As some of the big literary festivals kick off this year’s lit fest season, Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Victoria discuss them:
The literary festival has become so omnipresent lately; are they becoming routine and formulaic?
V: Thinking in terms of the Cambridge literary festival, which I’ve attended most years since it started, it seems to me it’s become a lot more slick and professional, but that it’s also lost some of its pep. I do feel that the literary world divides into those writers who are happy on a stage and always turn up and those who are not. I think I’m a bit less inclined to attend this year out of festival fatigue.
A: I think they’re tending to divide into the haves and have nots. The haves which I’ve been to have big sponsors (The Times etc.) behind them and are much slicker with the big names – and it is possible to make a day or even weekend out of going due to the diversity of the programme – but the larger venues and audiences make it more impersonal – we had to queue for about an hour for a signing at Cheltenham last autumn. I’ve only booked for two events at Oxford this week (Prof Tim Spector on The Diet Myth and Meg Rosoff).
H: I’m not sure about this. I see what you both mean about the big sponsors but I think there’ll always be people who are prepared to queue and put up with sponsorship in exchange for seeing and hearing writers they love or admire. I’m sure that for every person suffering from festival fatigue there’ll be another raring to go for the first time, and good luck to them!
S: Have they? Oh dear, I think I’ve rather had my head under a rock – I’ve not particularly noticed them outside of Oxford, and have only been to a handful of events ever. I’ll wave the flag for anything bookish being good, but so few of the authors I like are alive that it’s not really on my radar.
Have you been to any of the big festivals – Oxford, Hay-on-Wye, Manchester – or have you stuck with local festivals? Any thoughts on which offer the better experience?
V: I’ve always stayed local, and my own feeling is that I would personally prefer the smaller and more intimate local format. But seeing that I’ve never been to one of the really big festivals, you could say that I’m just prejudiced!
A: Oxford is my local, so I can dip in to just the bits I want which is convenient, but I do prefer smaller events too.
H: When I moved to Oxford a few years ago I was absolutely thrilled to be able to go to the Literary Festival, and kept going for the years I was there. I live abroad now and that’s one of the things I miss being able to do. Yes it was crowded but I loved every minute. I’ve also been to the Ways with Words festival at Dartington, a much less grand and formal occasion but I enjoyed that too.
S: Like Annabel, Oxford is my local festival – and yet I’ve only been to four festival events in the 12 years I’ve lived here, and two of those were P.D. James (despite never having read a word she’s written!). I did also go to the Felixstowe Book Festival a few years ago, as a speaker about blogging, and that had a lovely, warm atmosphere.
Why go and see an author speak? Do they ever say anything more interesting than the contents of their book?
V: I think the book is always the most interesting thing about an author. But that being said, some authors have seemed like such interesting people that they have encouraged me to read books I otherwise might not have done. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch being a good case in point. Actually, she turned out to be more interesting than the book.
A: Not all authors are as at ease speaking as others, but Ali Shaw, whom I saw in our local bookshop the other week, is a fascinating and natural speaker and wears his erudition lightly, (my review of his new novel The Trees is here).
H: I’ve had some great experiences listening to authors (the ones who are at ease with it, anyway), and I have been encouraged to buy books I might not otherwise have considered. A friend took me to see Tracy Chevalier at a venue in Berkshire (The Watermill). It was hugely enjoyable, and I bought and enjoyed her Remarkable Creatures as a result. I’ve also attended some pretty poor ones, though, and felt sorry for the authors, who obviously weren’t enjoying it.
S: I’ve seen authors speak quite a few times (not necessarily at festivals) and I tend to find the best thing is simply being in the same room as the author. What they actually said hasn’t stuck with me so much as the experience – particularly the experience of being in the same room as Marilynne Robinson.
What’s the best session you’ve ever attended and why?
V: I used to love the ‘Meet the Publishers’ session at the Cambridge Wordfest. It was always fascinating and an intriguing insight into the publishing world. I felt it gave me a real perspective into the way the wind was blowing. They have stopped having it, alas, these past few years.
A: I went to see Philip Pullman talk about The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel in Oxford – his book was causing so much controversy. He talked about storytelling and how truth is made into history, which is converted into myth, legend, even religion. He may not be a believer himself, but was respectful of those who have faith.
H: I’ll never forget hearing P.D. James in Oxford (at the event Simon mentions below!). She’d always been something of a heroine of mine, and I was very excited to be in such close proximity to her.
S: Hearing P.D. James talk about Agatha Christie was wonderful. She was debating with Jill Paton-Walsh about Dorothy L Sayers vs Agatha Christie, each taking a side, and she was a wonder. It all seemed off the cuff, it was extremely funny, and obviously she had the right side of the argument #TeamAgatha.
And what’s the worst?
V: Happily I’ve never been to a bad one. But Mr Litlove took his mother to hear Graham Swift and neither felt it was very life-enhancing. I think Graham Swift is an old-school author; a genius at his desk but not a performer.
A: An author, whom I won’t name, put me off her when it was clear that the signing afterwards was rather a chore.
H: I’m not going to name names, but it’s clear that some authors just aren’t cut out for such public exposure. I once heard an American woman writer who read so fast from her book that it was impossible to follow, and surrounded the reading with a very unprepared-seeming talk. It was pretty clear that the whole audience was uncomfortable with the experience.
S: Since I’ve only been to four talks, all of which were good, I have nothing bad to say about festival speakers! The worst author I’ve heard talk live was probably Lionel Shriver, but I hated her novel before I saw her, so it wasn’t any great loss…
Are literary festivals too full of ‘celebrity names’ rather than intriguing and unusual authors? Or does this just reflect the trend in the industry towards promoting already-known names?
V: The Cambridge festival is certainly guilty of this, going by the 2016 programme. Though in all fairness, I feel that authors should be allowed to stay home and write rather than traipse about the country trying to be extrovert if they are not. So perhaps it’s better to leave the performance to those who are regulars at it. It does rather challenge the concept of the purely literary festival, however.
A: Oxford too. Although going to see Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner in conversation last year was life-affirmingly wonderful.
H: I suppose the big festivals have to have the well-known names to draw in the punters, and you can’t blame them. But of course there should be a place for the lesser-known too, if they are willing to participate.
S: I’m afraid I have no idea! I like the idea that smaller names come to more attention at literary festivals, but at Oxford the ticket price for a big name and for a small name was the same. A sliding scale of ticket prices would doubtless be horrifyingly complicated, but would seem to make sense.
Should authors be paid for their appearances, even if it means much-increased ticket prices?
V: Yes. Poor old authors get such a pittance for all their hard work. I do think they should be paid.
A: Yes – but I know not all small festivals or bookshop events can afford much beyond expenses. There should be no question for the big events not to pay. I was shocked recently to find out how much some not-well-known authors charge for school visits though – and they generally sell a lot of books at these events too!
H: Not sure about this. Of course expenses are a must, but if I was an author I might be willing to do a limited number of festival appearances on the understanding that I’d be selling a lot more books.
S: It does seem bizarre that big festivals don’t pay authors to attend, since they are why everybody is there. With smaller festivals, I can understand why it wouldn’t be feasible.
Fiction and non-fiction must surely offer very different kinds of sessions at a festival. Thinking in terms of non-fiction, is a literary festival the appropriate place for a serious issue-led debate? Or do you think non-fiction books are actually better suited to this format than novels?
V: The Cambridge festival has a lot of issue-led debates around current non-fiction, but then there’s going to be an audience of people who are keen to listen to that sort of thing. The sessions I’ve attended featuring non-fiction books have certainly made me keener to read the non-fiction than I might have been otherwise, so I do think they are well-suited to a festival.
A: I’m going to my first non-fic one this month, so I’ll let you know.
H: I think that would depend on the nature of the non-fiction. Obviously if it was heavy-duty academic, the audience would be limited, but I’ve heard some fascinating talks on biographies, for example, which have raised some really interesting questions and made me long to read them.
S: Sure, why not! The right audience will come to whatever event is put on, I’m sure. Of my four events, half were non-fiction, but they weren’t really of the issue-led debate variety. The nearest to debate was Agatha vs Dorothy, and there was more fun and games than anything else.
Which author would you travel furthest to see and why?
V: Well, the author I’ve travelled farthest to see in the past has been Julian Barnes. But that old flame may be dying now; I’m not sure I’d rush to get a ticket for the promotion of his latest novel. But then, I am horribly lazy and probably wouldn’t get out of bed for even my favourite authors.
A: I took my daughter to Cheltenham primarily to see her teen idol Carrie Hope Fletcher (twice in one day) for her book All I Know Now (reviewed here) and that was far enough – an hour and a bit’s drive. But I do go into London occasionally – and it’s £30 return on the train plus car-parking, so it has to be special.
H: I can’t think of anyone for whom I’d be prepared to get on a plane (which I’d have to do), but there are writers I’d love to see. I was sorry to have missed Donna Tartt, and I’d love to hear Kate Atkinson, Jane Gardam or Ali Smith.
S: As I wrote up above, all of my most-loved authors are dead! I don’t think there’s any living writer I’d spend more than a couple hours on a train for… though I would have travelled for a week to hear E.M. Delafield, A.A. Milne, or Virginia Woolf speak.