December 2002

Michael Schaub

features

The ecstasy of books, the agony of funnel cakes: slumming at the Texas Book Festival

For book fans outside the Lone Star State, the very idea of a Texas Book Festival is enough to cause helpless paroxysms of laughter. Call that Texan paranoia if you will, but even Comedy Central's The Daily Show got into the act, imagining a gun-toting cowboy anxious to get his hands on a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. OK, fair enough. I guess we all knew what we were getting into when we passed that concealed handgun law a few years back.

But even the most diehard Texas literature fan has to be a little surprised at the existence, and resilience, of the annual Austin-based book festival. Texas has a relatively strong literary heritage. Katherine Anne Porter and Larry McMurtry would be enough by themselves to guarantee the state a place in the American literary tradition. But the cream doesn't always rise to the top. Some of the best Texas novels -- Americo Paredes'George Washington Gomez, Billy Lee Brammer's The Gay Place, and Reginald McKnight's The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas -- are largely ignored by the national literary establishment and relegated to minor or regional publishing houses. Deserving works of nonfiction, like Jim Dent's brilliant The Junction Boys and Jan Reid's The Bullet Meant for Me rarely get the attention they deserve outside of Texas. As a result, the average American perception of Texas literature doesn't include much beyond North Dallas Forty and The Gates of the Alamo -- both fine books for what they are, but ones that only scratch the surface of the Texas experience.

Increasing the visibility of Texas literature seems to be one of the major goals of the Texas Book Festival. (The main goal is to raise money for Texas public libraries, and it has, to the tune of 1.25 million dollars over six years.) Though various people and organizations claim a role in creating the festival, the real credit belongs to Laura Bush, who pushed the festival when she was First Lady of Texas. A hardworking literacy activist and former librarian, Bush has the admiration of a huge number of American writers -- a group that is, by and large, unsympathetic to her husband's right-wing politics. Her questionable taste in men aside, Bush's contributions to the festival have been immense, although she couldn't make it to this year's event. (She was, however, the honorary chairman.)

One of Bush's biggest coups might have been finding the perfect venue for the festival -- inside and around the Texas State Capitol, a beautiful domed building with plenty of meeting rooms and auditoriums. Filled with stunning oil portraits and ornate 19th-century architecture, the Capitol is the next-best thing to an art museum, and it's a more-than-suitable location for a literary convocation. (The Texas state legislature is notorious for its infrequent meetings, so it's actually great to see the building not languish in disuse for 18 months every two years.)

The festival is all about the readings and lectures, though, and this year's event saw a host of nationally renowned authors. Tim O'Brien, a somewhat recent Austinite and Southwest Texas State University professor, discussed his new novel July, July, and answered his 300,000th consecutive question about Vietnam. Robert Caro discussed his new Lyndon Johnson biography in front of a throng of LBJ fetishists (a peculiar, uniquely Austin brand of history buff). Arthur Bradford, Amy Fusselman and Alex Shakar somehow got conned into participating in a presentation called, I kid you not, "To Be Young, Gifted and Ironic."

The Austin crowd showed in force for some of the most popular writers. The line to see Sandra Cisneros snaked from the Senate Chamber all the way around the Capitol rotunda, despite the mediocre reviews that have greeted the San Antonio novelist's latest effort, Caramelo. A mostly young crowd clamored for a chance to see actor Ethan Hawke discuss his latest novel, Ash Wednesday, in the House Chamber.

The readings themselves ranged from painfully boring to extremely interesting, though it was hard to predict which writers would give the best presentations. A good number of fans showed up to see sportswriter W. K. Stratton discuss his new book on the University of Texas-Texas A&M University football rivalry, and fans seemed well-pleased at John Mark Dempsey's enlightening presentation on country legends The Light Crust Doughboys. Some presentations were oddly booked: Dagoberto Gilb and Annie Proulx shared the Senate Chamber for a panel called "Heart Songs and Gritos." Gilb was enchanting, interesting, and completely charming; Proulx was cold and perpetually annoyed, telling audience members that their questions "weren't very good." Moderator Tom Grimes did an admirable job questioning two very disparate writers, but at the end of the presentation, he seemed like he would rather be anywhere else but next to Proulx.

Technically, though, that was only half of the action. Tents lined Colorado Street, west of the Capitol, where booksellers and publishers peddled their wares to a steady stream of festivalgoers. Independent stores like Austin's BookPeople and Book Woman were listed as vendors, surprising considering those stores' unending anticorporate rhetoric. (The festival was underwritten by AT&T, and sponsors included Barnes & Noble, Microsoft, and Hewlett Packard.) Happily, the tents gave some exposure to some of Texas' best, but least known, publishing houses. Arte Publico, a criminally underappreciated publisher, shared space with other fine houses, such as Texas A&M University Press and Winnedale Publishing.

The poetry tent on 13th Street scored some fine poets, as did the TBF Reading Tent, which played host to Wendy Barker, one of the state's most accomplished poets. The Entertainment Tent hosted a surprisingly good lineup of musicians, including Tish Hinojosa, Billy Joe Shaver, and the brilliant songwriter Alejandro Escovedo. Markedly less successful was the "Read a Latte Lounge" (seriously), a "teens only" tent described in the festival's program thusly: "Teenagers have a special new hangout complete with comfy beanbags, a giant Magnetic Poetry board, scavenger hunts, drop-in visits by authors, and beverages by CC's Coffee." The three times I visited, hoping to score free coffee, the lounge was utterly devoid of teenagers, most of whom are not really into scavenger hunts or magnetic poetry. By contrast, the corndog stand just yards away drew a huge line. Can't we have just one book festival that doesn't smell like funnel cakes? After a while, the tents outside started to resemble a carnival's midway, without the scary-looking carnies. Actually, there were a few toothless people with ragged clothes and unkempt hair, but I think they were all there to see Neal Pollack. (Zing!)

Finally, the crowd seemed to be having a good time, whether thinking up questions for Annie Proulx to shoot down, or washing down fried food with Dr Pepper. Most of the attendees seemed to be white, middle-aged females -- but then, most book buyers tend to be white, middle-aged females, so that's really not a surprise. On the festival's last day, I watched as an elderly woman danced with a very small boy -- her humiliated grandson, I assume -- to the music of Jimmy LaFave. You could quibble with the choice of writers, the setup, the overall whiteness of the event, but you couldn't deny that a lot of people hanging out by the Capitol were having an awfully good time. It might not change the face of American literature, but at the very least, the Texas Book Festival remains the best thing a member of the Bush family has ever done for Texas.