The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Dispatches from the National Book Festival 2012

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

The National Book Festival is my favorite part of living in DC.  Every September, prominent authors from many different genres gather on the National Mall and talk about their work.  Last year, they expanded the gathering from one day to two, allowing the event to host a greater number of authors and giving you another day to catch the festivities.  The sheer number and diversity of authors this event features is amazing.  If you read at all, you can probably find at least one author every year that you’d want to see.

This is the third time I’ve attended.  Every year, I’m overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who show up there.  What joins them together is the sheer love of books.  It’s awesome.

On Saturday, I got to see one of my favorite childhood authors: Lois Lowry.  I had no idea what an emotional experience it would be for me.  I loved Lowry’s Anastasia books, and The Giver—which I read in sixth grade—remains one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read.  Turns out, Lowry turned The Giver into a four-book series.  The last book, Son, is being released on October 2, and features Gabe, the baby who Jonas spirited away in The Giver.  She said she wrote the follow-up books to The Giver to respond to young readers upset about the ambiguity of the ending.  I remember wondering about what had happened to Jonas after The Giver.  One of the prevailing theories in my sixth grade language arts class was that Jonas and Gabe had actually died, exposed to the elements, and the town they see at the end is actually Heaven.  Guess we were wrong about that one.

I also saw Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver—which I named as my favorite book of 2009.  Right now, Stiefvater is promoting her latest book, Raven Boys.  It’s been a few years since I’ve read YA actively, but hearing her talk about it made me want to read it.  (It’s got ancient Scottish kings, and ley lines…and kids with helicopters!)  I have always been impressed by Stiefvater’s lyrical writing style, and she talked pretty extensively about her background in music.  She also had great stage presence.  She was witty, confident, and wry, and she had the audience in stitches during her speech.  She also talked about how, for her, writer’s block is her subconscious’s way of telling her that she’s gone wrong in the story somewhere.

Following Stiefvater, I saw Melissa Marr, author of the Wicked Lovely series.  When I read the series a few years ago, I remember liking it a lot because, unlike most YA fiction, Marr’s series depicted the misfits.  They weren’t the most popular, pretty, or well-adjusted.  They didn’t have great relationships with their parents.  In fact, they occupied a space of otherness that I identified with better than most of the happy, preppy teenage protagonists in books.  She talked about how she related better to teenager than adults, that teenagers are logical while adults are not.  She also talked about how she went from being voted “Most Likely to Go to Jail” in high school to being a writer and a university professor now.  She said a lot of interesting things, and I wished I could hear her better!  Her presentation was conducted interview-style, and the lapel mike she wore wasn’t picking her up as well as it should have.

On Sunday, I went back to the festival again and saw the historical romance author Eloisa James.  She said she was the first romance author to be invited to speak at the festival.  (Not exactly true: I saw Nicholas Sparks speak in 2009.  However, I’m not sure that Sparks is considered a romance author precisely.)  She also spoke about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.  She said that whereas literary fiction makes a difference in the world, genre fiction makes a difference on a more individual level.  I’m not sure I agree with her argument there.  Literary fiction may aspire to such heights, but it only rarely succeeds.  Furthermore, genre fiction can make a biting societal critique just as easily as literary fiction.  After all, look at 1984, or even The Hunger Games trilogy.  I tend to think that the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction are, slowly but surely, breaking down.  She also talked about how, when you’re operating within a genre such as romance, your readers have certain expectations, and how the writer has to surprise them within the confines of those expectations.  That one I buy.  When you pick up a romance novel, you know it’s going to have a happy ending (which is why I don’t know if Sparks is precisely a romance author).  But the best romances have you biting your fingernails, worrying that the hero and heroine won’t get together after all.  It’s actually pretty rare that an author can pull this off, but when they do, it’s pretty amazing.  I also hope the inclusion of James this year means they will include more romance authors next year.  Romance is hugely popular, and it doesn’t get the respect it deserves as a genre.

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend, or missed a presentation, the Library of Congress will be posting the videos soon.

Another National Book Festival comes to an end.  One thing I can guarantee: if I am in the DC area next September, I will be going back.