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SC Book Festival canceled for 2016; new statewide literary initiatives in the works

In this file photo, second-graders from five Midlands elementary schools listened to readings by children's book authors and a visit with USC's First Lady Patricia Moore-Pastides as well as Cocky, USC's mascot. The South Carolina Center for Children's Books and Literacy of the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science sponsored the field trip to the S.C. Book Festival.
In this file photo, second-graders from five Midlands elementary schools listened to readings by children's book authors and a visit with USC's First Lady Patricia Moore-Pastides as well as Cocky, USC's mascot. The South Carolina Center for Children's Books and Literacy of the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science sponsored the field trip to the S.C. Book Festival. tdominick@thestate.com

One of the biggest literary draws and book events of the region is being canceled in favor of new statewide programming, organizers say.

The almost 20-year-old S.C. Book Festival held in the spring will give way to new, literary offerings that will be available “...in every corner of the state” officials with the Humanities Council of South Carolina said Thursday morning.

Widely considered one of the Southeast’s premiere literary events, due in no small part to its variety of offerings, the book festival usually brings about 6,000 visitors to the Midlands each year.

Festival director T.J. Wallace, who also works for The Humanities Council, said she could understand why those in the literary community — including some of the 60 to 70 volunteers who regularly help with the event each year — might be disappointed.

“This decision was not made lightly,” she said. “Many have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. It has been a wonderful event, but we’re excited about this new opportunity.”

Wallace denied that the board of director’s decision to discontinue the Columbia-based event had anything to do with funding or the expense of hosting the free event, which on average ranged from $180,000 to $210,000, saying only that the decision had to do with the organization’s core mission “to enrich the cultural and intellectual lives of all South Carolinians.”

“As the state program for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the council is mandated for the state, not just the Midlands,” she said.

Executive director Randy Akers said the festival “will evolve” into a new set of literary initiatives that will be available year-round and “reach a wide and diverse audience in every corner of South Carolina.”

“South Carolina has a rich literary heritage that The Humanities Council S.C. wants to celebrate and share, and these new programs will expand and diversify literary opportunities in South Carolina,” he said.

The new initiatives, Akers said, will include a literary speakers bureau featuring authors and writing instructors who can travel across the state for public programs; a fast-track literary grant opportunity for statewide organizations for writers series, festivals, conferences, workshops, or artist residencies; and a literary track at the annual South Carolina Humanities Festival, which is hosted in a different town each year.

Attendance had also fallen off somewhat from previous years. Last year’s festival drew close to 6,500 people while this year’s festival only drew about 5,000.

While Wallace said the council had received inquiries as to whether the festival could be moved around the state to different regions, ultimately the board decided to design new initiatives that could roll out as early as this fall, that would have a wider reach and even serve rural and under-served communities.

“We certainly hope that the new literary programs we’re planning would bring things to say Dillon... or Gaffney or those communities that don’t allow us to reach for literary programming.”

Wallace said the council hopes the new programming will have an even greater impact across the state. “Instead of spending 9 to 12 months planning for three days, we’re hoping that now we’ll be planning literary events monthly, weekly and all around the state.”

Still, many in the literary community were surprised and disappointed to hear the news of the festival’s discontinuation.

University of South Carolina English Department professor Elise Blackwell said she was “deeply sorry” to hear the book festival was being canceled. Blackwell, an author and host of USC’s own popular author series, “The Open Book” said that the book festival “helped put Columbia on the national literary map.”

“It was an event I valued even more as a reader than as a writer. (It) was also a wonderful resource for local students of all ages. My hope is that it will be restored.”

It was an event I valued even more as a reader than as a writer. (It) was also a wonderful resource for local students of all ages. My hope is that it will be restored.

Elise Blackwell, author and host of USC’s “The Open Book”

News of the festival’s cancellation and its potential impact on related arts and literary organizations rippled out across the state Thursday.

Betsy Teter, executive director for the Spartanburg-based Hub City Press, said her staff met with a delegation from The Humanities Council last week to lay out plans for some of the new initiatives.

The nonprofit independent press has had a presence at the book festival for 18 years. Teter said planning for the festival was her staff’s “favorite activity.”

“Losing it is something we are grieving over,” she said.

Losing (the book festival) is something we are grieving over.

Betsy Teter, executive director for the Spartanburg-based Hub City Press

Teter added that while they are deeply saddened about the discontinuation of the book festival, the press was “looking at opportunities to partner with The Humanities Council and create new programming for the Upstate” with some of the new initiatives in the works.

In Columbia, officials at the Richland Library, a major participant in the festival, were also disappointed by the loss of the event.

“It’s a shame to lose such an important gathering of great thinkers and creative minds in our state,” said Caroline Hipp, the library’s director of branch experience. “Especially one that so closely mirrors our own mission and helps tell the story of what a 21st century library has to offer.”

University of South Carolina Press director Jonathan Haupt, agreed that The Humanities Council’s plans to develop new literary programs in place of the book festival would “potentially benefit a larger audience on a statewide and year-round basis.”

Meanwhile Haupt said, Midlands readers and festivalgoers will certainly miss the event, he said.

“Book festivals bring together writers and readers in way that feels as much like a revival meeting or a family reunion as a cultural event,” he said. “It’s an invigorating experience that confirms the power and promise of the written word to change our lives for the better. Perhaps in time another entity will take the challenge of putting on a statewide or city book festival.”

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8362.

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