LitFest 2016 Highlights Amherst College’s Literary Culture

Erin Batchelder ’17
Staff Writer

Amherst College has long been associated with great writers and writing. With ties to literary legends like Robert Frost and David Foster Wallace, the college lays claim to some of the great literary minds of the past 200 years. During the weekend of March 3 to March 5, Amherst hosted its 2016 LitFest to launch the National Book Awards’ new “On Campus” initiative to connect literature students with the nation’s greatest writers.

The National Book Award (NBA) is a highly distinguished award in English literature that celebrates works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, among other genres. Winners include John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. This year, however, the NBA has taken a new initiative and has set out to forge connections between the foundation and several colleges across the country — Amherst being one of them. The new partnership between Amherst and the NBA led several high-profile American writers to appear at the annual LitFest, organized by the Emily Dickinson House and the literary publication The Common.

Over the three-day festival, the college hosted some of the greatest new talents in the world of fiction and non-fiction. It included a reading and Q&A featuring Amherst alumna Lauren Groff and Angela Flourney. Groff and Flourney were both National Book Award Finalists for their novels “Fates and Furies” and “The Turner House,” respectively. After reading short excerpts from the novels, they spoke about their writing and process with the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman. The three women talked about everything — from the massive cockroaches found in Groff’s home state of Florida to Flourney’s research on her own family history in order to write “The Turner House.”

On Friday, there were several events throughout the day, leading up to the biggest event of the weekend — an Evening with Michael Chabon. As an established figure of the literary scene, Chabon is most well-known for his works “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He gave a short reading from his latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” before answering a few questions about his career and latest inspirations.

Since all the events were free and open to the public, the audiences were made up of a wide range of demographics. From event to event, several dozen attendees would be sitting around chatting about previous talks and books. While sponsored by the college, there was a lack of students, possibly due to the busy midterm exam schedule and the upcoming spring break. However, during several of the Q&A’s, when the audience was prompted to ask questions, Amherst students were the first to come forward to ask for advice about getting started.

Through LitFest, the college showed that there is more writing to be done. Over the past few decades, the college has lingered in the shadow of David Foster Wallace, an Amherst alumnus and easily one of the most celebrated modern American writers. Since he was such a high-profile alumnus, the association between Wallace and the college is impossible to avoid. He appeared on the back of every LitFest pamphlet and would come up in conversations between other writers. But overall, LitFest proved that there is more to be said about Amherst College besides being Wallace’s alma mater. There are more writers coming out of the college and more to come out of their new partnership with the National Book Award.

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