This year marked the 17th annual National Book Festival (NBF) in DC, my 12th, and my parents’ first. It is also the year of the 22nd annual Baltimore Book Festival (BBF) and my first – historically, the two festivals have often conflicted, but this year they were held on different weekends.
At both festivals, authors speak at scheduled times on genre-themed stages. At BBF, as used to be the case at NBF, the stages are outdoors, under large white tents. (There were also some indoor presentations, including readings at the National Aquarium.) NBF’s writers now give their talks in conference rooms at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Both events can be a little overwhelming. Books are awesome and popular, which means that celebrations of books get crowded.
No matter how many times I go to the Convention Center, it never fails to confuse me. The complex has a north building and a south building, and somehow even a middle building. There are at least two food courts, known as the Uptown Food District (on an upper level) and the Downtown Food District (on a lower level). In the true spirit of promoting literacy, a giant screen at NBF this year pointed to the “Uptwon Food District.”
After I heard Chris Bohjalian and Dava Sobel speak, and my mother and father listened to Nathan Hill, I met my parents for lunch at the Uptown Uptwon Food District. As we finished our meal, I was left with a small piece of pizza. Of course, I wanted to take it with me to eat later.
“Maybe you can get a Herman,” said my mother.
“This is a Herman,” I told her, indicating the cardboard box in which the personal-size pizza had been given to us.
“I mean, maybe you can find a smaller Herman,” she replied.
Yes – in my family, to-go containers for food are called Hermans. They have been for a couple of decades now. It’s a long story (and it has nothing to do with any actual person named Herman).
I share this anecdote because it’s a perfect example of the family slang Emma Donoghue spoke about at the next session I attended, at the Children’s Purple Stage. In her case, the Royal Ontario Museum is called the Uh-Oh, because when her son first saw it as a young child, he thought it had exploded and said “uh-oh!”
National Book Festival 2017 authors, with varying degrees of photo quality: Chris Bohjalian, Dava Sobel, Emma Donoghue, Dan Chaon, and Ha Jin. The ghostly image of Chaon is a metaphor for the creepiness of his writing.
Next I rejoined my parents for Dan Chaon’s talk, and then I stuck around to hear Ha Jin. A few weeks later, on a hot day in Baltimore, I attended Alice McDermott’s presentation in a tent at the Inner Harbor.
In their pavilions or conference rooms, each with a designated genre, the authors all spoke in some way about the categorization of writers and writing. My parents reported that Nathan Hill said that his book cannot really be categorized. Dan Chaon, in a conversation with Ron Charles of the Washington Post, spoke of the blurring between genre fiction and literary fiction, and the “literary thrillers” he has written.
Dava Sobel began her talk with a comment on the genre stage she’d been assigned. “Contemporary life?” she mused, wondering if the term was “a euphemism for science.”
Sobel told her audience that she wishes someone had told her about science writing when she was in high school. She had always liked both science and writing, but until she discovered the category of science writing, she wasn’t sure how to put her two seemingly disparate interests together.
Chris Bohjalian, who appears to have read every book in the universe, mentioned “doorstops” – those thick tomes, novels that are hundreds upon hundreds of pages long. Doorstops, he said, are still being published (and he rattled off some of his favorites), but they have changed over time: today’s editors would never allow 60 pages of detail on sperm whales or sewer systems in a work of fiction. He also spoke of the differences between his own historical fiction and his novels set in the present: the former deal with people’s willingness to be complicit in evil, the latter are about moral ambiguity.
Emma Donoghue devoted most of her presentation to her recently published book for young children. The listening crowd was largely grown up – people probably like me, who had read something she’d written for adults. One of the first audience questions she answered was whether she would continue to write adult novels (the answer was yes).
At NBF, Ha Jin fielded an audience question as to why his novel Waiting is considered an American novel (and he gave a number of reasons besides the obvious, that he is a Chinese American novelist). Alice McDermott told her readers at BBF that while she has previously been a writer who is also Catholic, it was only her most recent work that is actually a Catholic book.
Besides the difference in venues, NBF and BBF varied in the authors they featured. BBF tends to have less established, more up-and-coming writers, with a few big names like McDermott in the mix. At BBF, there is also more Baltimore history (as one would expect), as well as tents devoted to romance, speculative fiction, and radical thought.
Alice McDermott at the 2017 Baltimore Book Festival
Questions of categorization also relate to why book festivals belong in a blog about museums. Besides the fact that this particular blogger really loves book festivals, there’s also the symbiotic relationship among museums, libraries, and book events. Museums often have libraries; libraries often have objects and exhibit space. NBF is sponsored by the Library of Congress (which is a museum as well as a library); BBF takes place partially in the National Aquarium. I believe I heard once that libraries and museums are like the two sides of the brain, but now I can’t find the quote anywhere.
Perhaps someday it will be in either a library or a museum that I will encounter the exact quotation and attribution.