Among the cascade of tragic events the COVID-19 crisis brought about this spring, the cancelation of a prize festival hardly merits a mention. But for those of us who give prizes for a living, the pandemic forced an unexpected reckoning. This spring, the Windham-Campbell Prizes had planned a party in London on March 19 to announce the 2020 recipients. It was ultimately replaced by a video announcement posted to social media: a disappointment, no question, but at least we had the festival in September to look forward to.
Surely, the crisis would have passed by then.
But it didn’t, and soon we were grappling with the question of whether to hold our annual campus festival in person or online—or whether we should cancel it altogether. What is the purpose of a literary festival? we asked ourselves. What is the purpose of our literary festival? Why do we gather together in rooms to listen to writers speak? If there is no room, is there still a “we”?
While book festivals serve primarily to connect readers with authors and books, the Windham-Campbell Festival has a different purpose. It is, first of all, a celebration of the prize recipients. There’s a keynote address, a fancy dinner, a toast to everyone’s good fortune, and two days of prize-recipient readings and conversations. It is also a ritual of campus life, being the first major arts event of the academic year. Finally, it is a community event, a rare moment when town and gown come together over a common love for writing and ideas.
You had to be there is often a defensive response when the punchline to a story one had told falls flat. As in, “You had to be there to understand it.” Yet it can also be the sly brag of the witness to some significant event that cannot be captured on video or audio but only in the collective somatic memory of the audience and its individual members. You have to be there for an event to be what it is.
To celebrate, then, to be present, to share a common love. This, we decided, was our purpose. And from this the idea arose to go offline with this year’s festival, to do something analog, tactile—make something to share: a gift, an object, perhaps, or a set of objects to represent the writers and the festival. Something you could hold in your hands, something to stay with you, something you could keep. A memento. If you couldn’t be present at the festival, this object could be present with you in its place.
I had been in regular conversation with Meghan O’Rourke since she took the reins of The Yale Review in fall 2019. Our conversations ranged from writers we admired to IT woes. We shared a graphic design firm in common. We also talked about collaboration, mostly in the abstract, and had yet to find a common idea about which we could both get excited.
When I called her about our dilemma, it quickly became clear that this might be that idea: a print celebration of the Windham-Campbell Festival. I read hundreds of books a year, and I have become very fussy about how a book feels in my hand: it needs to be tightly bound, not too tall or wide, and, most of all, not floppy! When I got the first issue of The Yale Review under Meghan’s editorship, it felt just right. I wanted to hold it, to read it—and I wanted to give it to someone else to hold and read, too.
What you hold in your hands is not a festival, but it represents some part of us and some part of what we hope a festival might be: a celebration, a gift, sent from us to you, with hopes that we will see you in person again next year.
Image: Photo of Michael Kelleher by Julian Montague.