Academic Vs General Public Book Gatherings

Over a recent long weekend I went to my second ever non-academic book festival (the Decatur Book Festival), and this second time I really noticed a couple of things. First, there’s the question to authors of all varieties “How do you get your ideas?” Two writers, one I knew of and one I didn’t, on different panels on very different styles and age ranges, gave almost the same answer: ‘I wrote what I {would have} wanted to read when I was {that age}”.  Both authors have been and currently are best-sellers in YA and kid’s lit, and one of them has done that in adult novels as well. Both were apparently rather nerdy as children, getting into science fiction or fantasy, Star Wars and Harry Potter were what they named as the thing that really inspired them.

There is an entirely different atmosphere at this type of gathering than at academic conferences even though there are similarities, at least on the surface. Attendees at both types tend to like to read and/or write, and both have a high number of people who either do or want to do the writing and reading in some sort of professional capacity. One kind of funny, in the sense of vague irony, thing I noticed that really does show the difference in atmosphere is that when it was discussion time, at a major national academic conference I was at about 9 months ago, there were constant reminders to attendees that “questions” should be no more than a few sentences and end in a question mark. To someone who has been to any kind of academic conference, this is at the same time silly but also necessary since there always seem to be people who want to talk about their own work and its relevance to everything instead of focusing on the content of the panel in front of them. At the public festival, there was no need for such reminders. It’s like the people were genuinely there to learn about the subject-work-person in a far more genuine way.

The panelists at the public festival also seemed more interested in each other and in connections between their work than at the academic level. On one panel, the two lady authors, both of whom wrote best-selling fantasy for YA/adult readers, but were there to talk about new middle grade books, started conversing and the moderator let them do it, staying out of things for almost 10 minutes. I have never seen this sort of thing happen at an academic gathering, although sometimes panelists do ask each other questions, but it never really seems to develop into extended conversation.

The other thing that I noticed, besides the general tone, was that even for a general interest book festival, at least some of the panels were reasonably intellectual. The first panel I went to was on wit and humor and I was kind of surprised at how well some of the theories brought up matched with some of the ancient and medieval definitions that I’d recently been working with. At this panel, one of the presenters argued that the key to successful wit or humor was to have to allow the audience to make some of the connections and jumps in meaning, sometimes invoking a bit of misdirection for effect. For example, in an essay discussing the definition or identification of humor in the Middle Ages and Early Modern eras or Western European literature, Albrecht Classen argues that, the comic “results from a conflict between norms, their breach or transgression, though mostly not too egregious to hurt or insult badly”.[1] This idea suggests that the audience would then find the humor by having to fill in the incongruity through a jump in reasoning otherwise making the connection between the conflicting ideas, nearly a repeat of the current scholar of wit and humor. Puns were one of the speaker’s key examples, and to illustrate, medievalists of a certain persuasion should likely be able to spot the one in my title.

Lastly, it may have been some of the particular panels I went to, but there were a lot more children than I’ve ever seen at an academic conference. Occasionally, someone might bring along a spouse and young child, but neither are often seen, and never during the actual panels. Granted, a general interest presentation geared towards things children might be interested in, like books they know and like in terms they can understand, would attract parent with their children, as opposed to a panel talking about the academic theories and interpretations of the same. Even so, there was a child at the book festival complaining to his mother, “This is sooooo boring!”; I’m guessing he was about 5 or so. Another reason you may not see too many children at an academic conference is that, it’s bad enough to have to tell your child in a situation where it might be expected “Don’t kick the person in front of you! Say ‘sorry’!” {child mumbles the apology, and the person nudged never acknowledges either being kicked or apologized to}. These sorts of things would probably be considered far too distracting or interrupting at a more academic event, but it does make the tone more real. That’s real kid, as opposed to listening to people talk about for example the levels and variations of morality or ethics in the same book these two kids were apparently present to hear about, the latest in a series called The Last Kids on Earth; this was not something I’m familiar with, but I’m probably out of the loop on the most current trends and what’s popular, not having kids within the target age range myself.

There’s a certain level of artifice present in the academic world in terms of writing and reading that was just not there at this non-academic festival. People actually wanted to be there for the most part and enjoyed it. Academic conferences can be fun if you know people and/or like to meet new people, but it’s still more like work, and that can take some of the joy out of it.

Circling back to the beginning for a moment, when the author of this series mentioned he was a Star Wars fan-boy as a child, I was reminded of how many people in their late teens through early thirties have said that the Harry Potter series was what really got them into reading and maybe even writing. I was slightly above the target age range when the first few books came out, and was unaware of them until not long after the third novel was published when I was a senior in high school. I re-read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for another project not long ago, and some things really stood out to me. It’s so well written and the world and characters building are so detailed and well done without a lot of the tropes that get old, like the info dump speeches from one character to another (not that I mind these, it’s just that they’re pretty common). After book 3, when the books doubled to tripled in size, the writing was less witty and the story was less about the world and characters and more about action plot things and angst. I’m not the first to point to the differences between books 1-3 as a set and 4-7, but I feel it more upon a reread much removed from the first time through. Anyways, with these novels being so influential on the current starts and rising stars of the fiction, especially fantasy and sci-fi, it’s going to be interesting to see how much things change if these writers are going to write what they wanted to read other than Harry Potter.

[1] “Laughter as an Expression of Human Nature in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period: Literary, Historical, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Reflections. Also an Introduction.”  Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times. Ed. Albrecht Classen. De Gruyeter, 2010. Pp.1-140. Here p.5.