BRATTLEBORO—Anyone attached to the image of a writer as a secluded, ink-stained hermit decked out in corduroys and a moth-eaten sweater has not watched Adrian Todd Zuniga in his electric blue bespoke suit emcee Literary Death Match.
From the far end of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, Zuniga presided over a battle of words, wit, and literary trivia during the opening event of the 13th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival on Oct. 3.
In Literary Death Match (LDM), four authors read essays or excerpts from their novels. The evening wrapped up with a buzzer round with the semifinalists, author and physician Julie Wu and Julia Fierro, and their hand-picked teams.
Zuniga read readers’ one-star Amazon reviews. The teams tapped a bell calling out which famous novel — like “The Sun Also Rises,” “Ulysses,” or “The Great Gatsby” — the reviewer panned.
How does this book stink? Let me count the ways. It’s a sophomoric ramble through drunkenness, fighting, impossible love (which is claimed, never developed), and abject hedonism. The writing style is sparse to the point of tedium.
— J. Weaver, one-star review of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”
What was all the fuss about? How did this get published... it just rambled & rambled, still I’ve read it & crossed it off my list.
— Annmarie, one-star review of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
— I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It was a disjointed tale of people who apparently served no purpose on earth. Sorry I ever wasted my money on this book.
— Sandra Rooesch, one-star review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Fierro, author of “Cutting Teeth,” walked away as the night’s LDM winner.
LDM co-founder Zuniga said he helped start LDM because he was afraid that people would wake up one day and say, “I should read more literature.”
These same people would then Google “great literature.” When the Google algorithm coughed up a tome such as “War and Peace,” these newbie bibliophiles would dive into the text, grow bored, give up, and opt for watching cat videos on YouTube.
Zuniga said he uses LDM as a vehicle to deliver contemporary writers to new readers.
Books are the hook
According to Brattleboro Literary Festival co-founder Sandy Rouse, the first festival welcomed 20 authors. This year, approximately 60 authors presented their work.
Attendance, too, has surged over the years with an estimated 4,000 people attending this year’s Lit Fest.
“I’m a book lover,” said Rouse.
Rouse owned the Book Cellar, the bookstore that once occupied the Brooks House. She had served on what was then Building a Better Brattleboro’s (BaBB) economic development committee and was vice president of the organization when the idea for a Brattleboro Literary Festival struck.
She launched the Lit Fest with Dick Burns with the dual aim of raising awareness for books and reading and to support downtown economic development.
Unlike other Brattleboro events that tend to keep people at the Town Common or in one venue, Rouse explained, Lit Fest keeps people milling through downtown.
The festival houses its visiting writers in local hotels. Attendees and writers’ families wander among the event’s five venues, and stop to shop and eat — and, of course, to buy books, said Rouse.
Merchants have told Rouse that the festival boosts sales.
To introduce reading and books to the next generation, the festival always hosts a kids’ event. Schools from across the county bring their students, she said.
According to Rouse, seeing authors such as Blake Nelson, K. L. Going, Tim Federle, and Laurel Neme inspires kids.
The event also helps remind kids that not all famous writers are dead, as are many they read in literature class, she said. Seeing an author also awakens kids to new books and new series.
“I really do have hope for this [younger] generation [of readers],” Rouse said.
When asked why reading is so important, Rouse answered that fiction provides a window to the world beside the one we live in.
For a child living in unhappy circumstances — say, in a bad family situation or in poverty — fiction can provide examples of other lives, other paths, and other options, she said.
“By reading, you can achieve your goals,” Rouse added. “You don’t have to take the path that’s expected of you.”
Fiction also helps build emotional awareness through experiencing different characters and storylines, she said.
“Facts are easy, but having, to some extent, insights into how to deal with things emotional,” that’s the gift of fiction, she said.
Lots of work
The all-volunteer Brattleboro Literary Festival is free to the public. Money raised meets festival expenses such as lodging, venue rentals, and transportation for visiting authors.
Rouse said this year the festival cost $25,232 to produce, with approximately half of the budget spent on hospitality. Most of the funds come from private donations and grants.
Vermont Public Radio (VPR) is the festival’s media sponsor. Marlboro College has sponsored the festival from the beginning.
Authors are not compensated financially to attend the festival. Organizers pay to handle audio, photography, and venue set-up.
“Authors like to come here — the easygoing, accessible vibe of Brattleboro and the promise of Vermont in the fall,” Rouse said.
And she noted that finding enough volunteers is a challenge. Some 50 volunteers helped out in the fest’s early days. This year approximately 15 volunteers put together the event.
Brattleboro Literary Festival has new plans for 2015, Rouse said. Organizers are looking to sprinkle smaller events throughout the year as a lead-up to the festival.
The festival falls off people’s donation radar without other events or a venue to remind them the festival is coming in October, Rouse said.
Holding readings in venues that are fully handicapped accessible is also a goal.
Finding a new, and to them unknown, favorite author at the festival is a joy attendees share with Rouse.
People attend the fest expecting the big names, such as this year’s headliner, poet Paul Muldoon, or Ophira Eisenberg, who hosts NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” she said. It’s the new authors that amaze the audience.
The festival’s volunteers read numerous books trying to spot upcoming authors, Rouse said. Among its ranks of authors, the festival has hosted winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
A long-term vision for the festival is to raise enough money to give some back to local libraries and literary organizations, she said.
“Reading is important and will continue to be important,” Rouse said.
With this year’s fest in her rearview mirror, Rouse anticipates spending considerable time writing after-action reports for the grants given to the festival.
And then she has some reading to catch up on.