At the height of the pandemic, essayist Barrett Swanson went on an L.A. sojourn to spend some time in a TikTok house–a holding pen for budding Gen-Z influencers that talent agencies threw obscene amounts of money at to scrape their way to the forefront of the celebrity manufacturing process. The resulting essay for Harper’s, “The Anxiety of Influencers” is an essential taxonomy of the tech giant’s societal effect –not just the ADHD-like TikTok brain plaguing the mental health and intellectual development of teens, but the shallow freefall into the ephemeral that a diet of 30-second videos governed by an algorithm has on our cultural fabric.
Yet, Swanson’s 2021 essay could have never predicted that an app defined by superficial distraction would lead to a renewed interest in reading among the under-40 crowd routinely demonized for their lack of knowledge through the advent of BookTok. What began as a pandemic trend of teens and twenty-somethings showing off their stacks or favorite book quotes has become a fixture on the app that has made reading cool again. “We are in a new act now in popular reading,” Serenity Gerbman, Director of Literature and Language Programs for Humanities Tennessee, said. “A lot of the literary critics are geared to certain types of books. BookTok is filling a gap and allowing authors to find an audience.”
As Gerbman prepared for this weekend’s Southern Festival of Books, she and the rest of her team at Humanities Tennessee have had to navigate BookTok’s influence on publishing and the public’s renewed interest in reading. One of the oldest literary festivals in the country, the Southern Festival of Books has long been a staple on the Nashville events calendar, routinely drawing hundreds of authors and thousands of visitors every October. It was a chance for new writers to mingle with literary powerhouses like Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), Taylor Jenkins Reid (Daisy Jones and the Six), Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere), journalist Rick Bragg, and Nashville’s own Ann Patchett.
Though the festival went virtual for two years during the pandemic, it returned last year to its longtime home in Legislative Plaza with a more modest lineup that featured controversial local political figures like State Representative Justin Jones and Nashville’s former COVID-Czar, Dr. Alex Jahangir, as it attempted to parse out the last few years of political tumult.
With the pandemic in the rearview and reading on the rise, Humanities Tennessee has made some major changes to this year’s iteration to broaden the event’s appeal and highlight the distinctiveness of the region. 2023’s Southern Festival of Books will take place Saturday and Sunday at Bicentennial Mall, making use of the Tennessee State Museum and Tennessee State Library & Archives, two impressive cultural institutions downtown that Gerbman feels often go unnoticed by locals and tourists alike.
In centering the events around two spaces so vital to Tennessee’s history and literary culture, the festival aims to create a hub that showcases Nashville while putting it in dialogue with the broader literary community. “Nashville – like all places – has developed a literary culture that is made distinct by the senses and experiences and perspectives of the people who make that city,” Tim Henderson, executive director at Humanities Tennessee, said. “But we always appreciate that – while we have a literary festival that is situated in Nashville – the Southern Festival of Books always strives to provide access to stories that are not only local, but regional, national, at times global.”
This year’s lineup features a host of high-profile authors, including mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen, Y.A. legend and perennial attendee David Levithan, The Silver-Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick, and Memphis based novelist Steve Stern, who established himself as the premiere chronicler of Jewish-American life and heir-apparent to Philip Roth with 2010’s The Frozen Rabbi.
In addition to numerous young adult and children’s book writers, the festival boasts a wide array of nonfiction offerings ranging from cookbooks and photography collections to biographies and music journalism. As usual, the festival has fostered a space for local and regional writing, including an appearance from Kami Ahrens, the educational director at the renowned Appalachia heritage organization Foxfire.
While the festival will feature author talks, a signing tent, and vendors selling books and other locally made items, Humanities Tennessee has curated a robust schedule of new offerings. In addition to an expanded roster of food trucks, the festival will feature a beer garden and a performance stage. It has also created Big Fiery Gizzard & Little Pigeon’s Creativity Land, where kids of all ages can make bookmarks, poetry piñatas, and other literary crafts.
One of the festival’s primary goals is bridging the literary community with Nashville’s rich musical heritage, which it has achieved through the inclusion of interdisciplinary artists like Amelia White, an East Nashville folk-pop songwriter and poet performing on Saturday. For White, the event is essential to Nashville’s artistic identity. “I think people are hungry for real art. I think the pandemic showed people what a little bit of slowdown could do for them. It really matters right now. People really need it.”
According to Gerbman, the Southern Festival of Books shows that the city is more than just music tourism and a magnet for economic development, though those industries have done much to turn the city into an internationally known cultural mecca. “Over time, this culture develops and feeds on itself.” White echoes her sentiments, “Words really matter here.”
The Southern Festival of Books runs Saturday through Sunday at the Bicentennial Mall. A full schedule and parking map are on the event’s website.
10:00 a.m. Cumberland Tent: Carl Hiaasen book signing.
10:00 a.m. Conasauga Room (Library): Steve Stern discusses his new novel, The Village Idiot.
12:00 p.m. Nolichucky Room (Library): Authors and Physicists with Robert Appleby, Lucy Caldwell, Joe Haley, Connie Potter.
“As part of a unique collaboration, this book pairs a team of award-winning authors with CERN physicists to explore some of the consequences of what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is learning, through fiction. This panel is supported in part by the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.”
12:30 p.m. Harpeth Room (Library): The Legacy of Cormac McCarthy
“Join the brother of the late Cormac McCarthy and scholar Bryan Giemza to discuss the acclaimed novelist's work and legacy and the bond between two brothers and writers.”
1:00 p.m. Wolf Room (Museum) David Levithan discusses Y.A. literature.
2:00 p.m. Obion Room (Library): Southern Scholars Panel with Fitz Brundage, James Rice, Natalie Ring, Charles Reagan Wilson.
3:00 p.m. Obion Room (Library): Tennessee Political Scandels with Joel Ebert and Erik Schelzig.
3:30 p.m. Sequatchie Room (Museum): Matthew Quick talks about fiction.
10:00 a.m. Obion Room (Library): Appalachian Culture with Foxfire’s Kami Ahrens and writer Sarah Beth Childers
11:30 a.m. Nolichucky Room (Library): Southern Foodways Alliance
“Join the Southern Foodways Alliance in honoring the 2023 recipient of the 2023 John Egerton Prize, Sadé Meeks. Meeks is a food activist, registered dietitian and director of GRITS (Growing Resilience in the South), a 501c3 organization with the mission to improve the health and well-being of communities through increased awareness of nutrition, food history, and culture.”
2:00 p.m. Beer Garden: “How to Drink Australian Wine” with Jane Lopes and Jonathan Ross.
3:00 p.m. Conasauga Room (Library): Stacy Kranitz: Photography.
“Stacy Kranitz is an American photographer who works in the documentary tradition and lives in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee. She has made long-term personal projects about the Appalachian region and worked as an assignment photographer for magazines and newspapers. Kranitz's work is held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Harvard Art Museums.”