Writers, readers all abuzz

Books flew off the shelves and book deals were inked at this year's Singapore Writers Festival, which ended on Sunday.

It was a banner year in terms of attendance. Some 3,000 Festival Passes were sold, according to organisers, which is a significant increase from the roughly 2,300 sold at last year's festival.

The $15 tickets granted access to most of the 200 events over the 10-day programme, which featured 200 authors.

Even separately ticketed events sold out, with 260 people attending workshops, such as one on writing fantasy conducted by Tracy and Laura Hickman, creators of the Dragonlance books, and one on researching historical fiction by heritage buff Kevin Tan.

Some 1,050 people paid $15 to $20 each to attend lectures given by visiting writers such as Nobel Literature Prize laureate Gao Xingjian, British philosopher A.C. Grayling and China-born Jung Chang, author of the best-selling memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Wild Swans.

Festival director Paul Tan, 42, said he was delighted by the turnout, even as more workshops and lectures had been added this year, in accordance with feedback.

"At the end of the day, this is a festival of ideas and a festival for readers. It is gratifying when we succeed in connecting with these readers."

Headline events accessed by the Festival Pass were over-subscribed. Doors to the Binary Pavilion tent on the Singapore Management University green had to be left open to accommodate around 300 fans keen to hear Britain's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy over the weekend. This led poet Alvin Pang, 41, to call for a larger venue next year. "Carol Ann Duffy could easily have filled venues twice the size," he said, adding that it would also be nice to have a small "green room" just for writers to meet and talk in between sessions.

It was also standing-room only at a panel featuring Gao, Chinese writer Guo Xiaolu and Singaporean poet-playwright Alfian Sa'at on Sunday as well as at the closing debate later that evening, which was free entry.

The irreverent comic battle between local literary lights was a highlight for many and this year's theme, This House Computes That Singaporeans Are Illiterate Robots, was defended by writers Shamini Flint and Gwee Li Sui and publisher Edmund Wee. Heritage expert Kevin Tan, actress Oniatta Effendi and street-food specialist K.F. Seetoh put forward opposing arguments, while playwright Eleanor Wong moderated.

Intimate reader-author dinners for 20 with Grayling and Duffy were fully booked before the festival opened as was the inaugural Literary Walk with writer Rosemary Lim. She took groups around places such as the Raffles Hotel, which inspired novelists such as Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham.

Many readers and writers commented on the vibrant atmosphere this year, compared with past editions. Teacher Nayantara Srinivasan, 22, who last attended the festival in 2009, came to Duffy's reading and last Saturday's publishing symposium, featuring leading editors and publishers such as Ravi Mirchandani of independent British imprint Atlantic Books.

"I think it's really great this year. It has the sort of atmosphere that makes you want to spend the whole day at the festival," she said. "I love that I can attend something at the National Museum, then come down to the Festival Pavilion where they're selling cupcakes. How cool is that?"

Readers like her ravaged the shelves of the festival bookstore, operated this year for the first time by Popular Holdings. More than 6,000 books were sold over 10 days, according to a spokesman. Bestsellers included Jung Chang's new book, Empress Dowager Cixi, and the Ellie Belly series of children's books by Singapore writer Eliza Teoh.

A two-day publishing symposium held last Thursday and Friday also gave writers and publishers a chance to network. Singaporean author Isa Kamari, 53, saw interest in his novels from distributors in Europe and other Western territories, while Jacaranda Literary Agency's Jayapriya Vasudevan, 53, signed three new Singaporean writers.

She commented on the calibre of attendees this year: "It's getting better and better. The writers' pitches are amazing and the crowd a lot more fun."

Visiting British thriller writer Peter James, 65, was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the audience at his panels. "In England, there're just five little old ladies at the back of the hall. Here, they were very enthusiastic."

Among the visitors who will be returning next year is Straits Times reader Angela Soh, 44, who won a Festival Pass and dinner tickets to dine with Duffy in a contest organised by the newspaper. She went to Duffy's reading last Saturday, caught a screening of The Reluctant Fundamentalist at The Arts House and was so charmed by her experiences that she will pay out of her own pocket for next year's festival. "They bring in interesting people. It is worth it," she said.


The Straits Times is the official media partner for the Singapore Writers Festival 2013

Wishlist for next Writers Festival

Bigger venues

With many more people paying to attend readings and meet authors at the Singapore Writers Festival, it is time to enlarge the traditional tents on the Singapore Management University green or shift headliners to large halls.

Sessions such as UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's readings were oversubscribed and uncomfortably crowded, with hopeful hangers-on peering in through the open doors. She needed an air-conditioned auditorium anyway, given her several remarks on the heat and humidity.

Better ventilation

Duffy was not the only person wilting at the festival. After 10 days of use, the atmosphere in the two tents was a little overpowering. Air fresheners or regular cleaning would make the experience more refreshing for all.

More thoughtful pairing of panellists

What could have been a very thoughtful panel about bilingual writing and cultural identity on Sunday failed spectacularly, because pithy English-speaking panellists Alfian Sa'at and Guo Xiaolu were grouped with Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, whose lengthy comments had to be translated for the benefit of the audience. More sensitive grouping would have allowed Alfian and Guo their say rather than turning the session into a repeat of the Nobel laureate's lecture last Friday.

Restock the bookstore

Feedback has been mostly positive for the festival bookstore, which stocked 500 titles written by the 200 authors at the festival. However, after several titles sold out, including local writer Audrey Chin's As The Heart Bones Break and books by British philosopher A.C. Grayling, there should have been more efforts to restock.

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