Over the last few years, as an author with a couple of books out, I’ve appeared at both kinds – and the first thing I want to say is that I think they are a force for good. Anything which encourages people to cherish books is on the side of the angels in my view. And the ones I have attended have allowed me to flog a few copies of my own books – what author wouldn’t like that?
But something has struck me about literature festivals in this country which is that, increasingly, they don’t bother too much with literature.
The big ones, such as Cheltenham Literature Festival, which is just packing up its tents for this year as I write, are basically Celebrity Festivals.
I don’t want to seem over-critical, I have appeared at Cheltenham twice and they have been good to me. I am not saying they don’t welcome authors. But a look at the 2015 headliners should make my point for me.
Nick Frost, Edith Bowman, Reginald D. Hunter, Dom Joly, Terry Wogan, Matthew Bourne, Gino D’Acampo and Millie Mackintosh.
What have all these people got in common? When you read the names do you think first of titans of literature? Nah, they are celebrities who are famous for something else and have produced some kind of book as a side-line.
Of course, there are authors at Cheltenham too – Salmon Rushdie for one and Bill Bryson, Jilly Cooper. But somehow they seem to play second fiddle.
All the big festivals do this, they bring in faces from the TV or sport or pop music who have turned out a memoir, a Christmas comedy book, a cook book, a ghost-written novel, and use them to put bums on seats. These names sell tickets where actual authors would not.
So maybe the authors and poets are to be found at the smaller festivals? Well yes, up to a point, and also further down the bill at the big ones. But, while the big name events have become Celebrity Festivals the small lit fests have become something else.
I’ve been involved with a few – attended them, spoken to the organisers, and I’ve seen a pattern. I remember one organiser telling me that people simply aren’t interested in hearing about your book – they want something else and that something else is a lecture or lesson which will help them become published authors. The small lit fests have become Writer’s Festivals.
They aren’t really for readers or book lovers, they are for the as yet unpublished hoping to find a space on the shelves at Waterstones. As a writer, you are more likely to get a slot at these events if you are willing to talk about getting an agent, finding a publisher or boosting your following on Twitter as part of your ‘author platform’ than you are if you want to talk about a book.
So the thing that’s taking a back seat in all this is literature – the one element you might hope to find at a literature festival.
Perhaps it’s not the fault of the festivals – their organisers are doubtless good people who love books. Maybe it’s just because of the times. The decline in serious readers, the cult of celebrity, the self-publishing surge which has convinced ever more people they have a book inside them.
Still, it’s a shame. There is almost no space in our culture for books these days so I find it a little sad that even in this one small spot where books are meant to take centre stage they are being crowded out.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
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