Though it was our main duty to set up chairs, pass out fliers, fetch the keg, and man the bar, we minions were also given the opportunity to sit amongst the crowd during panels and speak with authors about their craft, lives, literature, and our own writing group. I learned Oscar Casares left Texas for Iowa as to avoid the stamp “regional writer.” He started the non-Michener Center MFA program at UT that’s two years instead of three. Contrary to what I’ve been told, they do accept writers from Austin. In fact, 3 out of 4 Austinites were accepted into the program last year.
To join together with The Texas Observer, a magazine dedicated since 1954 to provoking sensitive issues about government and education, was a true and rare treat. Their mission statement must have resonated, though, because as much as I want to write a blog completely praising the event for reeling in around 200 of the Austin public, my rebellious and inquisitive nature wants to shed light on a different observation: the average literary audience member is 40+ white males and females.
During the “Why Do So Many Writers Call Texas Home?” panel, the issue of Austin’s obsession with music sparked relevant conversation. While some writers felt happy to have their own comfy space apart from the music, I couldn’t help but publicly ask, due to the audience make-up, if there would be a way to fuse both the literary and musical communities in hopes of expanding the audience and engaging a younger crowd.
My friends, who are all early- to mid-twenties, spend their time at shows, seeing bands, buying tickets to ACL and SXSW. It’s part of our culture. We share links to YouTube videos of songs we love. We go out dancing and sing karaoke. Rarely does anyone (outside of my writer’s group) share a link to a literary magazine with a story they enjoyed or that they think I’d benefit from. Are people below age 40 just not reading? And if so, what stories do they enjoy?
In a study from the National Endowment for the Arts, less than one-third of 13-year-olds read daily–a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percent of non-readers doubled over a 20 year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. On average, Americans aged 15-24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV and only seven minutes of their leisure time reading.
This was in 2007–before Facebook allowed non-college students to join, before Twitter, before newspapers fired half their staffers and switched from print publication to digital, and when I–a bright-eyed college sophomore–still thought I had a promising future in traditional journalism.
But this is about fiction and poetry. Often times, I have to shut down my computer just to pay attention to a book. Otherwise, I’ll waste half an hour catching up on news feeds or e-mails. And I adore reading! I can’t imagine others who are not as attracted to the art, because they’re not writers trying to learn and preserve a craft.
This poses the question: why bother reading? Books are only cheap if they’re used, a best seller in Wal-Mart, or as a download. One possible argument: in a time when gas averages $3.60 per gallon in Texas, people are more likely to spend money on practical devices, not luxuries. My rebuttal: library books are free. Online literary magazines, like Fringe and Black Heart, are free. Has this hobby become obsolete in comparison to others in our society?
I know why I read. Because words move me. Pace and language in the written form offer a completely different tone than watching a movie or TV show. A scene painted with words looks different than a scene on screen. Because, in its density, it opens up portals of my imagination that no other art form has yet to accomplish. I’m forced to think deeper, read between the lines, envision a character and hear a dialect. There’s so much freedom, and in this, a story becomes part of my own story, due to the interpretation.
The Rumpus maintains a column called “The Last Book I Loved.” I’m curious, young audience, what IS the last book you loved? What are you reading? Why are you reading? And did you know there are people in town who gather at events, like the Texas Observer Writers’ Festival, sharing their love for the craft?