Litquake: A Feast for Literary Arts Lovers

by Jean Schiffman

This year’s Litquake presents over 850 authors at 111 events, plus the 98-event, closing night Litcrawl.

The staff of Litquake, which produces the annual book lover's festival, tried hard to schedule fewer events per evening this year so that audiences wouldn't have to make difficult choices among an embarrassment of riches.

They failed.

The popular festival, held at venues throughout the Bay Area, will present more than 850 authors at 111 events-readings, conversations, awards ceremony, workshops and more-not counting the patented closing-night Litcrawl (98 events for that night alone) through the Mission district.

Since its inception at San Francisco's Edinburgh Castle pub in 1999, the festival-labeled Litquake in 2002-has presented 7,100 authors, welcomed 145,854 attendees and seen Litcrawl, established in 2004, spread to major cities nationwide and abroad to London and Helsinki.

In addition, Litquake schedules events year-round.

"It's one thing to offer an incredible smorgasbord," sighs Jack Boulware, who cofounded Litquake with Jane Ganahl, "but with too many, it's difficult to choose." Ganahl agrees: "When we tack too many events into one evening, they cannibalize one another's audiences. But it's hard when we're given all these great opportunities to present so many interesting and amazing authors."

Submissions come in year-round, and Ganahl and Boulware go to New York each spring to meet with publishers to find out what books will be out in the fall. A 25-person committee, its members specializing in specific genres-short stories, YA, children, science, environment and so on-helps out. "We try to make [the selections] as diverse as possible, fit in as many genres as we can," says Boulware.

This year's festival opens with a Shakespeare-themed party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death. A tiny sampling among the dozens of other events: Porchlight's storytelling series, themed "Life During Wartime"; female comics featuring TV writer Phoebe Robinson, home girl Beth Lisick and others; Michelle Tea (whose new book is "Black Wave") and Daniel (aka
Lemony Snicket) Handler in conversation; San Francisco journalist Charles Russo, who just published a history of martial arts in America; local poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge; "Litquake in the Castro," with San Francisco writer Rabih Alameddine and others from the LGBTQ community; a discussion on writing from indigenous peoples' perspective; and much more.

The Barbary Coast Awards component of the festival has been enlarged this year to encompass not just one but nine local recipients: Maxine Hong Kingston and Alejandro Murguía (Literary Legends); KQED Radio's Michael Krasny (Kathi Kamen Goldmark Award for Devotion to the Cause); Thomas Sanchez (California Classics award for his 1973 book about the American West, "Rabbit Boss"); writer and activist Jewelle Gomez (LGBT Castro Vanguard Award); Wendy Lesser's Threepenny Review (literary publication); Bancroft Library (literary institution); Paul Yamazaki of City Lights (Bookstore Hero); and poet Justin Chin in memoriam.

Says Ganahl, of Yamazaki, "Here's a guy who's mortified that we're giving him an award. Well, let's see, you've been working as a book buyer for so many years, you're the backbone of City Lights…" As for Kingston: "She's visited Obama in the White House. She's a national treasure! [And] there are many people in this scene…who work tirelessly to foster a love of books and literature, like Kathi [Kamen Goldmark] did. Who better to get that award than Michael Krasny…? There's nothing he won't do for books and literature."

The festival covers a broad literary spectrum. Boulware points to contrasting extremes: On one hand, there are traditional events with best-selling or notable authors, among them Terry McMillan. "On the other hand," he says, "we have poets reading with a jazz group in a basement in North Beach [at City Lights bookstore]"-a modern version of storied evenings when such poets as Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti read with a jazz group. In this case, the Afro-futurist jazz trio the Broun Fellinis will accompany the poets. At yet another extreme: the food writers events, complete with tasting stations.

"On the literary end," muses Ganahl, "there's [poet] Claudia Rankine in conversation with a wonderful new author, [Nigerian-born San Franciscan] Sarah Ladipo Manyika. It's a coproduction with MoAD [the Museum of the African Diaspora] and will be very dignified and scholarly. On the other end, there's a salute to Hunter Thompson on opening weekend that's sure to be irreverent, bawdy, pop-culturish." That event, "GONZO," features the late author's son, Juan Thompson, who wrote "Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson" ("a gifted writer who doesn't romanticize or pull punches," says Ganahl, of Thompson fils). And there's Thomas Dolby, a pop music figure, whose new memoir is "The Speed of Sound: Breaking Barriers Between Music and Technology"; he'll be accompanied by live music.

Just as the festival lineup is eclectic, so are the audiences. "Some literary people go to Book Passage [readings], or have a glass of wine and see authors in their book club," says Boulware. "Then there's the younger, performative generation. The MFA influence of poetry and fiction has its own audience. There's a definite audience for politicized literature-people curious about what's behind the curtain of American democracy. And there's
a little audience of aspiring writers who want to learn more about writing and publishing."

Boulware thinks that the younger generation, who grew up looking at screens, will increasingly gravitate to print. The way things are going, it seems likely that Litquake will continue to serve readers no matter what, or how, they read.


Oct. 7 → 15

Various venues