In the past two months, hundreds of literary events have sprung up online on a wide variety of platforms: Zoom and Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, StreamYard and more. Some have come off surprisingly well. Others have been plagued by technical snags, screen fatigue, and unprepared hosts.
Most of these online events are the result of temporary shutdowns aiming to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Yet these few months of online talks may also lead to a more permanent shift. Allison Markin Powell, co-host of PEN America’s “Translating the Future” series, said over email that she believes there’s no “going back to mono-medium presentations.” This should be particularly true of translation events, she said, “since so many of us have networks that span the globe.”
The “Translating the Future” talks were originally set to be held in New York City. Instead, talks have been broadcast from translators’ homes, as with a recent conversation between Beirut-based Lina Mounzer and New York City-based Madhu H. Kaza. An event that might have been accessible only to New Yorkers was opened the world.
Previously, Markin Powell said, it’s been hard to convince event organizers that audiences would attend such virtual events. And maybe the audience themselves weren’t aware “that this format could be as engaging as it is,” she added.
Building Online Community
When the first literary events were canceled in February, some organizers believed the shutdowns would be short-lived. A few events were rescheduled for May or June. (See a related article, “Arab Publishers Take a Hit From the Covid-19 Crisis.”) Then, as it became clear that we were in for longer lock-ins, literary events began to transform.
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Some early events went online without much thought to creating community. The announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in April was one such event. Most years, the IPAF winner is revealed at a glittering hotel-ballroom event, followed by a news conference with judges and the winner. This year, a few pre-recorded speeches were streamed without audience involvement.
The ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award followed just two days later. Although it, too, was comprised of pre-recorded videos, hundreds of participants came to watch and chat with each other beside the livestream: congratulating the winners or just saying a quick hello. (See a related article, “Sheikh Zayed Book Award Honors Authors in a Virtual Event.”)