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The Generosity, the Lessons, the Issues: Mervyn Sloman Reflects on the 2014 Open Book Festival

Mervyn Sloman, owner of The Book Lounge and director of the Open Book Festival, has had some time to gather his thoughts after this year’s event, and reflects on the highs and lows of Open Book 2014.

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There were plenty of highlights this year, including the generosity shown by international authors Geoff Dyer and Raymond E Feist to their less famous counterparts – as well as local luminaries Fiona Leonard and Zukiswa Wanner, who stepped in to cover the absent Taiye Selasi – and surprise package Rabih Alameddine, who became the darling of the festival, and was longlisted for the USA’s National Book Award while he was in Cape Town (it has since been shortlisted, and Books LIVE wishes Alameddine the best of luck).

However, Sloman is at pains to flag a couple of issues that cropped up as well.

The first was raised in a session entitled Writer’s Rage, featuring Wanner and Thando Mgqolozana, which you can listen to in full as a podcast here. In that session, Mgqolozana said he believed writers should be paid, or at least compensated for their time, when appearing at literary festivals, and stated that he was not prepared to appear in future without some form of payment.

Sloman responds by saying “Open Book is not a rich festival”, and that he believes the event provides writers with the opportunity to interact with their readers and promote their work, but adding that he respects Mgqolozana’s opinion.

I would dearly love to pay writers to participate in Open Book, but at this point in our development it’s just not feasible. And while I respect Thando’s point, I believe that Open Book is a good thing for South African writers, despite our inability to offer payment for their participation. The festival provides opportunities for South African writers to engage with potential readers, to promote their books and to meet and engage with their writing peers both from South Africa and elsewhere. In a country such as ours, in which such a low proportion of the population devote significant leisure time to reading books, I believe festivals such as Open Book can play a crucial role in building a culture of reading. Incidentally this is a responsibility we take seriously throughout the year, not just for the five days of the festival itself. It is of course each writer’s choice as to whether they choose to participate in Open Book given the lack of payment and if Thando decides not to accept invitations from us until such time as we can afford to pay him, then I will certainly respect that decision.

Sloman also touches on Wanner’s concerns about the festival not spreading wide enough, into Khayelitsha, for example, saying that although the festival gives away a large number of tickets for free, “our efforts in this regard are insufficient”.

He also addresses the Malaika wa Azania incident. Wa Azania, author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, was reportedly disguisted when she learnt that people were paying R40 for a ticket, and subsequently did not materialise for her second event, and did not answer her cellphone.

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