Sri Lanka Galle Literary festival and the exit option

Feb 25, 2008 (LBO) – Reactions to the 2nd Galle Literary Festival that very successfully concluded last month testify to the entrenched strength of statist thinking in this country.

It could also be interpreted as more evidence of the pre-eminent role of envy in the Sri Lankan psyche (Rusiyavata vadiya lokui irisiyava as three-wheeler philosophy puts it), but I prefer to focus on the former.

The first Galle Literary Festival was held in 2007 January.   No fuss.   Second one was held this January.  Lots of publicity; lots of sponsorships; and lots of attendees; probably made money.  Fuss.

All sorts of people, including those who should know better, are writing in newspapers, blogs and elsewhere about how to decolonize the festival; introduce Sinhala and Tamil literature; bring down ticket prices; compel famous authors to talk to journalists, etc., etc. Why?

Economics versus politics

Albert O. Hirschman, in his book Exit, voice and loyalty:  Responses to decline in firms, organizations and states (Harvard University Press, 1970), distinguished between how economic and political processes respond to perceived problems of declines in quality.

The classic response in the former is Exit: I do not like the product you sell me; I buy from a competitor.  Your sales decline; you either improve your quality or you go out of business.   By my Exit, I have set in motion the mechanism of improving quality.

The Exit option is not available in classic political processes.   States are monopolies.   If I do not like the way the Sri Lanka passport office functions, I have no easy Exit option.  I have to use Voice.  I have to petition the authorities; or protest; or try to change the authorities at the next election.

Of course, exceptions exist.   Millions of people now Exit countries because they don’t like the quality of government.

People do Voice criticism of goods and services provided by companies, though this tends to be more against monopolies such as utility companies.

But still, the principal distinction between Exit and Voice holds: in economic processes, the best way of expressing your displeasure is to take your business to the competitor or Exit; in politics, it is to complain, or raise your Voice.

What is the Galle Literary Festival?

For 59 years, independent Sri Lanka managed to function without an international Literary Festival that celebrated writing in English with a South Asian focus.  There were various festivals and ceremonies, but none with this focus.

Some of the festivals and ceremonies are decidedly local.  The ones that garner the most publicity are the state literary festivals where political figures give speeches, where among other things they ascribe authorship of The old man and the sea to Guy de Maupassant.

In the 59th year of Independence, a group, including some people who own boutique hotels in the Galle area, thought up a plan to organize a literary festival.  They invested their money in this enterprise, mobilized their connections, got a whole bunch of interesting authors to come to this war-torn land, ran some ads and the first Galle Literary Festival happened.  It’s not known whether they made much money, but they did get the accolades:

Building on this success, they organized the second Festival.  It went well; perhaps too well.   This time, the carping began.   Should have done this, should have done that.   Voice.

Obviously, the carpers (or those who carp, for those who like their English pristine) think the festival belongs to the political realm.   They do not like one or more aspects of the services provided; they give Voice.

They do not protest the failure of the government to provide law and order, the most fundamental government service.  But they protest the prices of tickets to the Galle Literary Festival.

What would the reaction be if they positioned the Festival within the realm of economics?   “I don’t like your Festival; I want Sinhala and Tamil literature discussed; I think your ticket prices are too high;  I’ll take my business elsewhere.”   Exit.

If enough people do this, Geoffrey Dobbs (the founder and investor of the Galle Literary Festival) will have to make changes.   Lower the prices; add a local-language stream, whatever.

Are there alternative suppliers of Festival services?

Anyone is free to attend the National Festival of Literary Arts, normally held in September, the literary month.

You get to witness various awards being presented and listen to politicians get de Maupassant and Hemingway mixed up.   For a sample of other attractions, see: .

And you can see more of the country this way.   It was held in Horana last year.   How can life be complete if you haven’t seen Horana?  Another advantage:  Prices are definitely lower at this publicly funded event.

“Publicly funded” is a key phrase.   If anything is publicly funded, we have a god-given right, indeed a duty, to carp and criticize.   It is our money that is being wasted and in most cases it is a monopoly.  No one can, for example, legally organize a National Festival of the Literary Arts.  That is a monopoly held by the State.

So that leaves the indignant literary fan who Exited the Galle Literary Festival who also does not like listening to politicians pontificate on literature with limited options.  Let us assume also that our carping critic does not like the little mom-and-pop festivals put together by various Sahithya Samithis.

She can Voice her protests about the execrable quality of the publicly-funded national festival or start her own.

Start your own?

Why not?   Obviously, Dobbs and his friends did not like the festivals on offer.  They started their own.   You don’t like Dobbs’ festival?  Start your own.

Or listen to Weerawansa’s literary theories or get body searched to hear Ratnasiri’s words of wisdom.  And don’t complain about what private individuals do with their time and money.  And don’t propose that festivals should be run by representative committees.   That’s how the National Festival is run.

No one has given the organizers of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) a monopoly or public grants.   They risk their money; drum up commercial sponsorships; sell the tickets and put on the show.   Nothing prevents anyone else from doing the same, except perhaps on the same days in the same place, if Dobbs and company have already reserved the space.

If the competition succeeds, the GLF organizers will receive the market signals:  less money in sponsorships; fewer attendees.  They can carve out a niche (which is what they have already done, but they can carve out an even narrower niche), change their product, or go out of business.   That is how competition works.

It is sad that knowledgeable, well–meaning people (a subset of the critics of the GLF) have made the mistake of locating a private initiative like the GLF in the political space and used Voice as the response to whatever unhappiness they have with the product offered.  This is evidence of how entrenched statist thinking is, even among the English-speaking cosmopolitan elite.

If we had an entrepreneurial culture, people would react differently.  GLF is doing well; I should get some of that business, either by going into competition or, more intelligently, by capitalizing on the high-spending crowds assembled by the GLF in Galle in every January.

One easy way to do the latter is to organize Fringe events.   You think Sinhala and Tamil were not given time at the GLF or the selections were too staid: organize a Sinhala and Tamil fringe.   Want more poetry?   Poetry fringe.

Galle Fort is too pricey; have it in Hikkaduwa.   Spread the wealth.   Have a little overlap, or time it so a subset of the GLF crowd will come to your event before or after the main event.

Some people didn’t like the way organizers of the Edinburgh International Festival decided who got on stage.   They started a fringe event.   Today the Edinburgh Fringe is bigger than the main festival.

That is how cultures and economies grow.   Not by carping at someone else’s private initiative.