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More Literary Events Than Ever in the Bay Area

By Evan Karp

Opportunities for Reinvention Abound for Festivals and Bookstores

It’s no surprise the literary community was able to pivot so quickly when the pandemic forced everyone to shelter in place: to share our work, writers typically require, at most, a mic and PA system, and those tools are built in to our computers. The bigger question was: would we continue to produce events in the same way, and if so why?

Seven months in, and despite the uncertainty that looms around financial sustainability, and the pervasive anxieties around a pandemic with no end in sight (at least here); the movement for Black lives and the White House-powered propaganda against it; the most devastating fires on record (again); and arguably the most important election in the history of our nation, the Bay Area is hosting more literary events than it usually does.

Understandably, some organizers have put a pause on their programming, but others have increased their offerings, and some have taken the opportunity to start a new series or to get creative in a way that likely never would have happened otherwise.

Virtual space in a new reality

Nomadic Press, which continues to produce its popular monthly events Get Lit (third Tuesdays) and Speaking Axolotl (third Thursdays), began a virtual open mic on the first Friday of shelter in place that has continued every Friday since.

“That's been kind of a marker of the lockdown,” said director J. K. Fowler by phone, a few hours before Virtual Open Mic #27. “We know that we're 27 weeks in.”

When asked what this time has been like for him as an organizer, Fowler laughs before answering. “It's challenging to be going through a pandemic dealing with my own panic, dealing with the unknown, while also trying to hold space for people to gather. And I think it's a positive challenge, because I think, especially as things get more intense, it's easy for us to get lost in our own stuff, and being pulled out of that every week, sometimes multiple times a week, in order to hold space for others to gather is a blessing in a lot of ways.”

By the second week in April, Noah Sanders, creator and organizer of The Racket – a monthly series of theme-based reading since 2017 – decided to host the event weekly. At a time when most of us found our routines upended, and time expanding and contracting in baffling ways, more regular virtual events had become one way to anchor ourselves to the new reality. That same week, The Racket put out a call for submissions to a weekly Quarantine Journal.

“I thought it would last, like, a month,” Sanders said about the pandemic, by phone, in late August, having published 20 issues of the journal. “I was that person who thought: it's all going to end soon, and people still write me and ask: I don't have anything that's quarantine-related, can I still submit? And I'm like, yeah, it's just a journal now.”

The pandemic was, on one level, an opportunity for reinvention.

“I loved what The Racket was doing as a live event [before the pandemic],” he said. “We were trying to find new ways to play with that live event, but I think doing the weekly and having this weird thing happen gave me this sort of space to think: what else can I do?

“I had always thought about doing a journal, but all of a sudden I was like, man there's 380 million people just sitting around. I can probably get a handful more of them to read an online PDF than I could if they had parties to go to and stuff.

“So for me it opened up a space of confidence, where I think people will actually want to do these things, because they don't have anything else to do. But it also gave me the kick in the ass to be like, ok let's just do stuff. You know, let's put out a journal; let's do a weekly series; let's try to engage in a different way.”

Where community meets commerce

Kar Johnson, who started managing events for Green Apple Books on the Park mid-pandemic, says “what has really stood out” for them during this time has been “local reading series and the organizers who, like bookstores, just kept on putting shows together when we all really needed a distraction.”

Johnson has performed at The Racket and often attends their events. “I'm so impressed and so grateful that when shelter in place started – when they could have easily paused, taken a completely reasonable break – they doubled down,” they wrote by email. “That dedication is really admirable to me.”

Bookstores and community-produced events often overlap (The Racket, for instance, was born at Adobe Books and hosted more recently by Alley Cat Books), but the pandemic has been a bigger challenge for bookstores, which host events in part to sell books, because they have to pay rent. There's also the fact that authors with new books still need to sell them, even when customers aren't allowed into stores.

“We've had to adapt very quickly to the new landscape that we're all living in,” Johnson said. “Going fully online [with Green Apple’s events] was a big shift, for us and for everyone. But our community showed up for us, readers and authors alike: authors were glad to lend their time, and readers have been happy to show up. Because of this, the pandemic hasn't changed the quality of our programming. We still have a full calendar of talented people ‘visiting’ us.”

But – and this is not unique to Green Apple – attendance hasn’t translated to book sales.

“We keep events free because we want people to be able to access them,” Johnson said. “I hate having to think about book sales when I plan programming, because I'd rather we all just be together and talk about interesting things. But alas, it's something I have to consider. And I understand. With so many people out of work, you can't expect someone to buy a new hardcover book for each event they attend. I have been making a point of asking during our events that if people have the means to buy the book of our visiting authors to please do so. It's the only way we can sustain our programming and our store. It helps the authors too.”

The (radio) show must go on

City Arts & Lectures, which hosts artist conversations in the opulent Sydney Goldstein Theater, pre-pandemic charged $29 per ticket. When lockdown went into place, they offered pre-recorded versions of their events for free online.

Speaking by phone, co-directer Kate Goldstein-Breyer said they felt like “it was such a different experience, and offering,” that they “ought to make it free to the public,” adding that “there was still an appetite for culture, and people were still looking to process what's going on in the world, and also find some comfort in the arts; that it was worthwhile to do whatever we could to continue our programming.”

But their events are syndicated to some 130 NPR-affiliate stations, so from a production standpoint it wasn't as simple as inviting authors and guests to join a Zoom call. They had to produce public radio quality audio.

Having already sold tickets to their season's events, and a community of supporters who decided to donate the ticket monies instead of receiving a refund, City Arts was able, as they went virtual, to pay their staff and speakers, and to hire an additional staffer to run their tech.

“Of course everybody looks at everything with new eyes now,” Goldstein-Breyer said. “I think we've accepted that we're not going to generate the income we used to generate, and we've looked at why we're doing this to begin with, which wasn't about generating the revenue.”

Co-director Holly Mulder-Wollan, on the same call, added: “The [radio] show was not usually at the forefront of what we were thinking about, because we had these big live events happening 2-3 times a week, but I've thought a lot more about the voices that we give a platform to and the reach that the radio show has, especially because we're picked up by a lot of secondary NPR stations – so it's smaller towns across the country. That's something that has given extra meaning to the work.”

City Arts only had to postpone or cancel a few of its events, and hasn't otherwise changed their roster of speakers, but the conversations are different.

“There isn't a guest that isn't in some way addressing this moment,” Mulder-Wollan said, “whether it's about BLM protests, or the pandemic, or the election, or the environment – it's part of everybody's everyday reality right now, and it's not something that we're programming for but it's definitely something that's part of all of the conversations we're presenting.”

City Arts now charges $29 to join their livestreams, where guests can engage with questions, and when the event is rebroadcast on the radio the video is also made available to watch for free.

What if the show can't go on?

The Bay Area Book Festival, now it its sixth year, has had to change course more dramatically. Scheduled for May 2-3, the small staff was set to announce their full schedule, with 130 programs and 265 writers.

“March 10 was the day to upload, and we waited,” said director Cherilyn Parsons, by phone. “Initially I thought, what can we preserve? Maybe we can just do the outdoor [events], or maybe we should just cancel the outdoor. We were frantically trying to figure out how we could save something. And then finally it became clear that the whole thing would have to be cancelled. But we had grief. Afterwards. Because you've put your heart and your soul and your creativity – beyond all the work – into defining this program.”

BABF depends on sponsors, individual donors, and ticket sales. They partner with local bookstores to sell books at their events, but that profit goes to the stores. So when the festival cancelled in March, they lost about a third of their revenue. But they did not stop producing.

“What we ended up doing is looking at the programs that had a particular relevance to the new situation,” Parsons said, adding that their focus has shifted toward nonfiction more heavily than it ordinarily would be. A series of events focused on voting rights, originally to be the centerpiece of the in-person festival, kicked off their virtual programming on May 1. They've produced about 60 events since, and on October 4 present Berkeley #Unbound, a full day of free events.

“We really wanted to do something that addressed the times we're in, and that provided some input into this inflection point. It being the biggest election of our lifetimes,” Parsons said. “What could we do that was a genuine contribution, that mattered?

“As I sit here and watch the news and feel depressed and overwhelmed, honestly, planning this Berkeley #Unbound gives me hope. Because, I think, this is something I'm doing. This festival that we're doing is a positive contribution…. We're trying. You gotta do something to survive.”

“Survive emotionally,” she adds. “In terms of meaningfulness.”

Parsons, like the rest of us, doesn't know what's next. The need for fundraising and support is as strong as ever, but so is our need for arts and culture. In some ways, it's easier to participate in than it's ever been.

“I watch a City Arts and Lectures event, and I know I would not have gotten on BART and gone to San Francisco,” Parsons says, appreciating a night of culture without parking or public transit time. “I'll watch something while I'm doing the dishes. It's nice. And I don't mind paying for it. You know that it does cost something to put it on. So I think we do need to shift public awareness of that, and I think there is a move in that direction. Which is helpful.”

Upcoming events

Please see calendar section for a list of ongoing and select upcoming virtual events. If you find a show or an event series or an author you appreciate, consider supporting them however you can. As San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck writes: “‪Honestly, people could listen to or be part of great readings every night.‬” It may not be everything we had before the pandemic, but it might just be enough to get us through it.

Organizing an event or ongoing series not listed here? You can submit your event to SF/Arts by way of this submission link

Evan Karp
Evan Karp
Evan is the founding director of Quiet Lightning and Litseen. He’s written literary columns for SF Chronicle, KQED and SF Weekly. His nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The Guardian UK, BOMBlog, Eleven Eleven, Omniverse and Vertebrae.
Evan is the founding director of Quiet Lightning and Litseen. He’s written literary columns for SF Chronicle, KQED and SF Weekly. His nonfiction and poetry have appeared in The Guardian UK, BOMBlog, Eleven Eleven, Omniverse and Vertebrae.
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