Photo by Sara Bernard

The Evolution of Bumbershoot’s Literary Offerings

For literature fans, things have changed over the years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Once upon a time, Bumbershoot drew nationally recognized authors to read to enormous audiences. Jim Carroll headlined Bumbershoot in 2000, and a slate of young McSweeney’s authors followed a few years after that. Allie Brosh and Harvey Pekar both read to packed houses. Touring groups of writers like Sister Spit were showcased. Terry McMillan read the year that UB40 played. Hell, Larry McMurtry was a big-name headliner in 1977. Ursula K. LeGuin was a draw in 1998.

All that, of course, was a long time ago.

You can’t point to any one reason why Bumbershoot is no longer a high point in Seattle’s literary calendar year. We have a lot of reading series in Seattle nowadays, so it’s less special to have a nationally prominent author appear in the city. A few years ago, Bumbershoot transformed its literary stage into a more general “Words and Ideas” format that de-emphasized books for more pop-cultural phenomena (writers for The Onion, Parks and Recreation, and Transparent have spoken at Bumbershoot in the past few years). And the Bumbershoot audience has changed and grown more music-focused; people stopped showing up for literary events.

All of which is a long and whiny way of saying that you won’t find any Stephen Kings or George R.R. Martins at this year’s Bumbershoot. Instead, they’re turning the focus on local literary causes that deserve a wider audience.

On Sunday, Fremont Abbey’s popular Abbey Arts in the Round talent showcase brings its multidisciplinary lineup with musician Led to Sea and spoken-word poet Sienna Burnett. Additionally, the festival continues its longstanding commitment to the spoken-word scene with the Battle of the Word slam series, bringing the thrill of competitive reading to audiences eager for some drama.

Bumbershoot is also hosting a reprise of the Ghosts of Seattle Past project. Ghosts, published by local press Chin Music, is a gorgeous anthology of pieces devoted to Seattle-area locations that have been demolished, have changed ownership, or just feel different now that we’ve apparently fully committed to being Amazonville. Editor and curator Jaimee Garbacik will converse with Ghosts contributors about what it means to document the city in transition, and the audience will be invited to participate with their own memories of places that no longer exist.

But for my money, Bumbershoot’s biggest and most promising literary event is a special edition of the Bushwick Book Club, the ongoing music-and-books event which charges local musicians to read and respond to a selected text. This special edition will feature all-new music written in response to Ernest Cline’s unbelievably popular nerdgasm of a sci-fi novel, Ready Player One. The book, which is being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, has attracted an array of passionate fans and some venomous criticism from critics of the book’s adoring fanwankery. Bushwick is perfect for Bumbershoot’s multidisciplinary creative spirit—a project that moves literature to an unfamiliar stage, just for the fun of seeing what might happen. Bumbershoot, Seattle Center, bumbershoot.org. $129. All ages. Fri., Sept. 1–Sun., Sept. 3. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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