The year of digital festivals

December 27, 2020

Move to online platforms saved the day for literary festivals, as terrors of Covid-19 coursed their way in our lives. However, this shift didn’t come without its own challenges

In September 2019, I boarded an early-morning flight to the federal capital to participate in a three-day literary festival. A year later, a two-hour plane journey seemed inappropriate in a virus-choked environment where our lives were chained to the private sphere. During these difficult times, the internet was bridging physical barriers with the promise of much-needed social interaction. When the literary festival I’d attended in person last year was taken online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself in a conversation with panelists who, like me, were confined to rectangular frames on a laptop screen.

At first, I was reminded of the horror stories I’d heard of, for instance, Skype calls getting disconnected during crucial online interviews owing to weak WiFi signals. For that one hour, I desperately wanted to flout the strictures of social distancing and have my co-panelists sit next to me so that we could communicate face-to-face. But as our online session began and the conversation settled into a comfortable rhythm, any semblance of physical distance fell away.

Even so, it is difficult to forget the chaotic energy that was witnessed at literary festivals before the pandemic eased its way into our global reality. These literary extravaganzas were much-awaited annual events and were often likened to drops of rain in an arid desert. Each year, creative minds were provided with a platform to network, and share insights and observations. For writers who are engaged in the solitary splendours of the creative process, a literary festival served as a golden opportunity to emerge from their cocoons and connect with their readers.

When the terrors of Covid-19 coursed their way into our lives, the fate of these literary festivals seemed uncertain. A few weeks before a countrywide lockdown was imposed in Pakistan in March, the 11th Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) drew large crowds to the city’s Beach Luxury Hotel. In a letter addressed to participants, Oxford University Press Pakistan managing director, Arshad Saeed Husain, voiced his optimism over the turnout. “Despite the [coronavirus] scare... the KLF was attended by 200,000,” he wrote. Months later, when the digital edition of the 7th Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was held in October 2020, the turnout remained equally encouraging. In an email sent to participants after the festival drew to a close, Husain reported that over 820,575 people were reached through social media posts about the ILF. In addition, over 100,355 people watched the online sessions during the eight-day extravaganza.

If these statistics are anything to go by, the popularity of literary festivals wasn’t impacted by the uncertainties of our times because the internet apparently saved the day. Despite these encouraging signs, we must recognise that the shift to a digital medium has also produced countless challenges.

Social media is an unpredictable terrain and can often lull us into a false sense of security. There is no guarantee that internet users will stop scrolling down their newsfeed and pay attention to your online session. If they tune in to an hour-long video and shower it with likes or comments, there’s no guarantee that they will watch it until the very end. Many of them tend to bow out of a live feed that lags and glitches and half-heartedly persuade themselves that they will resume watching the session later. Others may impulsively leave the session out of sheer boredom. Locked in this game of hide and seek, social media users are unreliable guests who can abruptly leave at the slightest provocation. If the session was being conducted at a physical venue, many of these fickle viewers would have been too embarrassed to walk away.

Faced with the capriciousness of digital audiences, panelists at literary festivals may find solace in the presence of a handful of viewers who are genuinely interested in the discussion. Creative minds, who rely on the spontaneous reactions of their audience to fuel their intellect, will be disappointed to find this connection severed in the digital sphere. In a similar vein, writers who are accustomed to receiving standing ovations when they read their work may have to find comfort in silence.

Now that the world has grown accustomed to Zoom, Steamyard and Instagram live, it will be difficult to completely transition from online forums to ‘real’ ones without a few hiccups. There is a strong likelihood that we will witness a significant change in the way we experience and engage with annual literary events.

Some panelists may self-consciously try to pander to the whims of a social media audience. This doesn’t always bode well as creative minds frequently stand the danger of adopting gimmicks that defy their intellectual capacities. We mustn’t forget that the decision to shift literary festivals to social media platforms was taken because physical events were no longer possible. As a result, online sessions for literary festivals ought to be viewed as alternative arrangements rather than an altogether separate medium. The purpose of online sessions is to reach a diverse spectrum of people who would have otherwise attended the panel discussions if they were held at a particular venue. Any serendipitous encounter with a new audience is little more than a happy coincidence.

Nevertheless, the shift to digital platforms will inevitably widen the scope of viewers. Online literary festivals may be beneficial for the elderly and people with disabilities who would be unable to attend these sessions at crowded venues during the pre-pandemic days. The use of online platforms may simultaneously attract a global audience for a festival that is believed to have a regional or national focus. At first glance, this serves as a double-edged sword as it is tough to envisage a global outreach for such events. Despite these reservations, an online presence for these sessions may create an incentive for foreign viewers to access this content.

We must remember that the practice of recording panel discussions and readings at literary festivals is not a new trend. In fact, the practice has been in vogue since the culture of literary festivals began in the country. It would, therefore, be naive to assume that the pandemic has led the organisers of literary festivals to finally discover the digital sphere. On the contrary, it has motivated them to explore its hidden facets and use them to their advantage.

Pakistan’s foray into the culture of literary festivals has always generated a mixed response. Since the inception of these events in the country, critics have lamented their excessive commercialization and have even decried their rather limited focus on meaningful literary pursuits. While it is tempting to spew venom against these endeavours, it is important to acknowledge the effort that goes into planning these events. In a time before the fear of a virus crept into our hearts, festival organisers relied heavily on the individual expertise of volunteers. Without these reliable assistants, it would be an uphill task to deal with the challenges of planning a literary event. Covid-19 has deprived organisers of a vital resource that can ensure the smooth functioning of a large-scale event.

In the West, people often purchase tickets to attend literary festivals. The money earned through ticket sales enables organisers to reckon with high costs. In Pakistan, literary festivals have been free of charge. While the shift from a physical event to a digital one may seem sufficiently unproblematic, it is accompanied by copious technical costs.

Moving forward, we must reflect on the fate of literary festivals. At this critical juncture, organisers must perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the digital sphere is a more viable option for literary festivals. Now that the world has grown accustomed to Zoom, Steamyard and Instagram live, it will be difficult to completely transition from digital forums to ‘real’ ones without a few hiccups. There is a strong likelihood that we will witness a significant change in the way we experience and engage with annual literary events. Until then, I can only wonder whether I’ll be boxed into a rectangular frame during a panel discussion at a literary festival in 2021 or if I’ll be able to interact freely with panelists in a world where the dreaded coronavirus will be a forgotten reality.

The writer is a    freelance journalist    and the author of    Typically Tanya

2020: The year of digital festivals