On Culture: Why I’m Sceptical About Literary Festivals

Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When we were about nine, my best friend and I were discussing our favourite singer, which, at the time, was Sheryl Crow. (Good Sheryl Crow, though. Tuesday Night Music Club-era Sheryl Crow, not the one who has highlights. Not that highlights are bad.) We couldn’t decide whether we would ever want to meet her or not, or rather, my best friend couldn’t decide. I was pretty sure that I would never want to meet her, despite adoring her eloquent, word-heavy songs, and the only explanation I could offer was that I thought she probably wouldn’t be very nice.

This has held true for basically all celebrities well into adulthood, and in “celebrities” I also include “authors”. (They all have Twitter now, and have you seen the way Zadie Smith and Jessie Burton dress? They’re rock stars.) Team that with an aversion to crowds and discomfort, and not only does Glastonbury start to look like the ninth circle of hell, so do almost all literary festivals.

About once a year, usually in early summer, someone says to me: “Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? Oh my God, you would love the Hay Festival.” This is, I know, well-meaning, but also untrue. I would not love the Hay Festival: I would be too hot or too cold, I would spend too much money, and, above all, I would have to sit in tents and listen to authors. Authors, I am firmly convinced, are to be read; some of them, it’s true, are great live, and some of them have interesting opinions or are capable of answering banal questions graciously, but by and large, we are interested in authors for what they say from a page, not a stage. Reading and writing are traditionally the preserves of people who are shy and awkward. Why on earth would you want to gather a large number of those people in one place and festoon the area with bunting?

It is difficult to feel as though you are having a personal connection with an author or their work when you are in a room full of other people listening to them. The fact that there are usually readings to accompany talks improves things slightly, but then again, one can read at home, and make oneself a cup of tea while doing it. I suspect the prevailing interest in literary festivals–maybe not traditionally, but certainly now–has to do with the rise of publicity. They’re so Instagrammable, aren’t they? They’re so cute, those tents and gin stalls and piles of books. At The Bookseller’s recent Marketing and Publicity Conference, one of the speakers (I now can’t find out who, despite searching the Bookseller site) pointed out that the rise of twee in trade publishing was something to be genuinely worried about. It reinforces the idea that reading is a leisure activity, for the moneyed classes: white, middle-class, middle-educated, middle-aged, mostly. And female, for a very given value of “female”.

A major quantitative reason to be unenchanted by literary festivals, of course, is that they are often grossly unfair on authors. Many writers are not paid appearance fees, which is frankly outrageous: in what other profession would you demand that someone give up time that could be employed in the fundamentals of that profession (the actual writing) without compensating them? Management strategists don’t attend conferences on their own dime; actors don’t turn up to parties for fun. (I mean, some of them probably do, but let’s be honest: almost all celebrity appearances are negotiated.) Philip Pullman pointed out, earlier this year, that the Oxford Literary Festival doesn’t pay the writers who appear there. (They are now said to be “considering it”. I will add only that the festival is sponsored by the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and HSBC.) In a way, it’s heartening that the vicious “for exposure” bullshit that low-level creatives have to put up with extends to the highest echelons of the profession, but in a much larger way, it’s just depressing. It also makes me think twice about the moral defensibility of throwing money at those organizations.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that I went to my first literary festival last month. It was organized by Emerald Street, the email newsletter run by the team behind Stylist Magazine. I went with the gravest of trepidations, expecting it to be populated entirely by thin blondes with good hair, tastefully expensive handbags and Baileys Prize Book Club membership cards. There were some of those, it’s true, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. The first panel I attended was, inevitably, on the Baileys Prize itself: are women-only spaces still necessary, the talk asked. The nuance of what the panelists, novelists short-listed for the Prize this year, had to say on the subject impressed me. Afterwards, I had Lisa McInerney sign my copy of The Glorious Heresies, and she was pleasant, not impersonal at all. I thought, This isn’t so bad. It was probably made better, of course, by the fact that I chose to remove myself to Kensington Gardens to eat lunch and wait for the next session to start; in London, you can always escape somewhere else if you feel like a billy-no-mates. But the second panel, too, was rather wonderful: Caroline Criado-Perez and Marina Lewycka on what the EU has done for women. (This was, of course, pre-referendum. Criado-Perez was so impassioned, so bright and spiky, on the benefits of EU legislation protecting women; I like to think about how furious and eloquent she must have been upon learning the country had collectively voted to leave.)

And the auditorium, both times, was full of all sorts of women: yes, beautiful skinnies with sundresses that I loved and would never be able to afford or fit into, but also, next to me, a vaguely awkward red-haired woman with whom I struck up a chat; a woman wearing a West African-style headwrap in the row in front of me; older women, women my age, women of indeterminable age. It was a show of diversity that I liked all the more for not having expected it. There were men, too, most of whom looked as though they were there voluntarily, instead of having the martyred air of a husband dragged someplace by his wife.

It still hasn’t inspired me to go to the Hay Festival, or to the Edinburgh Book Festival, or Cambridge or Wigtown or any of the others. I would rather, I think, go to Hay in the off-season, with someone whose company I enjoy, and browse on my own; gather two dozen volumes for pennies and read them in the pub. Reading can be a group activity, but only when you’re actually reading. I worry, still, that literary festivals are a distraction from the joy of the actual book, the words on the page, the complexity of ideas that only language can convey. But I have to confess that perhaps they’re not all that bad.

Eleanor Franzén

About Eleanor Franzen

Eleanor Franzén is a London-based writer and editorial assistant. She blogs about books at Elle Thinks (https://www.ellethinks.wordpress.com).

Eleanor Franzén is a London-based writer and editorial assistant. She blogs about books at Elle Thinks (https://www.ellethinks.wordpress.com).

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