Our guest columnist suggests bringing a literary festival to Laguna Beach.
By Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Two summers ago, I white-knuckled a pink rental car from Dublin through roundabouts and down the “wrong” side of toll roads, highways and muddy country lanes to the literary destination of my dreams. Over the last rise, the town I knew only from Internet research glistened with fresh rain. Apart from all the places in Ireland I’d long planned to visit, a seaside village I’d just discovered had drawn me to its annual West Cork Literary Festival.
Each July for the past 14 years, book lovers have arrived in Bantry (metro population 12,800) for an event that has grown from a casual series of poetry readings into a well-organized, weeklong extravaganza of writing workshops; author talks; publishing and writing presentations; performances; book signings; launch parties for literary magazines; and even a children’s festival.
Organized by the same nonprofit that oversees the West Cork Chamber Music and Masters of Tradition festivals, the annual literary celebration now attracts prominent authors, publishers, agents, editors and visitors from Ireland, Britain and points beyond to enjoy activities held all around town, from its library to its bookstore, pubs, schools and church. Bantry’s residents and businesses benefit not only from the economic boost of added tourism but also from the exposure to the creative buzz of readers and writers of many nationalities.
Literary travel is part of a larger trend toward cultural tourism. Culture and heritage was deemed so important by Failte Ireland, the country’s leading tourism development authority, that it was the focus of its national conference in April 2013. In Laguna, we see the arts draw cultural tourists with every festival season, art walk, dance or music event.
Orange County is home to a leading creative writing MFA program at UC Irvine and events such as the Newport Beach Library’s Authors Series, the American Association of University Women’s Laguna Literary Luncheon and the Orange County Public Library’s Literary Orange. Laguna is one of few local towns with independent bookstores.
Although the Festival of Arts awards writing scholarships to lucky high school seniors each year, Laguna still offers no formal creative writing classes in any of its public schools. Apart from the library’s annual poetry contests, a handful of essay-writing competitions for children and occasional open-mic nights, there are few educational or community-building opportunities for local writers.
Laguna’s oceanfront location and small-town charm make it a natural draw for cultural events. A literary festival in spring or late fall, with writing workshops, readings, book signings, classes and lectures could attract international tourists and build a literary community. If participants walked from venue to venue as they do in Bantry, the festival could increase foot traffic to retailers on less-visited streets. It could also boost revenue for hotels, restaurants and tour companies in low season, and help promote local publishing and authors. Most importantly, it could educate young readers and inspire them to try writing books of their own.
How would a literary festival work in Laguna? I envision a week of activities beginning after art festival season. Sponsored by one hotel, restaurants and other local businesses as well as travel companies, the activities would be held around town: the library, bookstore, community centers and other venues. Funding could come from sponsors, writing contest entry fees and ticket costs—possibly with a nonprofit organizer. Teachers and presenters would come from Southern California’s rich literary resources at UC Irvine, Chapman and USC’s professional writing program. In addition to writing events, the festival would offer activities geared to anyone with an interest in reading, writing or cultural exchange. LBM