At this year’s edition of the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival, students were offered the opportunity to interact with the winners of the literary award in a more relaxed and intimate setting.
The event, dubbed “Literary Speed Dating,” brought together all eight prizewinning writers as well as students and community members in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on Tuesday evening. Attendees, divided into groups of approximately 12 each, were given the chance to converse informally with the writers on a range of topics — from opinions on particular literary genres to career advice for aspiring writers. At the close of each 10-minute “speed dating” cycle, groups rotated tables until everyone had a chance to speak with each prizewinner.
“You’re asking them a question directly across the table rather than with a microphone across a large audience,” said Michael Kelleher, the Program Director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. “It’s much more of an intimate experience with the writer.”
Organized by a committee of undergraduates working with Kelleher, “Literary Speed Dating” was intended to be an entirely novel type of literary event at Yale, according to Joy Shan ’15, a magazine editor for the News and member of the committee. One of the committee’s major objectives, she added, was to move away from the more typical “panel” structure and towards a “less stuffy, less literary” model that would allow students to “talk to writers as people, rather than as academics or historians.”
“We were trying to work out a way to make the conventional panel format of an event more interesting, interactive and fun, particularly for an undergraduate audience who only ever experience visiting speakers through a Q&A or panel in which they can’t really participate,” said Eleanor Michotte ’15, who was also on the organizing committee. “We wanted a strong participatory element.”
The event was intended to be very informal and relaxed, in the hopes that students might feel more at ease and willing to participate, whether actively posing questions or simply listening, organizers said.
Kelleher also stressed the importance of the less formal atmosphere and small-group dynamic of “Literary Speed Dating,” suggesting that the intimate setting could attract students from a diversity of academic backgrounds and interests.
“We wanted this to be an event that political science majors, engineering students, American studies majors [and] undecided students would all attend,” Shan explained. “Books like these and writers like these are meant to be read by everyone — not just people who are writing senior English theses.”
Michotte added that “Literary Speed Dating” was different from the other events offered during the Windham-Campbell festival — and, more broadly, among literary circles at Yale — for its interactive, student-run nature and its breadth of focus. Students at the event, she said, had the opportunity to ask questions ranging from “how to begin in a particular field” to “how to ‘find one’s voice’ as a writer.”
“[Traditional] panels can make it seem like writers — even writers like these, who are so young — are these huge people, and that we have to change the way we talk when we engage with them. I hope that this event will remind us that writers are people,” Shan concluded.
The Donald Windham-Sandy Campbell Literature Prizes are awarded each spring in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, and drama.