I recently returned from the Tucson Festival of Books a little poorer and with a little sunburn and heat exhaustion, but also relieved to know that books and authors are still relevant and respected enough to draw more than 100,000 people and 350 authors out into 98-degree heat for two days.
My brain may be a bit rattled from the heat, but here are my top observations from the event:
- Tucson is full of Cubs fans.
- Those of liberal inclinations are far more likely to attend the Tucson Festival than those of conservative politics. (Perhaps, they’re more likely to read, as well.)
- A huge book festival is not a great place for a no-name literary novelist to get discovered.
More on each of these:
1. It was indeed spring break and the middle of MLB spring training in Arizona, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of Chicago Cubs fans wandering around. But the last time I saw that many Cubs hats in one place was at a game in Wrigley Field, back when the Cubs were still lovable, perennial losers who played ball during the light of day. A World Series victory undoubtedly swells a fan base, so perhaps I should not have been surprised, but who knew so many book readers were baseball fans?
Maybe I should start writing baseball novels.
2. At each of the sessions I attended, Trump’s budget cuts to health, housing, medical research, the arts, NPR, and all manner of cultural- and life-sustaining programs were, if not the butt of jokes, the target of pointed, intelligent attacks. In one session on “Apocalypse 101: How to Destroy the World,” four novelists who have destroyed most of the population of Earth in one dystopian cataclysm or another more than once, bashed the GOP Congress and Trump administration for failing to recognize the apocalyptic disasters we’ve barely averted so far through medical research and peacemaking. They were uniformly pessimistic about our chances of continuing to do so going forward, and they didn’t mince words. Their concerns garnered what appeared to be unanimous agreement from the mostly Baby-Boom aged crowd. All of the panels of authors addressing racial and gender discrimination, immigration, automation and politics were packed with standing room only crowds.
If Arizona is a red state, the Festival of Books certainly didn’t show it.
3. As you might expect from the paragraph above, the 100,000 to 130,000 attendees at the festival were snatching up political, history, economics and science books at the University of Arizona Bookstore’s huge tent like they were bottles of water. I didn’t see the same enthusiasm for fiction, and maybe that speaks to the times. When the country is in the midst of a political crisis, it is heartening to know that readers reach for knowledge and understanding rather than escape and fantasy. However, the fiction authors that did seem to be drawing the best crowds were dystopian writers and writers of young adult fantasy. Literary fiction, further, was far less popular than genre (mystery, romance, sci-fi) as it usually is, and while I solicited a few new names for my blogs and newsletter and made a few sales, I know now that a huge festival, staged outdoors in the heat of the day, isn’t the place to try to explain the subtleties of books about rural Midwest atrophy or build a fan base.
In the manner of an optimist, this I will say: Going to the festival was a learning experience. I enjoyed many great conversations with fellow festival-goers, including several who were staying at the same bed and breakfast. And, it goes without saying, I suppose:
Any trip that involves Mexican cuisine and good margaritas is never a total loss.