Living Writers Are Better Than Dead Ones: Franklin & Marshall’s Emerging Writers Festival
As I began my journey as an undergraduate English major, I was immediately struck by the academy’s obsession with authors who were long dead. Sure, I can get down with Chaucer, Dante, Spencer, or Hawthorne, too. But I couldn’t help but wonder: what would it be like to be alive at the same time as Shakespeare? Or Joyce? Who is writing now that will be read in 500 years?
Of course, I quickly discovered the already extant field of study called Contemporary Literature, as well as a few friends who also wanted to read work by living authors who understood and wrote about the world we lived in right now. I soon encountered the likes of David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, Colum McCann, Denis Johnson, Isabel Allende, Miranda July, among others. But, most of these writers were already known. Apparently, I was a little late to the party.
I also quickly came to grips with my embarrassingly naive attempts to pin down “the next Shakespeare”—because being remembered as a writer isn’t just about being the best or writing about important, politically prescient things.
Now that I’m a little older, and just slightly less naive, I can see that the writers who get remembered are the ones who do two things: 1) create art that is universal and timeless in its concerns, and 2) they change the literary game, innovating new ways of making art out of letters and sentences and paragraphs in a way that influences how writers work.
What could be more impossible than to discern these things without the perspective of distance?
I could probably add to this list that writers also need to maneuver within the literary-industrial complex, with its big five publishing houses, agents, MFA programs, conferences, and its plethora of awards.
Impossible though it may be, there are perhaps a few real opportunities to catch a glimpse of a potential rising literary star. Franklin & Marshall College’s annual Emerging Writers Festival is one of those occasions.
Each year since 2002, the Emerging Writers Festival has been planned by a panel of students and the festival chair, who together invite five writers working in a variety of genres, to participate in several days of workshops, readings, and informal time spent with students. And, best of all for you and me, these events are free and open to the public. The 2017 festival is this week, running from Wednesday, April 12 through Thursday, April 14.
I was able to catch up with Erik Anderson, the Director of the EWF and ask him why it’s such a unique opportunity to interact with writers in the “emergent” phase of their careers. What he told me had to do with the excitement and discovery I mentioned earlier that I was looking for as an undergraduate: “Over the years many of our Emerging Writers have gone on to illustrious, award-winning careers (including one writer who won a Guggenheim, while at the festival!)…the EWF is an opportunity to engage with such writers at the start of those careers, as their work is just beginning to get the attention it rightly deserves. It makes for a buoyant, celebratory atmosphere.” I find Anderson’s description here especially apt, given that I was able to attend a reading with Robin Coste Lewis at last year’s EWF. Coste Lewis had just won a National Book Award for poetry, with her extremely deeply moving, archeological collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (check out some of this work, published over at Lit Hub). Coste Lewis’ reading voice was sublime and I think of it often. And, she was invited to participate in the EWF before winning the NBA.
This year’s Emerging Writers seem as ripe for future success as any crop yet to come through the Festival. In the lineup are the fiction writers Indra Das (an F&M alum) and Meghan Kenny (who is based in Lancaster), as well as poet Franny Choi, nonfiction writer Garnette Cadogan, and graphic nonfiction writer/artist Kristen Radtke.
The evening readings will take place in the the Green Room Theatre, on Wednesday, April 12 and Thursday, April 13 at 7:30 pm, while craft talks will take place at the Philadelphia Alumni Writers’ House during the day on Thursday, April 13 and Friday, April 14. For more information about the schedule, visit the EWF website.
Don’t be late to the party. Here’s your chance to discover some of this decade’s best writers, right in your own backyard.