journals like Barrelhouse, Poet Lore, and the long-running Gargoyle, as well as local writing organizations like 826DC, might do a bit to support the notion that area writers get a seat at the table.
5. Just give Neil Gaiman his own stage. The National Book Fest crowd eats him up, even when he says commonplace things about fans calling you out when you suck: