MOST PEOPLE think of Wordstock as a giant book fair, and with pretty darn good reason: Now in its sixth year, the festival annually brings dozens of authors and thousands of visitors to the Oregon Convention Center for readings, panel discussions, and the chance to canoodle with visiting authors.
So why is Oregon's biggest book fair kicking off a weekend of events with a performance of Mortified? After all, Mortified is a storytelling event that invites people onstage to read excerpts from their childhood journals. It's a conceit that gets much of its charm from how over-the-top embarrassing many of the stories are—and the sheer awfulness of the writing that's shared. Seems like the exact opposite of a book festival dedicated to the craft of writing, right?
"We're not called 'Wordbook' or 'Bookstock,'" counters Wordstock Director Greg Netzer. "We don't have 'book' in our title, and we've very specifically thought of ourselves as about words and authors and storytelling"—not just the ink-and-dead-tree package that binds those elements together.
So Wordstock is a celebration of literary culture at large—of stories inside and outside the book, a distinction that's more evident this year than ever. At a special installment of the popular show that Netzer promises will be "Mortified on steroids," Mortified Founder Dave Nadelberg will interview Sam Adams onstage about the mayor's most embarrassing high school memories. (Tweets Adams, "Yearbook pix? Yep.")
Longtime Wordstock attendees may notice a corresponding shift in focus this year—away from author readings, and toward panel discussions and conversations. Last year there were eight panel discussions; this year there are 29, and solo author readings have been pared down to a handful of bigger names, like Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O'Neill. The panels are where the action's at: Aimee Bender and Anthony Doerr in conversation about short stories; Ursula K. Le Guin on the future of reading; Old Joy author Jon Raymond and novelist Phillip Margolin on selling their books to Hollywood. Not only does this make for an unusually dynamic Wordstock catalog—it's the most promising lineup I've ever seen—but it's a tacit acknowledgement that the convention center just isn't a great place to see a book reading. (Last year it took the profanity-laced antics of James Ellroy to break up the monotony of the place—this year, the festival seems poised to generate excitement that's not contingent on anyone calling anyone else a "cuntlicker.")
In a nod to the changing bookscape we find ourselves in—and a bid to take a snapshot of what it looks like at the moment—one of the projects affiliated with Wordstock this year is a so-called Literary Time Capsule, organized in conjunction with the Dill Pickle Club. As the Dill Pickle Club's Marc Moscato explains, the purpose of the project is to "take a snapshot of Portland by documenting the current moment in our city's artistic landscape." Moscato has composed a questionnaire for distribution among Portland's literary types, with questions like "What are your fondest memories of Portland's literary community?" and "What is important to remember about this moment in Portland's artistic landscape?" He'll also be conducting interviews with prominent literary figures, and inviting members of the public to contribute by dropping any relevant documents off at the Dill Pickle booth during Wordstock; the results of all of this will be housed at the Central Library. It's a project that attempts to characterize history as it is happening, to summarize our literary culture at this moment in time, and the implicit promise it carries is that things will change.
Of course, as interesting as it is to consider that we may be seeing the end of a time when loving reading and stories is ineluctably bound to loving books, no disrespect to books themselves is intended. There will be books for sale at Wordstock, thousands of them, and there always will be—but the festival is determined to stay inclusive and limber in its focus. You won't find much emphasis on e-readers on the Wordstock convention center floor, but it's not entirely for lack of trying: "We reached out to Amazon and Sony, but they didn't respond," says Netzer.
For better or—as many diehard book lovers will no doubt see it—worse, Wordstock is determined to look to the future of storytelling, as well as its past and present.
"It's one of the reasons we decided to focus on stories rather than books," says Netzer. "Stories will always be there, but the ways we get them will change."
(All readings and panels are at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE MLK, Sat Oct 9-Sun Oct 10)
From the Front Lines—Matt Bors, Tatjana Soli, and Kilong Ung talk about writing in and about war zones. Yes, it's 11 am on a Saturday, but... these people went to WAR. Sat 11 am
Writing in Communities—Holy awesome, Batman. Steve Lieber of Periscope Studio and the Rumpus' Stephen Elliott—of San Francisco's the Grotto—discuss the perils, routines, and chore wheels of their respective writing communities. Sat 11 am
Why Write Short?—Aimee Bender, Anthony Doerr, and David Vann in conversation about short story writing. Attendance is mandatory. Sat noon
YA Gets Real—Patrick Ness, L.K. Madigan, and Conrad Wesselhoeft on YA writing that tackles "real-life subject matters." (Counterpoint: Teen vampire pregnancy is a serious issue facing today's Mormons.) Sat noon
Aimee Bender—If we could write this blurb solely in smiley emoticons and those little G-chat hearts that slowly turn upright when you send them, we would. Sat 1 pm
Jonathan Lethem—Don't miss a chance to see Jonathan Lethem read. He's just as charming and funny and nerdy as you want him to be. Sat 3 pm
Mona Simpson—Simpson's novel My Hollywood will change the way you think about Los Angeles. (If you think about it at all, that is.) Sat 5 pm
The Future of Reading—Sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin, Bookslut's Michael Schaub, and Publication Studio's Matthew Stadler consult the entrails of a goat to determine the future of reading as we know it. Sun 11 am
Cracking Up Is Hard to Do—Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets) and the ever-engaging Steve Almond talk the ins and outs of humor writing, in a conversation moderated by local funnylady Courtenay Hameister. (Mercury staffers will be in attendance, taking frantic notes.) Sun 2 pm
Joseph O'Neill—Author of Netherland, arguably the best book about cricket ever written. Sun 2 pm
Literary Lives—Monica Drake, Willy Vlautin, and Viva Las Vegas discuss why they chose to make Portland their home. Moderated by Kevin Sampsell. Sat 3 pm
Other Wordstock Events
Mortified–See My, What A Busy Week!
Steven Johnson—A contributing editor at Wired, Johnson has ideas about ideas, which are explored in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From. Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne, Fri Oct 8, 7 pm, $26.95 (book included)
Fifth Annual Text Ball—The Independent Publishing Resource Center's Text Ball shines an annual spotlight on just how book nerdy Portland is. Seriously, until you've seen people dressed in "text-influenced evening attire," you haven't seen a book nerd. This year's theme is "Text Appeal," which means things are gonna get racy. p:ear, 338 NW 6th, Sat Oct 9, 7-11 pm, $8-15
Entertainment for People—It's not an official Wordstock event, but Entertainment for People's story-themed variety show fits right in. This installment includes Wordstock presenter Steve Almond and essayist Beth Lisick. The Woods, 6637 SE Milwaukie, Sun Oct 10, 7:30 pm, $14-15