Are Online Literary Events Really the Future?

It seems that for almost every day of the week, there’s an abundance of writing workshops, poetry open mics, book launches, courses and panel talks available to attend. It’s ironic that during these widespread restrictions, we’re actually no longer restrained by geographical location but can attend any event we please from all over the world – all it takes is a video conferencing tool and a decent broadband connection.

Nine months after we went into the initial lockdown, it feels alien to imagine attending a physical open mic with groups of people clustered around tables, supping through beer foam and listening intently to spoken word performances. Harder still to imagine attending a sold-out talk at a literary festival, in amongst a sea of bodies listening intently to bestselling authors discuss their acclaimed works.

Is the future of literary events really digital?

A Virtual Book Launch

In October of this year, I launched my second poetry collection Small online via Zoom. Knowing that I could never do anything to match the launch of the first book, which I was very lucky to launch at Kolkata Book Festival in 2017 (which is still, to this day, the best day of my life), I decided that I would at least buy a ridiculously over-the-top dress even if I’d only be in front of my laptop. I wouldn’t have turned up to Waterstones in my pyjamas (unless, of course, they had cats and glitter on them), so I had to do something to make it feel special.

And it did. I was surprised at how intimate and special that event felt; I felt like I was so wonderfully supported by those who attended and left comments in the chat panel, even if I couldn’t see their faces. It was a stark contrast to the hundreds I’d read to in India, but it was still special for me.

What was even better was that friends from all over the world could attend – something that couldn’t have happened had I launched the book in a physical venue.

Poetry Workshops Go Digital

Something else I’ve had to do this year is to adapt my workshops for digital delivery. In some ways, this has been advantageous (I work in learning technologies, so I’m all for shouting about the benefits of taking workshops online). For example, geographical location has no longer been a barrier – I’ve had attendees from as far as the US. Links can be easily shared in the chat function, breakout rooms can be used and those who cannot usually attend physical workshops say that they feel more included now that they can join from the comfort of their own homes. Those who are more reserved can turn their cameras off and just focus on their own work should they wish. Those who feel more confident speaking up can do so easily with their audio and webcams on.

What’s more, those who shy away from sharing their work in a class environment can take time to work on their pieces and email them later.

What’s Missing?

So far, so good. I’ve attended Hay Festival from my own bedroom, dressed in my most ridiculous pyjamas without judgement. I’ve spoken in panels for literary festivals in India and made new writer friends as a result. I can easily log out of work at 5.30pm and start teaching a workshop by 6pm without a flustered drive through traffic.

But…there’s always a ‘but’.

Can we ever really replace the human connection entirely? Here are just some of the things I miss about literary events.

The pre- and post-event chats

A lot of our writing circles are made up of people we’ve met at events and festivals. There’s the person who made an impression on you during their first-ever reading. The person who came up to you after your reading to tell you how it affected them. There’s the buzz before an event starts and the book signings afterwards.

So many of the interesting conversations I’ve had with people in strange little pubs and quirky venues have led to the formation of some of my strongest friendships. So much of the event experience is about the opportunities and inspiration that comes from interesting fellow lovers of literature.

It’s simply not something that can be replicated with a webcam and a wave.

The sense of connection…

Events and festivals are a collective experience. As Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is about feeling something collectively with your fellow humans.

One thing I find challenging with online readings where participants are hidden is that I can’t gauge audience reactions in real-time. I can of course read the chat, and appreciate any kind comments, but I yearn to be able to really read the audience and instinctively know which piece of work to read or perform next. Rarely do I plan a list of poems to share because I prefer to respond to the feedback my audience are giving me.

Performing poetry is not a one-person show – it’s a two-way experience.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of digital body language, this can be all the more challenging. Preparation and close attention to digital audience activity is key.

…and disconnection

Certain events are special because of their location. The best often have very little signal so that everyone is focused on the event and engaging with humans in real-life, rather than swinging on their chairs and scrolling Twitter while waiting for their mate to come back to the table with overpriced lager.

Online events rely on everybody having a good internet connection – particularly if it’s a large event with everybody’s videos switched on. Too often have I seen someone drop out of their own reading slot simply because their connection is so bad.

Gone too are the easy, gentle silences – now every natural lapse in conversation is an assumption that someone is still on mute, or that the gap simply must be filled with something to say. 

If it isn’t, it’s goodbye and a quick click on the ‘End Meeting’ button.

Online Literary Events: A Permanent Solution?

While it’s great that online lifts geographical barriers and can creates offers more options for accessibility, there’s also a (sometimes literal) sense of connection being lost in an entirely digital environment.

However, having these online experiences included as an option in addition to physical events can open up events to an even wider audience in future. Workshops and launches are something I hope to run in parallel to physical events post-pandemic, so that more people can get involved in whichever way suits them – minus any barriers or apprehensions.

For me, it’s all about offering more options through a blend of both online and face-to-face.

It’s all about staying connected, however we choose to do it.

One response to “Are Online Literary Events Really the Future?”

  1. It’s interesting to see how the world is changing, and how things we’ve taken for granted, like literary events, are now significantly different. This was an interesting post indeed. Thanks, Natalie!


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