Go out and fail. That was Michael Chabon’s message when he came to campus in March to give the headline talk of Amherst’s inaugural literary festival.  

“Our greatest gift as humans is to pay attention to our failures,” the novelist told the Johnson Chapel audience. 

Chabon—author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—read from a work he said he’s never read aloud before: Fountain City: A Novel, Wrecked, a four-chapter annotated fragment of an unpublished book project that he began and later scrapped. 

“I believe in failure,” he said. “Only failure rings true.”

The three-day LitFest drew some 850 people to campus for master classes, receptions, readings and Q&As with authors. Aimed at “illuminating great writing and Amherst College’s literary life,” the event was organized by The Common literary magazine; the Emily Dickinson Museum; and the College’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Department of English and Office of Communications

 An Idea Is Not a Novel

2015 National Book Award fiction finalists Angela Flournoy, nominated for The Turner House, and Lauren Groff ’01, nominated for Fates and Furies, opened LitFest with a conversation moderated by Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker

The talk centered on the authors’ writing processes and literary influences. “An idea is not a novel,” Flournoy said. “You need a character to be the engine that drives the idea forward.” 

The authors touched on the problems of labeling their fiction as “domestic” or, in Groff’s case, “gothic.” Groff said, “Ideally you would never call yourself a writer of anything in particular. You’re just a writer, and the stories come to you, and you write them as best you can.” 

From Caves to Kindles 

Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, spoke about the history and future of the book business, starting with narrative cave paintings and traveling through time with stone and clay tablets, papyrus, the printed book and e-readers. “All publishing is an exercise in hope,” he said.  

How Fiction Gets in The New Yorker

A talk with Treisman, hosted by Jennifer Acker ’00, editor-in-chief of The Common, centered on Treisman’s work as The New Yorker’s fiction editor. An audience member asked how submitted stories come to her attention. “If the top of the pile is where a story belongs, it will get there,” Treisman said. “I’ve had stories come in through friends of friends, teachers, agents, the writer directly. ... Everything does get read.”

It’s OK to Offend Your Sources

Cullen Murphy ’74, chair of the Amherst Board of Trustees, moderated a conversation with Mark Bowden, who wrote such books as Black Hawk Down, and Stacy Schiff, author of, most recently, The Witches: Salem, 1692.

Schiff gave advice on how to choose a project: “You have to like your subject, but you should never love him or her.” Being “under the spell of your subject” means writing a lesser book, she said.

When interviewing sources, Bowden said, “I can promise them that they and their point of view will be accurately reflected in the story I write,” but he can’t promise they’ll like the final story. “If you’re going to think critically and write honestly about anyone,” he said, “you’re going to offend them.” 

The Place of the Arts

LitFest marked the debut of Amherst’s partnerships with the National Book Foundation and The MacDowell Colony. These collaborations will bring authors to campus every year for talks and readings. “Our goal,” said Professor Martha Umphrey, who heads the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, “is to generate an intellectual and aesthetic energy that reminds us of the invaluable place the humanities and arts have, and should continue to have … in a world we all want to inhabit.”