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How a Tradition Begins

Ten years of the Southern Festival of Books

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, July/August 1998 | Volume 19, Number 4

Every fall, Music City U.S.A transforms itself into Literary City U.S.A. as the Southern Festival of Books takes over Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza.

Book junkies and literary aficionados -- thirty thousand of them last year -- converge on readings, panel discussions, and autograph sessions in an event that is both a serious literary inquiry and a celebration of the written word.

The festival, produced by the Tennessee Humanities Council, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year from October 9 to 11. At ten, the Southern Festival of Books is an old-timer in the ever-growing legion of book and literary festivals around the country. Eight other state humanities councils are sponsoring them as well -- Virginia, Louisiana, Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, and Washington. At a time when mergers in the publishing industry are causing angst, these events that bring writers and readers together are more popular than ever.

The Southern Festival of Books debuted in 1989 to a crowd of more than ten thousand people. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn were there, along with chef and author Julia Child, singer Jimmy Buffet, and novelists Taylor Branch and Josephine Humphreys. Robert Cheatham, director of the Tennessee Humanities Council and one of the festival’s founders, attributes part of the event’s success that first year to the appearance of the Carters and the publicity they generated, but also to the interest in the festival by the publishing community itself. Generally reluctant to commit time and money to something unproven, publishers jumped to participate after Ingram Book Group, a Tennessee-based book supplier, agreed to cosponsor the festival. John Egerton, a local Nashville writer, also played a role in luring the Southern literary community to the festival.

Nothing about the inherent nature of the festival has changed since that first weekend in October. Over the course of three days, anywhere from four to six sessions occur simultaneously in the legislative hearing rooms under War Memorial Plaza. People pack the House and Senate Chambers, the Old Supreme Court room, and War Memorial Auditorium to hear local writers, best-selling authors, and first-time novelists discuss their books. Out on the marbled open space of the plaza, publishers sell their fall offerings and fans line up to get books signed by their favorite authors. Last year more than two hundred authors and ninety exhibitors participated.

Most of the writers come to the festival free of charge, sent by their publishers to promote a book. “Many of the biggest names that we have, we don’t pay a cent for,” said Cheatham. In some cases, the festival will go after a particular author; it also tries to encourage Tennessee writers. In extending invitations, the program committee tries to strike a balance between writers who are well known and those who deserve to be better known; the well established and newly published; and fiction and nonfiction writers. The festival also strives to cover the breadth of American writing. “We have always said that it’s the Southern Festival of Books, not the Southern Book Festival,” says Cheatham.

Once the writers have committed themselves to attend, the program committee labors over combinations of people on panels, hoping both to excite the public and capture the essence of the authors’ work. A 1993 panel entitled “Danger and Romance: Stockcar Racing in the Culture of the South,” featured NASCAR driver Kyle Petty; Frye Gaillard, author of Kyle at 200mph; Peter Golenbock, author of American Zoom: Stock Car Racing from the Dirt Tracks to Daytona; and Sylvia Wilkinson, author of On the 7th Day, God Created the Chevrolet. “The place was packed,” said Cheatham. “We’d done a sports panel before, but we’d never done very well. This was wonderful.”

Big names always draw well. Ernest Gaines, Joyce Carol Oates, Alex Haley, Charles Frazier, Colleen McCullough, William Styron, and Robert Olen Butler have all been to Nashville to talk about the craft of writing. While authors may change from year to year, some topics are always popular with the crowd, including examinations of life in the South, sessions featuring debut novelists, and any opportunity to talk about the Civil War. A 1990 panel featuring Shelby Foote, the historian who narrated Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War, still holds the record for the largest audience. After learning that the documentary was scheduled to be broadcast right before the festival, organizers decided to capitalize on Foote’s sure-to-be enhanced reputation. “We didn’t know that he was going to be a matinee idol,” said Cheatham. Civil War buffs and women in love with the sound of Foote’s voice packed War Memorial auditorium to hear his proclamation that the Civil War is the South’s version of the Iliad.

There is also something for young readers at the festival. The Children’s Chapter Committee, consisting of librarians, teachers, booksellers, and others interested in children’s literature, organizes a variety of activities. Children can sit at the feet of illustrators while they talk about creating the characters of a much-read story. Young adults have the opportunity to meet with authors whose prose has captured the pain of adolescence. Last year Oxford University Press used the festival to launch its new children’s book, The Pasteboard Bandit, by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, which tells the story of a young boy who moves from New York to Mexico. Publishers had rejected the manuscript in the early 1940s because it was ahead of its time in dealing with race issues.

The Council takes the spirit of the festival into local classrooms with the “Festival in the Schools” program. Primary and secondary schools are invited to host a writer during the week leading up to the festival; more than seventy schools participate in the program each year. “It’s a time during which we try to show that writing has value outside of school,” said Cheatham. “You can make a career out of writing.” The writers -- who range from songwriters to journalists to novelists -- talk with students about the writing process and share their experiences.

Although more well known for its musical roots, Nashville has always been a bit of a book town. Its late eighteenth-century founders began publishing newspapers and religious materials almost as soon as they arrived. The town’s first bookstore followed in 1811. Since then, Nashville has supported a number of independent and specialty bookstores, while also evolving into a national center for book and music publishing and distribution. Ingram Book Group, for example, is the nation’s largest wholesale distributor of trade books, and the Nashville division of BMG Music Publishing is a leader in gospel and country music.

Underlying Nashville’s attachment to the book trade is the Southern literary tradition itself. Nearly seventy years ago, the presence of what might be the Southern literary mystique began to capture the attention of critics and readers. The notoriety achieved by William Faulkner with his portrayals of Southern originals, paved the way for subsequent generations of Southern writers. By mid-century, Thomas Wolfe, James Agee, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams were not only achieving fame in their own right, but also expanding the Southern literary movement. Over the past thirty years, a Southern renaissance has flowered, as writers from Virginia to Texas refine and examine what it means to be a Southerner with all its particularities and peculiarities.

Indeed, the public’s fascination with Southern writers spawned the festival itself. While the Tennessee Humanities Council had hosted a variety of literary conferences, the push to produce a festival came from the success of a 1986 event honoring Tennessee writers. Aware of a thriving annual book festival in Miami, the council began to explore the idea of Nashville hosting one of its own. The council saw the event as a chance to do something beyond handing out grants, and at the same time to serve as a city booster. “There was a feeling,” recalls Cheatham, “that we should do it before Atlanta.”

Plans for this year’s festival have been in the works for months. Writers on the list include Michael Beschloss, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Dorothy Allison, Tony Horwitz, and Juan Williams. In addition to the usual author panels, organizers are considering mounting an eight-by-twenty foot magnetic poetry wall on the plaza to give festival-goers a chance to display their poetic genius.

To extend the festival’s reach, the Council has also launched another initiative, “Tennessee Celebrates the Written Word.” Communities outside metropolitan Nashville have received grants to host book-related and literary events in the three weeks leading up to the festival.

In reaching the ten-year mark, the Southern Festival of Books remains what Cheatham calls a “mongrel”—part literary conference, part book fair. “We are more interested in education than selling books, and when you marry the two, you come up with a festival.” For Cheatham, one of the secrets of the enduring popularity of the festival is the energy produced by the union of nonprofit organizations and booksellers. “The booksellers are happy to sell any book, while educators want to judge books and exclude those that don’t meet their standards,” he said. “Here they have to come together, give a little, and share in the one thing they have in common: they build their lives around books.”

Other Festivals Around the Nation

ARIZONA -- The Arizona Book Festival made its successful debut on April 4, featuring novelist-journalist Pete Hamill and National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William R. Ferris. The Phoenix-based event featured Chautauqua-style presentations of writers Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with storytelling for children, and a display of rare books.

COLORADO -- Book lovers in Denver will gather on November 7- 8 at the Denver Merchandise Mart for the sixth annual Rocky Mountain Book Festival. The festival drew twenty-five thousand people last year. In addition to featuring more than two hundred authors, festival-goers also attended Chautauqua performances and received “bibliotherapy” (advice on what to read).

ILLINOIS -- The seventh annual Great Illinois Book Fair will be held this fall in Bloomington. The fair, held at Illinois Wesleyan University's Shirk Center, features more than thirty antiquarian and rare book dealers.

LOUISIANA -- Now in its twelfth year, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival featured a scholars conference on Williams’ work, writing workshops for aspiring novelists, and a book fair. The festival, which ran this year from March 11-15, wouldn’t be complete with its crowd-pleasing finale: the Stanley and Stella Shouting contest.

NEVADA -- This fall kicks off the second year of the Great Basin Book Festival on September 25-27 in downtown Reno, Nevada. Last year’s festival featured a reading by Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States, along with book signings and readings by more than fifty local and regional authors, cowboy poetry, and western music.

NORTH CAROLINA -- The first annual North Carolina Literary Festival was held April 3-5 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More than 100 writers and 35 exhibitors turned out for the festival's inaugural year, including the reclusive John Grishman, who read from his latest book, The Street Lawyer.

SOUTH CAROLINA -- In its second year, the South Carolina Book Festival, held April 18-19, took over Columbia’s Carolina Coliseum and expanded to two days. Reynolds Price, author of Roxanna Slade, and Mickey Spillane, creator of the Mike Hammer detective series, joined festival goers for readings, panel discussions, and new and antiquarian book displays.

TEXAS -- Austin saddles up the third annual Texas Book Festival on November 13-15 in and around the State Capitol. Confirming former First Lady Barbara Bush’s assertion that Texas is far from being a “bookless backwater,” twelve thousand people attended last year’s festival. More than one hundred Texas authors participated in fifty panels and readings, including appearances by Larry McMurtry and Carlos Fuentes.

VIRGINIA -- The fourth annual Virginia Festival of Books was held March 18-22 in and around the University of Virginia campus. A keynote address by William Meredith, the 1997 National Book Award winner, kicked off the festivities, which included readings, autograph signings, and workshops on topics ranging from how to break into publishing to calligraphy. The festival also gives special attention to poetry and featured readings by poet laureates Robert Pinsky and Rita Dove.

WASHINGTON -- Pier 48 on Seattle’s Riverfront plays host to the Northwest Bookfest on October 24-25. This year’s event promises more than 175 authors and two hundred exhibitors. In addition to readings, signings, and storytelling for children, last year’s bookfest looked at the past and future of books with workshops on paper making, book binding, electronic books, and the future of on-line publishing. The festival annually draws more than twenty-five thousand people.