Amherst Holds First Annual LitFest
Issue   |   Wed, 03/09/2016 - 00:31
Jamie Gracie
Fiction editor of the New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, moderates a conversation between authors Angela Flournoy and Lauren Groff ’01 on March 3 in Johnson Chapel.

Amherst College hosted the inaugural LitFest this past weekend, bringing an array of notable authors and editors to campus. LitFest was composed of a series of events highlighting the college’s tradition of literary excellence.

The festival was organized by The Common literary magazine, the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, the Emily Dickinson Museum, the Office of Communications and the English department. It debuts The Common’s partnership with the National Book Foundation and the college’s partnership with The MacDowell Colony, a prestigious artist colony. The festival will take place annually and is sponsored by the Croxton Lecture Fund, which was established in 1988.

“The festival arose out of the shared desire of everyone involved to celebrate literature and great writing at a college where the teaching and study of great writing is valued so highly, and where faculty and alumni have made such important contributions to the life of literature across the college’s history, right through the present,” chief communications officer Pete Mackey said in an email interview. Each event of LitFest concluded with an audience question and answer session.

The festival began on the evening of March 3 in Johnson Chapel with a conversation with Angela Flournoy and Lauren Groff ’01. The conversation was hosted by Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker. Flournoy’s first novel, “The Turner House” was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times notable book of the year. Groff has penned short stories and three novels. Her most recent book, “Fates and Furies,” was a New York Times Notable Book of 2015 and a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award.

“The conversation between Lauren Groff and Angela Flournoy was lively and vibrant, marked by their passion for creating meaningful literary works, their love for the written word and their enthusiasm for engaging with the audience and each other,” Sasha Burshteyn ’16, an intern at The Common, said. “Perhaps my favorite part of the conversation was their refreshing lack of forced humility: These were two remarkable women writers felt no qualms about accepting compliments or acknowledging their own prowess.”

President Martin opened the event with her remarks, and Jennifer Acker ’00, founder and editor-in-chief of The Common, introduced the speakers. Privilege and the lack thereof emerged as a central theme of the talk, as both authors’ books dealt with the issue in different ways. Flournoy and Groff also spoke about how they approach the writing process and about getting pigeonholed as writers of “domestic literature.”

Jamie Gracie ’17, who attended the event, said she enjoyed “hearing [Flournoy and Groff] share an anecdote or an observation they had made in their life and then talk about how it influenced their book either thematically or in terms of plot.”

The first event on March 4 was a talk titled “10,000 Years of the Book Business in 45 Minutes” by Harold Augenbraum, executive director of The National Book Foundation. The talk covered topics such as methods of written communication throughout history and the future impact of technological innovations on books and reading.

A conversation between Acker and Treisman, titled “America’s Fiction Unedited,” took place that afternoon in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Acker posed questions to Treisman, who talked about her career path and experiences as the fiction editor of The New Yorker, editing renowned authors’ works, holding each author to their own standard and hosting the award-winning New Yorker Fiction podcast.

Michael Chabon, chairman of the board of the MacDowell Colony and author of novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” gave a talk in the evening President Martin, director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry Martha Umphrey and executive director of the MacDowell Colony Cheryl Young opened the talk. Chabon read from “Fountain City,” ­­­­­a novel that he had worked on for five years that will not be published. He read his annotations aloud, giving insight into his writing process.

“The autobiographical nature of his writing revealed not only his prowess as a writer, but also the role that the personal development of the artist plays,” Sarah Whelan ’17, an intern for The Common who attended the event, said. “Essentially, his talk underlined the point that the success of a piece of writing is determined partially by the author’s own self at the time of writing, rather than only the merit of the project itself.”

Friday night ended with a poetry slam in the Powerhouse, hosted by Daniel Gallant, the executive director of Nuyorican Poets Café, a famous poetry slam venue. Nine poets competed for the first-place prize, a pre-paid trip to New York City. Each poet performed two original poems and a panel of student and staff judges scored their performances. A short “Haiku Deathmatch” followed intermission, with themes the judges chose, such as “The Socials” and “Curiosity.” Latrelle Broughton ’19 earned first place, followed by Irisdelia Garcia ’18 and David Ruth ’17.

“The surprise Haiku Deathmatch particularly was a lot of fun,” Broughton said. “ I’m also happy that I was able to share the space with so many of Amherst’s talented poets, I felt as if I learned a lot from them.”

“A Conversation with Mark Bowden and Stacy Schiff” took place on Saturday in Lewis-Sebring and was hosted by Cullen Murphy, the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair and chair of the board of trustees.

“With two radically different approaches to the art of nonfiction, Stacy Schiff and Mark Bowden both seemed driven by a mix of curiosity, inventiveness and compassion” Burshteyn said. “Both write such tightly-woven, closely-researched narratives that seem generated by an almost inhuman knack for research and understanding: Their conversation was a wonderful peek behind the curtain of their mastery.”

Schiff is the author of “Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),” which won the Pulitzer Prize. Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, contributor to Vanity Fair and best-selling author of numerous books including “Black Hawk Down,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

“While the main focus of this inaugural LitFest is non-fiction, other genres such as poetry sit comfortably beside non-fiction because they are all focused on the writer’s act of creation,” executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum Jane Wald said.

Two tours of the Emily Dickinson Museum, which includes the Emily Dickinson Home, a U.S. national historic landmark, took place Saturday afternoon.

“In this special Saturday program, we want to position Emily Dickinson not as a cloistered recluse, but rather as a powerful and well-connected writer,” Wald said. “Not exactly the Emily of popular imagination, but a different take on her vocation, her class, and her opportunities.”

LitFest concluded with a mini-colloquium in Alumni House honoring French professor Jay Caplan, who has taught at the college since 1985. French professors Thomas Kavanagh from Yale and Ann Smock from UC Berkeley spoke at the event.

The primary organizing team consisted of Wald, Acker, Mackey and Umphrey. In an email interview, Mackey said the team closely consulted with the English department and with Paul Gallegos, interim associate director for student activities.

“It seems fitting that the LitFest reflect the college’s rich literary tradition from its very founding into the present day and even beyond, to writers yet to be inspired by the power of language they’ll discover at Amherst College,” Wald said.