Literary Festivals Respond to COVID-19

A woman in a full auditorium leans forward in her seat, resting her head on her hands and her elbow on her knees

Change is at the forefront of our minds these weeks, as the global COVID-19 health crisis forces us all to rethink and rework our daily lives. The literary festival community is also navigating uncharted territory, as festivals large and small, near and far, face the question: How do we keep bringing readers and writers together in a socially distant world? Limits on public gatherings, travel restrictions and very real concerns about health and safety, are among many the factors compelling festivals to make unprecedented decisions. Some are cancelling their 2020 programming, others are postponing, while many more are adjusting their celebrations to suit these changing times.

We know first-hand that a tremendous amount of time and effort goes into the creation of a book festival. We appreciate that none of these decisions are being made lightly, and that most are accompanied by a great deal of economic risk and personal heartbreak. For these reasons, we applaud our festival community and commend those who have decided to put the health and safety of the book-loving community above all else.

To show our support, here is a roundup of some of the extraordinary spring festivals that have been impacted by COVID-19. Learn how they are adapting to the current situation, and how you can still join them in celebrating words and ideas.

  • Auckland Writers Festival 2020 (May 1217). This New Zealand festival was set to present its 20th anniversary edition next month. As of last week, it was still mailing printed copies of the programme guide to the local community, encouraging them to use it as a curated reading list.
  • Blue Metropolis International Literacy Festival 2020 (May 1–6 ). The Blue Met Festival in Montreal has cancelled its 2020 programme and is now looking ahead to a fresh start in 2021. In the meantime, it’s hosting a “spontaneous book club” for all ages on social media.
  • Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 15–31). The Scottish festival hopes to programme a series of online events this summer, to offer a place where writers can share their stories, perspectives and ideas with others. A range of past Book Festival events is currently available for free via YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Acast and Spotify.
  • The FOLD 2020 (April 30 – May 3). This year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD), held in Brampton, Ontario, will take place virtually. Guests from across Canada and around the world will have the chance to participate in free online panels, discussions and workshops via video conferencing.
  • gritLITFestival 2020 (April 1619). Hamilton, Ontario’s annual celebration of Canadian authors is committed to coming back stronger and better than ever once the COVID-19 outbreak has passed. When it does, gritLIT will strive to reschedule some of its 2020 festival readings, discussions, workshops and special events.
  • Ottawa International Writers Festival Spring 2020 Edition (April 30 May 5). The spring edition of the festival has been cancelled, along with all March and April events, but so far the fall festival edition is still on for October 22–28.
  • Sydney Writers’ Festival 2020 (April 27 – May 3). Over the coming weeks and months, the SWF in Australia will be celebrating the writers and thinkers from their 2020 programme through online means, such as podcasts and blog readings.

What You Can Do

Without a doubt, the changes and cancellations of these festivals will have a significant impact on the literary community. You can help by lending support in the following ways:

  1. Follow them online. Become a member of these festivals’ digital audiences by following them on social media and sharing their posts. You’ll show that an active audience is still engaged in their work, while also enjoying new ways to directly interact with them (from a safe physical distance).
  2. Browse their programmes and read the books. Take advantage of the heart and labour that went into building each festival’s unique 2020 programme. These are essentially curated reading lists of the best new works from across Canada and around the world. Reading these titles is a strong act of support for these festivals, and for the writers and publishers whose hard work didn’t get to be showcased on stage this year.
  3. Shift your expectations. Many festivals are nimbly modifying their offerings to suit these unique times. Passa Porta, a biennial international literary festival in Belgium, has commissioned a compelling series of COVID-19 poems. Read the first contribution, by Dutch-Belgian writer Joke van Leeuwen, which will have you feeling a little less isolated.
  4. Subscribe for news and updates. Be the first to find out about live events once they are back in action, and until then, stay on the forefront of new digital offerings and original content. Although in-person gatherings are on hold for the foreseeable future, festivals across the globe are still conjuring new and exciting ways to pique your bookish interests.
  5. Donate. Cancelling a festival is a difficult decision for many reasons, one of which is closing the door to an earned revenue stream. Often, expenditures have already been made towards events before their cancellation (investments in venue space, advertising and promotion, travel bookings, etc.). These are not always refundable. Consider making a charitable donation to these festivals, if you are able, to help offset these losses and to set them up for future success.

What’s In Store for TIFA?

The team at the Toronto International Festival of Authors is still hard at work planning the 41st edition of the Toronto International Festival of Authors, taking place October 22 – November 1, 2020, at Harbourfront Centre. We are monitoring the rapidly-changing COVID-19 situation closely and are working within the guidelines of Toronto Public Health, along with Harbourfront Centre, to ensure that we are doing our part to protect the community’s health and safety. To mitigate the uncertainty of the current situation, we are exploring a variety of creative new ways to deliver a complete festival experience, both in-person and virtually. We recognize that togetherness is more important now than ever, and look forward to continuing the festival tradition of connecting curious readers and thinkers, whether through traditional means or new ones.

Staged event with two speakers and a caller on projected digitally on rear screen

André Alexis discusses art and politics with Kia Corthron and Eileen Myles (on screen) at the 2017 International Festival of Authors

As the COVID-19 continues to rapidly change, please visit each festival’s own website for up-to-date information and offerings.