ifoa

IFOA’s Lit Jam Participants

Recently, I was asked to represent Ryerson University on a team at the International Festival of Authors’ inaugural Lit Jam. We competed against creative writing students from University of Toronto, University of Guelph, and Humber College to create stories live on stage, based on prompts from the audience and social media. The winning team was promised a $1,500 cash prize and the opportunity to polish their story for publication with NOW Magazine. The rest were given participation ribbons with all the irony of a BuzzFeed listicle on the Millennial identity. I was told the event was part of a distinctly hip marketing strategy to draw more young people to the IFOA. Apparently, the IFOA demographic is aging and younger audiences are elusive, despite free admission for students. This point puzzled me: why aren’t young people coming out to these literary events? And why would something like Lit Jam change that—if it could at all?

I started going to literary events while studying in the creative writing program at Concordia University, in Montreal. Never too far from campus, these readings and launches were planned around student schedules and often hosted at the same café-bars that provided Wi-Fi and caffeine in the working hours prior to events. When I moved back to Toronto and joined The Puritan as a Publicity Agent, I was surprised to see a considerably older crowd at the weekly events I attended here. Most—not all, but most—of the events I went to in the Montreal literary community were hosted by 20-somethings in or from Concordia’s creative writing program, as were the readers and audiences.

I get it: Montreal is a much more affordable city than Toronto for an emerging artist. But Toronto still has a sizable population of young writers and a handful of creative writing programs that feed the local literary community. So why is it that the event-goers appear to be, on average, a couple of decades older? It might have something to do with the volume of readings and launches here. Given so many options, reading attendees divide themselves among events featuring established and emerging artists. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, since different events will always appeal to different people.

This point puzzled me: why aren’t young people coming out to these literary events? And why would something like Lit Jam change that—if it could at all?

While I don’t claim to have attended every series or launch here, the events where I’ve noticed the largest attendance from young audiences are often hosted at trendy, transit- and/or wallet-friendly bars. They tend to showcase emerging or under-represented writers. Performers and audiences alike are in the early stages of their careers, launching their first chapbooks and building a professional presence 140 characters at a time. These events are implicitly organized around smoke breaks and the time following readings, when audiences have the opportunity to chat—rather than talk—over pints with performers.

Talking to established writers often entails rushed pleasantries in the book-signing line and quips thoroughly scripted from prior events and interviews. While emerging writers are increasingly aware of the expectation for an artistic persona, collaboration takes precedence over commercialism. Conversations are more conversational, so to speak. Late-evening, end-of-the-week events with readings of no more than ten minutes, breaks in equal proportion to readings, and line-ups of about four performers all seem to define younger events. Featuring a writer-comedian or poet-musician brings a new energy to events, and a short open mic—despite my dislike for them—seems to successfully invite new writers to series, resisting the habitual insularity of the literary community.

Funding is another likely cause for the division in audiences. Speaking from experience, students and young writers tend to hesitate when it comes to attending events with door costs, regardless of the quality of the line-up. At the IFOA, the ticket isn’t an issue for students, but this subsidy is reflected in the featured authors. Expensive, recognizable writers are going to bring out a larger ticket-buying crowd and justify larger grant allocations, but may not necessarily attract young audiences.

Performers and audiences alike are in the early stages of their careers, launching their first chapbooks and building a professional presence 140 characters at a time.

Yet many publishers have successfully straddled the divide at their launch parties, choosing venues that balance a classy atmosphere with affordable drinks and skipping the cover in favour of selling books. Yes, some feature big names, but often they have a mixed line-up or authors freshly minted on shortlists. I don’t mean to argue, on behalf of all that is youthful in CanLit, that we’re only interested in hearing from young, emerging writers. That certainly isn’t the case. But the line-up of readers, venue, and timing play a major part in audience appeal, despite efforts to entice younger attendees with free admission or hip promotional strategies.

Returning to the IFOA’s Lit Jam, I think the event ended up being reasonably well-attended, and as a participant I had a great time. But I’m not so sure that the jam was lit enough to draw out the youngsters. The audience didn’t quite mirror the stage, which might be a cause for concern. If a youth-focused event brings out a mixed crowd, what can the IFOA do to draw students and young writers out to their main events? Maybe the bigger question is: can large-scale, Council-funded events adapt to invite a younger audience, while still retaining the features that bring in funding and ticket-buyers?

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