Literature Is No Picnic

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A bookstore that reopened in defiance of coronavirus disease restrictions in Petah Tikva in February.

Next week is the scheduled opening of the 2021 Jerusalem International Writers Festival, perhaps the most distinguished and important literary festival in Israel. On the festival website, the organizers promise “four days of ‘forbidden’ picnics, literature and music performances, literary tours, unique workshops, an original podcast project, unconventional exhibitions and encounters, and, of course, conversations with writers from Israel and around the world.”

Which leads one to ask: Is this how such an important literary festival ought to be presented? Is this the type of content or the experience that an important writers’ festival should be offering?

And the deeper one goes into the festival program, to the various events that are due to take place as a part of it, the more you see how, for the creators of the program, literature is a sterile, neutral thing devoid of any political or social or reality-shaping quality. Nothing more than a vessel for entertainment, for escape, for “inspiration.”

The message conveyed by the program should provoke outrage. It is a completely anti-literary message. Particularly in such a significant year. First of all on the Israeli level – a year that has seen a fourth election, disintegration, a profound sense of having lost our way, of the ground being pulled out from under us – shouldn’t “literary” folks be talking about these things when they meet at a major event? Aren’t these the things they should be exploring?

And in general, in this year of the coronavirus, the whole world was turned upside down. It was a year of very profound processes affecting humankind, human emotions, conceptions of the world, writing and literature itself; shouldn’t a writers’ festival be dealing with this?

Wouldn’t it have been appropriate for this to be the core of the festival? To be its point of departure and the place to which it returns? What is a “literary festival” that doesn’t boldly take on the revolutionary times in which it is taking place? What does literature have to offer if not its unique, inner point of view on precisely this?

Yes, the technical and marketing considerations are clear to me. But this is exactly where the major failure lies, in terms of marketing as well as substance: Out of a desire to be “accessible,” they’ve abandoned relevance. So what does that leave? And for whom?

Whoever wants to fight for Israeli society’s freedom, to make it grow, to enable it to be reborn, must understand that culture in general and literature in particular are places in which a society’s consciousness, a society’s soul, are shaped, the places where the big questions are asked, where the deepest feelings are probed, those from which the big ideas arise that eventually change the reality.

Literature’s ability to decipher and put life into words in times where there are no words, in which everything is changing, is its great power. And this is what is so vital at this time. Just think of the major role that literature has played at nearly every revolutionary crossroads throughout history.

I am deliberately writing this before the festival. Major writers who are attending the festival will obviously make their voices heard on important issues even without participating in sessions dedicated to these topics.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is understanding how urgent it is to fight against the trivializing of literature’s image, against turning it into just another form of entertainment.

And even more critical – how important it is to fight for literature, for its place in society, to frame literature as something vital and necessary that isn’t afraid to get down and dirty, to shout, to point to what has died and what has just been born. Our struggle today for freedom is so deep and complex and deceptive, and the great dangers, alongside the great opportunities, are so numerous that we need a strong and independent and courageous culture to be our North Star.

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