Vanity Fair
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Vanity Fair

Literary festivals are on the rise, but what do they really offer writers? 

Mark McCrum

There are now, according to The Bookseller, around 250 literary festivals in the UK. From Purbeck in mid-February, to Bridport, Southwold and brand-new Looe in November, the country is jumping to the sound of authors reading from, or opining on their works. Afterwards come the questions. ‘Do you ever write Harry Potter?’ ‘Are you posh?’ ‘Have you found Jesus?’ These are just some of the things that authors I know have been asked.

Cheltenham was the ur-festival, founded back in 1949 by John Moore, author of Portrait of Elmbury (1945) and other forgotten bestsellers of English rural life. The actor Ralph Richardson, born in the city, launched the programme, and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, who taught at Cheltenham College, read a selection of contemporary verse. Almost twenty-five years passed until Ilkley was established in 1973, by two literature-loving residents who had been inspired by Cheltenham. In 1983, the (then biennial) Edinburgh Literary Festival started with one tent; then in 1988, Norman Florence and his son Peter started a little festival in the ‘book town’ of Hay-on-Wye. Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow followed in 1991 with Ways With Words, at Dartington, in Devon. From there things mushroomed, until now it seems there’s barely a village in the country that doesn’t have its own bookish get-together. Some weeks in the summer are choked with them: can there really be enough authors to go round?

Nor are they any more just modest sessions in the primary school or village hall, with maybe lunch in the local pub if you can get a table. Hay left town in 2005, and is now housed in a huge tented encampment a mile outside, like some literary Camp Bastion. As well as author events, poetry slams, stand-up comedy and music gigs, there are a string of bars, cafes and food stalls serving everything from platters of the latest Welsh cheese to ‘seashore wraps’. This is now typical: as well as consuming new ideas, festival punters must have a chance to satisfy other appetites in innovative ways.

So what lies behind this huge growth? As Julian Barnes put it in Flaubert’s Parrot, back in 1984: ‘Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?’

Regular festival goers tell me that they are intrigued to put faces to writers whose work they know and hear them talk about how they research their books. They like listening to writers read their own words and getting their book signed afterwards – with that chance of a one-to-one exchange, however brief. At Dartington this year I sat next to Jonathan Miller and watched the faces in his long queue light up as readers finally got into his presence, and were allowed a little personal interaction.

Festival goers relish the chance to hear about a wide range of subjects, dipping their toes into issues they might not buy whole books about. There’s a sense that the literary festival creates a community of people who are interested in ideas. Queuing for your decaff latte, you might well get into a chat about the unreliable narrator, global warming or everyday sexism. Where else does that happen?

If the growth of literary festivals is ultimately driven by readers, what about the other half of the equation, the authors themselves, going to market to sell their wares? ‘Poets accept reading gigs at literary festivals or anywhere else,’ the poet Sheenagh Pugh told me via email, ‘because it is how we sell most books, far more than via bookshops.’ The essayist and biographer Gillian Darley agrees: ‘Out in the world of niche non-fiction, we have to follow our public – the public doesn’t follow us,’ she told me. The eagerness with which Waterstones provides free pop-up bookshops, and book chains like Blackwell’s actually chip in with sponsorship for the right to be Oxford Literary Festival’s exclusive bookshop, attests to the fact that plenty of books are sold.

This is great for publishers, especially if festival sales lead, through word-of-mouth, to others elsewhere. But for the individual author, only getting royalties that are often set against an unredeemed advance, it may be hard to justify a festival appearance in purely financial terms. ‘Even if you have a full house of 250 or more,’ the adventurer and gardener Anthony Woodward told me, ‘and everyone who attends buys a book – unthinkable – would it be worth it? Very questionable, by the time you’ve factored in transit and preparation time. Obviously it’s hard to say no to the most prestigious festivals because we are all weak and, having just finished a book, desperate to be read.’

Of course we are, and there are other non-commercial motivations too, not least the social one enjoyed by readers. ‘I go to festivals to see friends and make friends,’ says the novelist Louisa Young, ‘to have a nice trip somewhere interesting … because I am a lonely author with nobody but my characters to talk to and it’s good to get out.’ ‘Writing is a solitary occupation’, agrees the biographer Andrew Lycett, ‘so any outside encounter with real people is a welcome respite from the drudgery of sitting in front of a computer.’ ‘I accept invitations,’ journalist and cricket writer Marcus Berkmann told me, ‘because it gets me out of the house. Also I quite like polishing my public speaking (which needs all the polishing it can get). I also like meeting readers. I have this strange and ludicrously optimistic belief that if people like you personally, they are more likely to like your writing, and this type of word of mouth is the only type we have any control over.’

And not just meeting readers; the chance to hang out with fellow scribblers is clearly much appreciated by authors. ‘I love the dining room where the writers eat,’ says novelist Olivia Fane, about Dartington; ‘that’s why I go, for the food and the company.’ ‘I really enjoy meeting other authors off-piste,’ writes the author of an art-world memoir. ‘An evening in the bar with Ben Okri; sitting next to Belle de Jour at lunch; sharing an iPhone image from David Hockney with Martin Gayford as it arrived.’

Even better than being part of a gang, there is the buzz  of – for once – being treated like a celeb. At Lymington’s Curious Arts Festival, speakers are given VIP lanyards that get them away from the hoi polloi and past Security onto the lovely lawns of Pylewell Park, where festival organiser Clare Conville may be on hand to pour them a glass of champagne. At Norfolk’s Voewood, a whole terrace is cordoned off, from where the writers and musicians may gaze happily down upon their audiences. When else is the average author allowed to step past a rope to a place where even hedge funders may not enter?

There are of course downsides, which I enjoyed satirising in my novel Fest (2014), a murder mystery set at the fictional literary festival of Mold-on-Wold. All but the most robust writerly egos are susceptible to tent and signing-queue envy. And then there’s the dark, secret fear that you’re going to screw up in some way; that your audience is going to hate you or be openly bored – worse, that there’s going to be no audience at all. At Voewood this year I found myself on stage at my scheduled time of 2pm with just one punter in front of me in the capacious tent. Just as I began to wonder whether I’d have to spend my entire session chatting to him alone, another talk disgorged and we were suddenly joined by another forty people. But I’ve heard stories of publishers pulling authors from events when they realise how few have booked.

As the literary festival phenomenon keeps developing, the thing that looks most likely to threaten its growth is money. Among seasoned festival-going authors, there is widespread disgruntlement about the fact that many festivals don’t pay. It is not so much the fee per se, but the principle. The writers are the sine qua non; why on earth are they the only workers at the festival not being financially rewarded? At Althorp – for God’s sake! – they don’t even pay expenses. Some writers huff and puff, but still go. Others, like Amanda Craig, are more practical. ‘My basic rule,’ she says, ‘is if they don’t pay, don’t go’. Craig resents having to travel four hours just to get a jar of jam.

I put this point to Kay Dunbar and her Dartington co-director (and partner) Stephen Bristow. Not all festivals are the same, they point out. Many of those that pay authors’ fees are organised by town councils, or backed by Arts Councils (particularly in the regions and Scotland) or else are awash with sponsorship. The three festivals put together by Ways With Words are private, and there are plenty of expenses: the brochures, tents, food and drink, quite apart from a full-time, year-round staff. ‘Sometimes I feel if I had more money I’d like to pay my staff more,’ says Kay. When all is said and done, Kay and Steve pay themselves less than they would get if they were still academics. Sally Dunsmore, of the huge Oxford Literary Festival, operates similar shoe-string economics. If she paid the writers, she told The Bookseller, ‘we quite simply would not be able to have a festival.’

This kind of argument doesn’t wash with some authors. ‘The last time I was at Hay,’ the food writer Jay Rayner told me, ‘I found myself in one of Peter Florence’s major tents – 500 people, £7 a head, three and a half thousand pounds take – and I got a flower.’ Rayner has now come up ‘with an entirely different model’. He took his latest book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World (2013) out on a one-man road show. He pays a producer 20 per cent and keeps the rest of the gate for himself. The result: ‘This time round, the live show element has been as valuable to me as the advance on the book.’

He is not alone. The writer and radio DJ Stuart Maconie took his latest book The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records (2013) on a tour of 16 cities. Times journalist Caitlin Moran ditto, with How To Build A Girl (2014). Musicians have already been forced back onto the road with the advent of e-music; now high-profile writers are joining them. Soon, perhaps, we may be heading back to the days when Charles Dickens and Mark Twain made fortunes on tour.

And there are other interesting developments. A new festival at Chipping Norton this year is going to operate on a profit-share basis with contributing authors; while the Royal Literary Fund have started a programme of sponsoring writers chosen by festivals to speak at selected events.

While some festivals may find themselves losing out on star authors with guaranteed followings, I doubt festival culture will wither on the vine. Give a lonely mid-lister a glass of wine, stick him or her on a warm terrace with several lively peers, feed them, put them in a comfortable, quiet bed and breakfast reasonably nearby, and they’ll share their wit and wisdom with you for nothing. Offer a similar experience to the punters, with the chance of meeting writers they love reading, and they’ll come along and pay for the booze and the seashore wraps.

‘Festivals exist for authors to get drunk,’ says Sunday Times books critic Christopher Hart (aka historical novelist William Napier), ‘and sleep with people other than their regular partners, as a kind of compensation for not actually being paid. And for ladies of a certain age to meet Julian Barnes and then tell their friends afterwards in their reading group how nice he was.’

Mark McCrum’s latest novel Fest is published by Prospero Press.

26-01-2015
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