Back in the saddle

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/27 16:28:39

Beijingers welcome the 2018 return of the Bookworm International Literary Festival

Peter Goff, the general manager of Bookworm Beijing and organizer of the Bookworm International Literary, inside the Bookworm. Photo: Zhang Xinyuan/GT

Ever since the Bookworm Beijing bookstore postponed and later canceled its annual Bookworm International Literary Festival (BLF) fans have been waiting and wondering whether the 10-year-old event would return. 

Well, the wait is over as according to Peter Goff, the general manager of the Bookworm, the BLF will be back in full swing from March 8 to 24 in 2018 in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou.

It's still too early to confirm the authors who will be attending, but Goff said that fans could expect authors like Yu Hua, Liu Jianjun and Xi Chuan to be in attendance. He said the festival also invited foreign writers from countries like Croatia, Serbia and the Czech Republic to help readers understand those countries better.

"They have all been invited. We are just waiting to check their availability," Goff said.

The next BLF will continue to bring more people from different cultural backgrounds and introduce different types of literary genres to the Chinese community, according to Goff.

"Literature is something for everyone. Sometimes people think only a certain type of person will go to a book talk, but there's a lot of diversity," he said.

"The BLF aims to showcase the same diversity. We look for authors from different parts of the world, with different voices and who represent different genres, such as fiction, nonfiction, China experts, performance poetry, short fiction and experimental verse."

First staged in 2007, the BLF has steadily grown into Beijing's main independently funded literary festival and has brought an impressive mix of local and international writers to the capital.

For the past 10 years, more than 4,000 writers have spoken at the bookstore, which is often the primary location for the festival. About 80 percent of the writers are foreigners, and 20 percent are locals, said Goff.

Time to regroup

Book-savvy Beijingers know that the written word takes over the city in spring every year, so when the BLF didn't happen this year, they were quite disappointed.

"March has always been my favorite time of the year in Beijing," said Frank from the UK, a self-professed book fan who has never missed an event during his four years of living in the city.

"I was quite sad when I realized that the Bookworm wouldn't host a literary festival this year."

According to Frank, who is also an editor at a lifestyle magazine, "The BLF makes a significant contribution to the branding of Beijing as a cosmopolitan cultural capital. It is a 'name card' for Beijing. Without it, it feels as if Beijing has lost a touch of its cultural atmosphere."

Goff said that after 10 years of hosting the BLF, they wanted to take a break and think about how to take the festival further.

"It's expensive to run the festival; it never makes a profit. So we wanted to regroup, find some suitable sponsors and try to break even," Goff said, laughing.

"We are currently exploring several ways and means to sustain and develop the festival."

Another reason, he said, was a lack of adequate staff. A few of its staff members have left, so the bookstore is trying to put together a new team to run the BLF.

Although there was no BLF this year, the Bookworm cooperated with other organizations to host literary events, so readers still have a lot to look forward to.

One such event is the Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) Literary Salons, which will run from August 20 to 27.

The Bookworm, in cooperation with the China National Publications Import and Export (Group) Corporation (CNPIEC), will coordinate a series of literary salons featuring leading Chinese and international writers at the Beijing International Exhibition Center and the Bookworm for the event.

Following that, a new initiative developed by the Delegation of the European Union to China will see the Bookworm hosting the inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival from November 21 to 28. The festival will bring together writers from the European Union and China for a series of public events showcasing the EU and China's finest literary talents. The first festival will visit Beijing and Chengdu. Subsequent festivals will be held in different cities.

"Bookworm is not only a bookstore that sells books, it's a community space that brings people together," says Peter Goff. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Goff

Bookworm's history

A former Guardian journalist, Goff and his then partner started the bookstore, called the Sanlitun Bookstore at the time, in 2003 out of personal interest. His passion for books and meeting writers led Goff and his partner to host salons, which later became the foundation for the literary festival.

The Chinese society has progressed so much now, but 10 years ago, there wasn't a landscape where salons, public talks and discussions could regularly be hosted, Goff recalled.

"As the economy develops, more people are willing to move to China to see the country by themselves and live here, and more expats and local Chinese are willing to join the discussion about what's going on around them. It's a very important part of a society," Goff said.

"A bookstore shouldn't be just a place to sell books. It should be a community space, a platform where writers and readers can get together and share ideas, debate and be inspired, [a place where] everyone can have an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the world we live in."

In the beginning, the audience was made up of mostly expats because the event is hosted mainly in English and the concept of salons and literary discussions was already well established in Western countries.

However, in recent years, Goff has seen an increase in the number of local writers and audience participation.

"When the BLF just started, it was almost 90 percent expats and only 10 percent locals," Goff said.

"But now, the proportion of foreigners to locals is almost half and half, especially in Chengdu and Suzhou where there are more locals in the audience."

The dawn of a 'golden age'

The sale of conventional books might be falling globally, and bookstores might be closing down amid the rise of digital gadgets, but appreciation for the printed word in Beijing is bucking the trend due to a boom driven by its vibrant literary scene, according to Goff.

"According to my observation, I believe the future of literature is in China," Goff said.

A lot of people around the world are paying attention to Chinese creations, not the works about old times but works about what's happening in China, he added.

More young people in China are publishing novels and poetry online, and more young Chinese are reading online compared to other countries.

"There used to be a limited number of publishing agencies and only a small number of people could get their work published," Goff said.

"But with online technology, everyone can get their work out there, and the content they create is being published and adapted into movies and online TV series. It's unprecedented and very exciting."

Comparing the audience make up between China and the Western world, Goff said that the people interested in books in China tended to be younger and more balanced between men and women, while in Europe and North America the audience mostly comprises women over 60.

"In China, the male to female proportions are equal, and they are mostly young people with a good educational background who are curious about the world," he said.

"Also, [with] more independent and government-funded bookstores being opened across China, those bookstores and their cultural events are going to become a new attraction and cultural name card for China."



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