Oxford Literary Festival: the rise of literary festivals
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In 1960, when I published my first novel, there was only one literary festival in Britain, Cheltenham’s, which had been going since 1949. It was followed by Ilkley in 1973, and another 10 years passed before Edinburgh became the third such event. From then onwards they multiplied exponentially, with two new big ones, Hay-on-Wye in 1988 and Oxford in 1997, and many, many smaller ones. This rapid growth was a typical cultural product of the 1980s and 1990s, when literary fiction and non-fiction suddenly became sexy in the metaphorical sense. A change in the procedure of the Booker Prize, climaxing in something like a literary Oscar night, generated great public and media interest, and it became the model for a succession of new competitive prizes for various kinds of writing.
It couldn’t have happened, of course, without the appearance in these decades of a new generation of talented young authors. Publishers paid unprecedentedly generous advances to capture their work, and slightly older writers such as myself benefited from the sellers’ market that developed, but there was a quid pro quo: the author was expected, and probably contractually bound, to co-operate in selling his or her work in person. Meet-the-author events, at first in bookshops and then increasingly at festivals, proved popular with readers, and soon became a routine part of an author’s professional life. Poetry readings had long served the minority who were interested in new poetry, but the public presentation of a novelist’s work, closely linked to the sale of new books, was a phenomenon that writers earlier in the century such as Virginia Woolf or Graham Greene would probably have balked at.
What is surprising is that the literary festival as an institution has continued to flourish in the 21st century, when the economics of traditional book publishing became increasingly challenging. The proliferation of venues has continued, and it is calculated that this year there will be 350 book festivals of various kinds in the UK and Ireland. That is an astonishing figure, especially to writers and publishers, who fear that the future of the book as the primary medium of literature is threatened by the digital transmission of text in various forms, the decline of bookshops and libraries, and the dominating commercial power exerted by the giant internet corporations, Amazon and Google. Publishers are trimming their lists, and writers are having to accept lower advances, or resorting to self-publishing via the internet to keep their work in circulation.
But perhaps there is a logical connection between these phenomena, which has parallels in other areas of cultural production and consumption. While sales of popular music on CDs have declined because of the ease with which music can be downloaded and illegally copied, live concerts continue to draw large audiences; and although an enormous amount of drama is accessible at low cost on various electronic devices from domestic TVs to tablets and smartphones, live theatre is flourishing, especially in London. Perhaps the opportunity to see writers in the flesh at literary festivals, to hear them speak and read from their work, and to buy a physical book and get it signed by the author — perhaps this experience restores a reality, and a uniqueness, to the connection between reader and writer that the ebook, for all its convenience, has taken away. One can’t sign an ebook, or a Kindle (though I believe Margaret Atwood uses an electronic method of distance-signing real books for her international fans).
Another reason for the continuing success of literary festivals may be the fact that, in spite of the critical state of traditional publishing and bookselling, more and more people yearn to write and publish books. A recent YouGov poll of 15,000 discovered that the occupation deemed most desirable, by 60 per cent of the respondents, was that of author (the least popular was miner, at 5 per cent). The remarkable expansion of creative writing courses in universities at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the last couple of decades tells the same story. It is likely that many of those who attend literary festivals nourish literary aspirations of their own, and feel that they may get some inspiration and useful advice from listening to successful writers discussing their work. Many festivals, including Oxford’s, now include short courses and masterclasses taught by professional authors in their programmes.
Of course, people attend festivals for a variety of reasons, not necessarily literary. One of the first I was invited to speak at was a relatively modest affair in Lancaster. There was only one other speaker on the programme that evening, Margaret Drabble. She performed first. During the interval I popped into the gents, and standing at the urinal heard the man to my right say to a companion, “I can’t stand bloody Drabble and I can’t stand bloody Lodge”. I said, “I think you should know that you are standing next to bloody Lodge.” He groaned, smote his brow with his free hand, and apologised. “I don’t mind,” I said, “but as we are the only speakers tonight, why are you here?” “Well, it has a late bar,” was the sheepish answer.
But what do writers get out of it? They are after all the most essential component of the whole shebang, and some have grumbled lately that they are insufficiently rewarded for their input. Fees are seldom offered. One may be given a case of wine or other gifts, but generally the implied bargain is that the cost of travel, accommodation, meals and other hospitality are shared between the festival and the publisher, while the author benefits from the publicity and book sales. The latter have dwindled lately because readers are tempted to buy a book elsewhere at a discount before they come to listen to the author, to which publishers have responded by staging events outside the festival circuit for single authors, with an attractive ticket price that includes the cost of the book. It is understandable that writers who can attract audiences of several hundreds paying for their seats may feel they are entitled to a percentage of the proceeds. But few would do it just for the money, and many, perhaps the majority, of literary festivals are small-scale, local community events that struggle to break even.
For writers, irrespective of fees or perks, festivals can become a wearisome chore if they do not enjoy them as occasional breaks, usually in pleasant and interesting locations, from the lonely and anxious business of composition. It’s also an opportunity to meet writer-friends, or make new ones who were previously just known through their work. And it is seldom that the book-signing queue does not contain an old acquaintance or, in my case, a former student whom I taught at Birmingham University. At a festival in Fowey a few years ago a smiling grey-haired lady introduced herself as “Jenefer”, the little girl with whose family my mother and I lodged for a time in a Cornish village during the war. A correspondence followed in which she gave me useful information for the memoir I was preparing to write.
Historically Britain gave the world many of its sports and games, and we have exported the concept of the literary festival in the same way. They have sprung up all over the globe — from Montpellier to Mantua, Adelaide to Toronto, and most recently Jaipur in India — giving writers opportunities to travel with all expenses paid. Festivals have a distinctive character in every country. The Harbourfront in Toronto entertains the visiting writers collectively at a different restaurant with different cuisine every evening. Adelaide takes new arrivals to a ranch in the bush for a few days to bond and recuperate from their long-haul flights. In France the punters are serious book-purchasers. Italian festivals are enthusiastic, hospitable and somewhat chaotic, with frequent changes of plan but excellent meals. In most European countries festivals are publicly-funded, so events tend to be free and are therefore very well attended. But simultaneous translation is rarely available and the flow of an interview is constantly interrupted by the need for interpretation, very irritating for bilingual members of the audience.
For an author a good festival experience, of course, depends crucially on the success of one’s own event, and that always creates some suspense and anxiety in advance. The writer becomes a performer, who can be lifted by a full house, and be demoralised by the sight of numerous empty seats. The actual scale of the venue is not crucial — it’s the atmosphere that is important. As I have got older and deafer, speaking engagements have become more taxing, and I have reduced their number, at home and abroad. But last year, after some hesitation, I accepted invitations to two festivals, both of which I greatly enjoyed, though they couldn’t have been more different.
One was a major international event in Iasi, a historic city in the Moldavian region of Romania. I was drawn to visit a country where my novels are surprisingly popular, and there was the extra inducement of a generous fee. I was interviewed, and did a reading, on the stage of Iasi’s National Theatre, whose 800 seats were filled (as they were every evening that week) with an attentive and appreciative audience, a large proportion of whom did not seem to need the simultaneous translation. A writer would have to be very blasé not to enjoy such a reception. My whole experience in Iasi, especially the company of the charming and cultured people who looked after me, was an enlightening corrective to the stereotypes of Romanians and Romania currently circulating in England.
The other event was for the Telegraph Hill Festival, a community project entirely dependent on the voluntary efforts of local residents in a part of southeast London where I grew up and which I have written about in several novels. This time I spoke to 50-odd people crammed into a room over the bar of the Telegraph pub, who knew the books well, and relished things like the scene set in the New Cross Sainsbury’s in Deaf Sentence. They were teachers, lawyers, actors and artists — the local demographic has changed strikingly since I lived there — and the evening ended with a convivial dinner party in one of the many late-Victorian houses on Telegraph Hill which have been restored from shabby multi-occupancy to elegant homes. I had come there out of a sense of loyalty to my old territory, but I left exhilarated by its transformation, stimulated by the company of its present inhabitants, and very glad I had accepted their invitation.
It’s the face-to-face interaction of readers and writers, surely, that gives the literary festival its special appeal in the age of the internet.
David Lodge will be speaking to FT deputy editor John Thornhill at the Oxford Literary Festival on Friday March 27.
Illustration by Matthew Cook