Lit festivals – but where is the literature?

CEjWv8uWMAAtSW4Literature festivals seem to be increasingly popular in the UK – big ones attracting thousands of punters, little ones popping up like mushrooms.

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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34 thoughts on “Lit festivals – but where is the literature?”

  1. It’s something I find frustrating too. I’d always got the impression that they were events for everyone, and that there would also be the opportunity for writers to meet agents, but that no longer seems to be the case – if it is, it isn’t advertised anywhere.

    I went to Hay Festival earlier in the year and found most of it to be fairly uninteresting (except for a few bookstalls). Everything was for children or very specialist interest (with nothing to do with books!), and then only for things that you’d have to pre-book for.

    1. I guess the organisers would say they put on what attracts a paying audience, and I get that of course. But there have to be guidelines other than – ‘is there a book in it somewhere?’ Otherwise it’s all going to hell in a handcart 🙂

  2. Hi Chris,
    Interesting blog today as always. I am not an expert on literary festivals and I’ve certainly never spoken at one, but I was thinking that perhaps it’s anachronistic now to call a book festival (as with Cheltenham) a ‘literary’ festival because a smaller percentage of writers now are engaged in writing literary novels, as in the kind of books you might study on a literature course.
    We all wish we could right one but the truth is that people write all kinds of books now including non-fiction, memoirs etc that are becoming increasingly popular, and can have a strong literary element to them in their narrative, but don’t fit into the ‘literary’ criterion.
    The lack of literature at these gigs, as you say, is because there’s not a lot of it being produced, so the festivals are bumped out with other stuff, and celebrities. It reflects also our general obsession with celebrities too doesn’t it? And celebrities writing or promoting books have a greater chance of success. The Edinburgh Book Festival is a better title and takes in all broad selection of books.
    I also think the problem with having a proper small ‘literary’ festival with ‘proper’ writers is the fact that most literary novelists don’t like all the faff and don’t also ‘perform’ as well as celebrity ‘writers’ and isn’t the entertainment factor what these festivals are also about, otherwise why would there be so many of them, or as many people eager to attend.

  3. Sorry, I’ve spelt ‘write’ incorrectly up there (predictive text gone mad?). I’ve made it ‘right’. Call myself a writer? Could it have been a Freudian slip?
    PS Can you put me out of my misery and change that for me Chris. 🙂 xx

  4. Thanks Marjory – Let’s not worry over splitting ‘literature’ and ‘books’. Really we all know the difference between celebrities turning out something as an extra income stream and novelists writing a book. There should be room for both, my worry is that the novelists are being crowded out.

  5. What a shame to read this. I have this image of rather genteel events where writers give readings and discuss their literary techniques, but that must be a thing of the past. Perhaps there are. Festivals for specific genres of novel? Or maybe there should be?

  6. There’s been quite a lot of interest in this post so far – seems to have struck a chord. I think there are some specialist events for things like sci fi Val. I’m sure festival organisers would point out that it’s the market which dictates what works and they can only put on what people will pay for. Like you though I do find it a shame that, despite all these events, there seems to be so little space for writers.

  7. Maybe it’s just because of the times

    Yes – times in which we value the flimsiness of celebrity over the effort involved in thinking. I love hearing writers talk about their books – and have heard some who are truly entertaining (Anne Enright and AL Kennedy spring to mind), but literature festivals are really about marketing, not wallowing in the joy of words.

    1. I agree Jo – I’ve nothing against celebs – I watch TV and so on. I just think there has to be space for books written for their own sake and authors whose main aim is to write brilliantly.

  8. Hear hear! I’ve been going to Cheltenham for 12 years and remember being able to fill a week with small, low cost events that introduced me to new writers. I understand the organisers can’t possibly grow the festival on the basis of these events alone so don’t begrudge the celebrity headliners but I do agree that writers are being pushed out. Maybe there’s scope for a fringe event? That said, this year’s proof parties at Cheltenham were a treat for fiction lovers.

    1. Yes it would be nice if there was more of a balance. As I said I have done events there a couple of times and they did look after me. But the general feel of these big festivals seems to be a move away from writers and towards celebrities.

  9. I think you’ve struck the nail on the head with ‘These names sell tickets where actual authors would not.’ Much as I love searching out literary fiction, I notice my blogged reviews are often practically the only ones for such books. It does disappoint me that superb writing is often overlooked by the mainsteam in favour of ‘sideline books’ but I can understand how tempting the ticket revenue must be if a festival can attract such celebrity writers to headline.

    1. Yes – I do get that this is an economic reality rather than a simple choice, I think you are right it’s just the way things are going. Still it’s a shame there isn’t more room for writers

  10. Chris I agree that it is very frustrating, but I guess the festivals feel they need a celebrity to draw in the people.

    I am more frustrated by the huge book deals that celebrities get leaving the market for ‘real’ writers that much smaller to break in to.

    1. Yeah, i know what you mean. I suppose publishers would argue the money they make from the celeb books allows them to invest in smaller authors. Doesn’t always feel that way though does it?

  11. Do you know I’ve never been to one? I’ve been writing for over 20 years, am just about to stick my 11th book on Amazon, but it’s never quite happened!

    I can understand your frustration, Chris. The problem is that events/websites/services evolve to suit requirement; everyone who’s ever written a vaguely amusing Facebook status update thinks they have a bestseller in them, these days, and are desperate to find out the ‘secret’ that will help them succeed, instead of just sitting down and writing, or even exploring whether they’ve got the talent as well as the deterimination.

    Carol Hedges posted an interesting piece yesterday about the fact that the buying fake review sites wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t the demand for them; this is a similar situation. Of course there are so many people who think the same as you do, but maybe they’re at home reading books. There are probably a lot of them at the festival, too ~ but maybe, because they think the same as you do, they’ll stay away next year. The writer wannabes won’t. And thus, the evolution of the writers’-festivals’-that-used-to-be-literary-festivals. A shame, indeed.

    1. Thanks Terry – I realise there are more questions than answers in my piece, I don’t really know what to do about the situation, I just wanted to point out that it seems to be becoming more prevalent.
      I suppose something I would like to see is for the festivals to seek more balance between the celeb events which bring in the money and the author events which were supposed to be the point of the festivals in the first place. This might not be the best way for them to maximise their profits but it would stop the events drifting away from their original purpose, which I would suggest was to celebrate books and authors and allow readers and authors to come into contact with each other.

  12. Alas, it’s all about money these days, isn’t it? The people who care about quality, education, tradition, preserving culture, etc seem to be few and far between. Maybe we show our age just by feeling this!

  13. Good post, Chris. I didn’t know that’s how it was at the big festivals. What an eye opener.
    It’s a sign of our times, isn’t it? Celebrity and ‘known names’ are what make the big-money publishing industry go round. It’s not about books. And those of us who are ‘all about the books’ can only get heard if we’ll tell other people how to do it, instead of talking about our themes, our curiosities, our inspirations. I happen to like teaching too, and I’m grateful that it’s become my profession, but it’s only one of them. Often I feel our own work is shrunk to a secret we dare not name.

    1. Quite right Roz – teaching writing, like teaching anything, is to be applauded, but it shouldn’t be the only way a novelist can get a slot at a festival.
      I’m having a grumble here of course and I don’t want to seem too negative so I think the next post I write will be some ideas of how the festivals could allow authors back in!

    2. In America they’re called writers conferences, and they are about teaching writers. But it becomes a huge problem when it turns out that the ‘big names’ don’t actually know how to write. This, I’ve discovered, is where all the bad writing advice is coming from. In fact, I have a two-part blog post about this that I run every summer:

      I’ll be teaching at a major writers conference this February: San Francisco Writers Conference 2016. I’ve met the other editors who teach there and have high hopes for the quality of the education.

      Please keep your fingers crossed for all of us! 🙂

      1. Perhaps the mistake we are making here is not differentiating between festivals for readers and ones for writers Victoria.

  14. It is such a shame. But then it seems the way our culture is: fame for the sake of fame rather than for doing something worthy of accolades.
    It’s also something that makes the average reclusive writer shrink still further away from being public and doing things like approaching book stores and events. I live two doors down from the library in my town, but I have yet to bring myself to go over and offer myself as a speaker. That said, my husband (without asking me!) put me forward for next year’s town festival and I have a horrible feeling I won’t be able to forget about it. I’m a writer, not a performer, after all, and the celebs that get asked to big events are, at core, performers, and that I believe is what people are after: to be entertained.

    1. Good luck with the town festival! Events and signings are pretty much always worth doing I think, unless absolutely nobody turns up! (Which has happened to me at least once)

  15. Great post, about a topic I’m growing increasingly aware of. I’ve been attending Literature Festivals religiously for several years, but this year am being far more choosy over which ones to spend my money on – and they are no longer cheap, if they ever were.

    So, no Harrogate History Festival this year because the headliners are Melvyn Bragg, Princess Michael of Kent, and Neil Oliver – all of who have written books, admittedly, but are there, I am sure, because of their name.

    Perhaps the most worrying trend is that these big names do appear to pull in the crowds (JK Rowling at the Crime Festival last year), but at the expense of other possibly more deserving writers.

    1. There’s got to be balance hasn’t there? Fair play to Melvyn though, his Adventure of English is well worth anyone’s time to read.

  16. Chris, last year I founded the antidote to celeb-heavy litfests (which are also often prohibitively expensive for less-than-affluent people to attend). The Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest was packed with authors who aren’t household names, who most visitors won’t have heard of, but who were able to deliver a brilliant programme of panel discussions on topics such as “How many words does a story really need?” and “You couldn’t make it up! – the fun of non-fiction”, alongside a non-stop series of live readings. The only complaint I received were that guests felt spoiled for choice – they wanted to go to both the panel events and the readings, because they were all fab!

    Nearly all the authors were self-published, though some also had trade publishing contracts, and all gave their services for free. All were treated exactly the same – as respected authors with valuable work to share, whether they had only just published their first book or were old hands with a big catalogue.

    Entry was free too – so it was totally inclusive and open. I hinted that punters might buy books instead of admission tickets. Many did, and have told me how much they enjoyed them.

    We only had one big name there, the very generous and inspiring Katie Fforde, who also gave her time for free.

    Any authors interested in taking part in the next one, just let me know, and I’ll try to include you. As I live half way between Cheltenham and Bath, both homes to big festivals, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether this would work, but we have over 100 people in the audience, who hung on every word. There was standing room only. Onward and upward – next year we’ll be bigger and better, because by popular demand, it’ll now be an annual event.

    1. Yours was the festival I had in mind in my comment (above). Perhaps from such genuine seeds the more established prestigious ones might get around to offering self published ‘co-operatives’ space to surprise the audience with variety in fringe events ‘off campus’ so to speak! I hope to come to your next?

    2. Sounds great Debbie and well done on taking the time and trouble to organise something, it’s better than just grumbling about it like me! 😉

  17. I have attended both kinds of festivals, the Writers festival in York where writers knew they were there to listen to agents and publishers and foster their own self interest, and that worked well. I have been shoe horned in to talk when somebody else fell through, but only about the ‘how to’ rather than the book (Oxford) and tried to interest smaller local festivals to host a talk on ‘the book and its ideas, only to be flatly told that I wasn’t well known, not even for their ‘fringe’. What became evident is that the organisers of new festivals were looking to their own reputations, and by attracting celebrities (like Paxman and Paddy Ashdown) their own festival would gain traction. So the vicious circle is established at the inception, celebrities all the way down, and on. I suspect a different format might have more hope, not booked speakers but something like speed dating where spontaneity has a contribution to add to the mix, and people would come to be surprised rather than certain of what to expect?

    1. Sigh – it’s annoying when even small festivals come to rely on TV celebs – why do they even bother to brand themselves as book or literature festivals if all they are interested in is someone who will attract a queue of autograph hunters?

    1. I do know what you mean – I don’t begrudge anyone else their space either in the marketplace or at events, but I guess there’s only so much room.

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