Twenty years ago, 22 authors assembled at the band shell in Golden Gate Park for the birth of a literary event then known as Litstock. “It was foggy and freezing and just amazing,” cofounder Jane Ganahl remembers. “We had 400 people show up. It was free, of course, and that’s how we got started. It just got bigger from there.”
Under the guardianship of Ganahl and co-founder Jack Boulware, what is now known as Litquake has grown to be the largest independent literary festival west of the Mississippi. This year running from October 10 to 19, the festival has presented close to 8,650 author appearances for an audience of more than 183,000.
The headliners among this year’s nearly 800 participating authors include Ann Patchett, Jeannette Winterson, Chip Conley and Oakland’s Tommy Orange. Also on the schedule are Nigerian-American writer Tope Folarin, bestselling author of The Great Alone Kristin Hannah, and award-winning Belgian novelist Tom Lanoye.
The full schedule complete with dates, times and tickets links can be found at litquake.org.
Although initially a San Francisco institution, Litquake has extended its reach to the entire Bay Area and beyond. It features programming for kids, teens and seniors, events focused on LGBTQ+ issues and advice for aspiring writers.
On October 10, the festival kicks off with The Bee’s Knees, Litquake’s official opening party.
The following evening features a literary event specially designed to celebrate Litquake’s 20th Anniversary: Eureka! California’s Best Authors Read by More of the Same. According to Litquake, some of the festival’s favorite Bay Area authors will read from their favorite California writers. This night of readings will feature Charlie Jane Anders, Natalie Baszile, Elaine Castillo, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Daniel Handler, Adam Johnson, Chang-rae Lee, Ishmael Reed and Tobias Wolff. Authors will read from the works of writers who inspired them — from Dashiell Hammett to Theresa Cha to Daniel Alarcón.
The closing-night Lit Crawl SF brings together more than 500 authors in the heart of the Mission to read in an idiosyncratic mix of venues — bars and galleries, laundromats and barber shops, book stores and tattoo parlors. Upward of 10,000 participants fill the streets in search of writing that moves them.
Boulware remembers being initially uncertain whether Lit Crawl would work. “But as soon as the Crawl began, and people were showing up, it was obvious San Francisco got the concept immediately,” he said. “Maybe it was something in the city’s DNA, left over from hippie happenings and Bay to Breakers, and other participatory creative moments where the crowd becomes the scene.”
Lit Crawl has been adopted as a stand-alone event in 13 cities across the globe, including Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Wellington (New Zealand), Cheltenham (England), Belfast and Kells (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively) and Helsinki. This year the East Bay is well represented, not just in providing venues for events, but in the number of participating authors. Representing this side of the Bay are Carolina de Robertis, Jenny Odell, Michael Foulk, Keenan Norris, Julie Lythcott Haims and many others.
Tommy Orange is arguably the brightest East Bay star to appear at the festival this year. According to Ganahl, the author of There There has become a “rock star.” In San Francisco on Oct 16, Orange will be in conversation with San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck.
Another feature specially designed for the anniversary, the 20 in 20 program brings Litquake to 20 new locations, including Point Richmond, Orinda, and El Cerrito. The Lit at the Lake program gathers six authors to Lake Merritt’s Lake Chalet on October 18 for a “literary melange.” They include Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Alison Hart, Vanessa Hua, S.A. Lelchuk, Jenny Odell, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.
It’s an ambitious slate of programming, and Litquake seems to set the bar higher for itself each year. Asked how the event sustains and extends itself, Ganahl said, “We are good at reading the tea leaves. We do surveys at every festival and listen to what people say. ‘More events in the East Bay!’ ‘More poetry!’ We try to be responsive.”
No one seems to be getting rich off of Litquake. “We’re always very close to the bone,” Ganahl said of the festival’s budget. “When there’s an economic downturn, it’s not like we have this giant foundation that feeds us.”
The Dotcom Bubble and the Great Recession were bad enough, but fundraising has become even tougher since Donald Trump took office.
“We’ve had to stay nimble over the years to try and feed the audience what they want,” Ganahl said. “So much of the city now is young tech people. We conduct experiments to see if they’ll come out for literary events, but the jury’s still out.”
When Litquake wraps on October 19, Ganahl will have the results of any experiments they might conduct this year. Whatever they may be, they’re likely to indicate that local readers will be eager for another round.
“We expanded based on interest, as opposed to ambition, I guess,” Ganahl said. “We never set out to be this big, but we have responded to the need and the desire.” For his part, Boulware said, “I would like to see Litquake continue for at least another 20 years.”
“Someone once sent us a photo of an entrance to a boardroom at the Google offices. It had a sign that said ‘Litquake Room,’ with a little graphic of a guitar.” Noting that he found that odd, Boulware concluded, “And when the planet finally reaches the bursting point, and Google assembles the spaceships to fly all of the scientists and thinkers out into the universe to restart civilization, before Earth explodes in a fireball, I hope that one of the ships has a ‘Litquake Room,’ where people are still using words and telling stories.”