There’s so much stuff that happens in Philly that’s stupid,” says Joey Sweeney. This might as well be the subtitle of his blog, Philebrity. “But every memory I have of attending any 215 Festival, ever, is a fantastic one.”
If you’ve been living in Philly for more than a few years, you may remember the 215 Festival. Since its inception in 2001 (called the McSweeney’s Festival in its first year), it has brought Dave Eggers, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, Amy Sedaris, Jeffrey Eugenides, Sarah Vowell — short of David Foster Wallace, you name a writer who was up and coming a decade or so ago, and he or she was probably there. And it wasn’t just readings: The 215 was founded on the principle of mixing literature, other types of art and beer, an attempt to create an alternative to the standard watch-a-famous-person-read lit event.
But in recent years, the big names have faded, and the festival has gone through organizers like a volcano goes through sacrificial virgins. Putting on a major event with close to no budget and an entirely volunteer staff is exhausting, and few people sign up to do it twice. The last festival, a fairly small-scale one, was in 2009; since an abortive attempt in 2010, there’s been radio silence.
That is, until Sweeney announced via Philebrity a couple months ago that he was taking up the cross: The 215 Festival would return in its full, four-day glory Nov. 1 to 4.
Few details were announced at the time, which invited some skepticism. But as of this week, Sweeney’s confirmed lineup is pretty impressive for something one guy started working on a month ago. Festival stalwart Jon Hodgman is no surprise, as he’s practically a mascot. But Sweeney’s also signed up Jon Ronson (of The Men Who Stare at Goats), Starlee Kine, John Wesley Harding and some of the n+1 crew — and this, he says, is only the early confirmations.
Sweeney and Philebrity have been involved with the festival for years. “At some point in the late summer I’d email and be, like, ‘What can we do this year?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t know yet!’ Then finally it didn’t happen for a while, and we were, like, ‘Can we just … do this for you?’”
“A damn sight lot more fun.”
Writer Neal Pollack, who in the early 2000s lived in Fairmount, was the idea man and public face of the first festival, put on in July 2001 at the Free Library. Afterward, he described his reasons for wanting to do it in an online piece he wrote for McSweeney’s, the most visible example of the literary scene he was a part of:
“The most important is that I thought it would be fun. The second most important is that nearly all events in America involving writers are irretrievably lame. They are either bland and corporate or fusty and boring. … If they are lucky, writers are placed on a pedestal at the lowest end of the celebrity food chain, adored by autograph seekers who wait in line for an hour, and then the writers disappear, escorted by a $600-a-day paid professional. … This divide between writers and their readers is inexcusable, particularly since it does not seem to be what most readers, and many writers, want. Too many obstacles have been placed, and I thought it was high time to remove them. The third most important reason is that I love power.”
Pollack says now that he had been touring Europe with a crew of McSweeney’s writers, and he’d been surprised at the way they did things over there. “At these festivals, there were writers who would give readings, and then there were rock bands who’d give performances. It was a damn sight lot more fun than what writers got to do in the States: You show up at a bookstore, you give your reading in front of three to 30 people, you sign books and you go home.” He thought Philly, with its DIY-friendly venues and bus-trip proximity to New York, would be perfect to try out a similar festival. “I knew I couldn’t pull this off on my own,” says Pollack, “so I basically roped a bunch of people into helping me.”
“[Neal] came to me and he said, ‘We should start a festival. It would be the biggest, best, most kick-ass festival ever,’” says Andy Kahan, director of author events at the Free Library then and now. “And I said, ‘Sure!’”
The readings were at the library, and Pollack managed to talk many people he knew, like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Sarah Vowell and Jeffrey Eugenides, into doing it pro bono, or for the price of a bus ticket from Brooklyn.
But what everybody remembers about the first festival is the big after-party, when the about-to-get-really-famous writers went to the North Star Bar to watch bands and drink with readers. The spirit of the night, with barriers between authors and readers briefly removed, would be the underlying foundation of the 215 Festival.
“I just cannot put into words how exhilarating it was to be talking to Eugenides and Eggers at the same time — or seeing, like, four people of various genders trying to hook up with Zadie Smith,” says Mary Richardson Graham, a central organizer of the 215 from the beginning through 2004. “I remember smirking behind Eugenides’ back while he was hitting on a 21-year-old.” She woke up the next morning terribly hung over, but wishing she could do it again.
So when Pollack convened a big group at the Rosenbach to plan a second one, she was game. McSweeney’s didn’t want to officially sponsor this one, but the library was on board, so the name was changed to the 215 Festival. It all sounded a little crazy and like a lot of work, but, Richardson Graham says, it sounded worth it. “Those two nights were some of the most fun I’d ever had in my life. So if I could replicate that and be in the middle of it? I was totally going to do that. Some of us really put a lot of our lives into it for a couple years.”
But in 2005, Richardson Graham had a baby, her second, and had to stop devoting so much of her life to the festival: “And so did, like, half of the board. It really screwed things up.”
“Real life is not Fugazi.”
Since then, the keys to the 215 Festival have changed hands nearly every year.
When you ask anyone who’s had those keys about the budget, he or she invariably uses the word “shoestring” in the answer. Other words that consistently come up: “DIY,” “friends,” “ragtag,” “amazing,” “exhausting,” “rewarding” and “I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
“In grand Philebrity fashion, we’re not going to make a red dime off of it,” says Sweeney. He has experience planning events and dealing with sponsors from Philebrity, but is stuck with the same nearly nonexistent budget that everyone else dealt with. But you can only do something for thrills rather than money until the novelty fades — a concept Sweeney already has distilled into the longtime Philebrity catchphrase “Real life is not like Fugazi.”
That’s the root of how such a big-deal festival faded away — a business plan based on the idea that each year, somebody will step up to work crazy hours for no pay.
“Mary was, like, ‘Hey, do you want to do this fun thing that’ll take all your time and you won’t get any money?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Absolutely!’” says Jamie Bowers, who at the time was 26 and working at Richardson Graham’s husband’s bookstore, of how she ended up planning the festival in 2006 and 2007.
“If there was even one person working on it in even a part-time capacity, it would have made a big difference in burnout,” says Laris Kreslins, a major organizer in 2008. He tried to simplify things by holding everything in a central location (a move Sweeney’s adopted, centering the upcoming festival in the Eraserhood — the Spring Garden neighborhood that inspired David Lynch’s Eraserhead), but that meant the beginning of the end of the alliance with the Free Library, and with it went the ability to pull big-name authors. “Nobody had the time or energy to step up and say, ‘This is how we need to do it in the future. This is the amount of money we need to keep this going.’”
Noelle Egan was an organizer of the last festival in 2009, having been recruited at the 2008 festival. “They didn’t have the time to keep it up anymore and felt like it was dying out — we just signed on then.” Egan had connections with venues through a karaoke night she ran, “but what we didn’t have on our side was, uh, knowing any actual authors.” She tried to hold a one-day event in 2010, but it never got off the ground.
Everyone seems to look back on the 215 Festival with genuine love, and express delight that someone else is reviving it, but the key words are “someone else.” Sara Goddard, involved with the very first festival, sums up pretty much everyone’s reasons well: “Getting married, having a baby, having my job become more significant — all that growing-up stuff happened, and I couldn’t stay out until 2 or 3 in the morning entertaining people anymore. Especially not for free.”
“He also promised to clean my leather pants.”
Sweeney says he’s trying to avoid the burnout by accepting all the help he can get, but he’s been working like crazy on the festival — he’s barely written anything on Philebrity the past few weeks. And there are results: A rough schedule of recognizable names that feels more like the early years of the festival than recent ones. The second time we meet, he has entertaining news: “We’ve got Buzz.”
When asked to describe his relationship with Buzz Bissinger — who won a Pulitzer at the Inquirer in 1987 and is best known for his genuinely great book Friday Night Lights — Sweeney pauses. “It’s a lot like a lot of the other relationships I have with other professional writers.” He laughs, seeming a bit embarrassed.
If you’re not from the tiny world of Philly journalism, what he means is that though he’s noticeably chilled out lately, Sweeney has used Philebrity to talk a whole lot of shit. Whether the criticism was warranted or not, it hasn’t exactly endeared him to a lot of people — including Bissinger.
Sweeney calls Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City one of the greatest books ever written about Philadelphia. But that didn’t stop him from repeatedly mocking the writer’s post-fame persona, inability to resist online slap-fights and proclivity for leather pants. Past Philebrity headlines: “Attn. Buzz Bissinger: If All You Wanted Was A Quick Book Plug, You Didn’t Have To Troll Us On A Sunday, Because That Is Sad,” and “All The Twitter Followers In The World Can’t Keep An Earpiece On Buzz Bissinger’s Orc-Like Visage.” For his part, Buzz referred to Sweeney as “that no-talent motherfucker.”
And now they’re buddies? God, that’s almost disappointing.
“Philebrity’s growing up a little bit,” says Sweeney about why he wanted to take on the responsibility of the 215, but it also applies to the site’s tone. In the past couple years, the bridge-napalming (but frequently very funny) takedowns have tapered off. To that, Sweeney counters, “Nicole Cashman, real-estate bloggers in general, Occupy Philly and more would probably disagree. On the other hand … a few years ago, I think I realized that if you’re railing against everything all of the time, that railing quickly loses power, and you wind up becoming a Johnny One-Note. Also, it is bad for your soul.”
When emailed for comment, Bissinger replied, “I admired his balls in approaching me even though he was too chickenshit to do it directly. … He also promised to clean my leather pants.”
“And then everyone went on with their lives.”
“The first couple of years, it was just so … fun. There was so much friendship and love — I hate to be mushy about it,” says Neal Pollack. “The 215 was sort of a snapshot of a certain kind of literary culture at the time, this generation of young authors coming up that hadn’t established a huge body of work yet,” he explains. “In some ways, I feel like book culture has elasticized back to not being all that much fun. There was this brief moment of youthful vigor, and then everyone went on with their lives.”
“There was just this zeitgeist in the early 2000s,” says Richardson Graham. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was a thing that would, you know, end. But it did.”
She pauses, and gestures to her 14-year-old daughter Madeleine, who’s been drawn into the room by her mom’s stories of the good old days of literary debauchery, listening with an expression of 90 percent fascination and 10 percent horror. “However!” adds Richardson Graham. “I think that all the stuff going on in YA [young adult] lit right now is very much like it used to be. There’s this community of people who are talking to each other on the Twitter.” Mother and daughter laugh over the deliberate old-person-ese. Madeleine recently went to a YA-lit convention in Chicago, and Richardson Graham is eager to describe it: “There were thousands of kids there —” (“Five thousand, and not just kids,” interjects Madeleine) “— and it was much fancier than anything we ever did. It had passes, and it cost $140 —” (“It was $200!”) “— and it was huge! And the YA authors were hanging out together in the same way that the authors used to hang out in the early 2000s who were inspired by McSweeney’s. It seemed very similar.”
Madeleine has clearly inherited her mother’s obsession with books and authors — she even has aspirations to put on a YA-lit festival in Philly, which seems ambitious for someone who just started high school a week ago. “But writers talk to her! They respond to her tweets! She’s met them! Like — I could email Dave Eggers in 2001. I can’t email Dave Eggers anymore.”
Richardson Graham says though she loved the festival, after the moment passed, she started feeling out of touch. “It got to the point where I was, like, ‘OK, it’s another 215, guess I’ll call up John Hodgman or some people from This American Life.’ I didn’t know what the new thing was. And that’s when it ended for me.”
“That McSweeney’s moment was never really moored to Philly,” says Sweeney. “I still find what they do inspiring, but to my thinking, the 215, and especially my motivations for getting involved, are not about rehashing that moment. I think if anything, the lasting inspiration of all that stuff was Create Your Own Moment.”
Coincidentally, after a follow-up interview with Sweeney, we run into Mary Richardson Graham and her family having dinner and stop to say hi. She seems delighted to hear about what he has planned, but quickly drags a shy Madeleine out from behind the table to pitch her idea about a YA event as part of the festival. Soon enough, two generations of book lovers are discussing possibly collaborating — maybe on Saturday? Madeleine, just as hooked by her love of books as her mom was a decade ago, says she’ll be in touch about helping out.