25 May, 2009Issue 9.5LiteratureWriters

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Long Live the Book!

Katie Wake

For many British bibliophiles, this week is the highlight of the year. In 2008, the Hay Literary Festival in Hay-on-Wye, a small town with a population of 2,000 on the Welsh borders, drew an unprecedented crowd of 160,000. With Carol Ann Duffy, Alan Bennett, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu among the hundreds of speakers engaged this year, the festival’s organisers anticipate another throng.

Aspiring to the giddy heights of Hay, the 13th Oxford Literary Festival convened last month. Over the course of a long week, a range of authors—from locals Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman to the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and the leading light of the American short story, Wells Tower—ruminated on their work and debated the fate of publishing.

“The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book!” was the battle cry of one five-strong panel at the Oxford Festival. As online copyright infringements destabilise prices, children prefer PlayStations, Richard and Judy homogenise readerships, and WHSmith plugs bad books with big budgets, readers are often left bereft of quality and variety. Yet the 525 authors and thousands of enthusiasts who converged upon Oxford for the festival bucked this trend as they bemoaned it. If literary festivals are any barometer, the book is alive and quite well, coveted by thousands of bibliophiles who pilgrimage in pursuit of its creators.

Literary festivals have proliferated in the last decade. The British Council lists 23 festivals in May alone. Curiously, the British excel at these festivals. The world’s largest takes place in Edinburgh, its most famous is Hay. Last year, 164 literary festivals were held nationwide. Festivals are held abroad too, recently in Jaipur, Dubai, and Sydney. Paris has just announced its first. But per capita—in incidence and attendance—literary festivals are one of the few remaining fields in which Brits are the world champions.

Is this a reflection of our luminous literary pantheon, stretching from Chaucer via Shakespeare to Harry Potter? The national pride we project onto our writers was on show at the Oxford festival’s “Great English Novel Debate” which, dubiously, counted Joyce’s Ulysses as a contender. Novelist Will Self over-egged the pudding when he described literary festivals as “the Nuremberg rallies of the contemporary bourgeoisie”. Self is himself a regular on the festival circuit; few writers would shun the opportunity to promote their latest book to a gaggle of potential punters. But do literary festivals provide anything beyond publicity for writers and an autographed purchasing opportunity for attendees? Do they surpass the self-congratulatory cleverness of their white, middle-class and middle-aged reputation?

The preponderance of grey hair at literary festivals provides a clue to their as yet unchecked expansion. Bill Clinton bestowed upon Hay Festival the marketing gift of the century when he dubbed it “the Woodstock of the mind” at his 2001 appearance. Clinton was spot on with his 60s cultural comparison: for the surfeit of well-educated postwar baby-boomers—too old for music festivals, too young for immobility—literary festivals provide a perfect entertainment outlet. “Take away the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll of Woodstock,” Clinton might as well have said, “and you’re left with Hay-on-Wye.” Fittingly, Joan Bakewell, the original “thinking man’s crumpet”, now aged 70, has been a stalwart on this year’s circuit with an average audience age to match hers. At the Oxford festival’s debate about e-books, one of the speakers noted that, for a young medium, the subject had attracted an old crowd.

It would be reductive, however, to depict literary festivals as Glastonburys for the Grey Brigade. Many lay on events for children. At Oxford, Michael Morpurgo attracted 500 mostly young people to his talk, one of the festival’s largest congregations. Significantly, the rise of literary festivals has coincided with that of book groups, which count many 20-somethings (as I can personally and shamefacedly attest) among their ranks. The Hay Festival website reports that its clientele are “exceptionally well read and pretty smart. They’re all fairly gorgeous too.”

If you fail to meet these three criteria, fear not; you can bask in reflected glory. The organisers are not merely flogging books, but access to a lifestyle of brilliance and beauty. In a bid to attract “Singletons” to the festival (Bridget Jones baggage in tow, one suspects), Hay’s website pleads, “Give it a go. There are thousands of people here to make friends with.” (I did but evidently failed to exude the charm of my cohorts. The only person who spoke to me was a geriatric, enraged that I’d tripped over her Zimmer Frame.)

Some commentators have discussed the relationship between literary festivals and the urge to reconnect to a grassroots. The popularity of festivals, they say, reflects an effort to avoid alienation in an age of celebrity and cyberspace. Yet this seems an impulse more likely to be shared by authors, whose working habitats tend to be isolated. The financial incentive for most speakers is limited, often to increased royalties from books sold. One Hay author revealed that he receives a case of claret for appearances (which, he was disappointed to discover, contain six rather than the customary 12 bottles). The claret has since been upgraded to cava, still in a six-bottle case.

Global power can raise the stakes; President Clinton received ¬£100,000 for his appearance at Hay with tickets priced at ¬£100, well above the standard ¬£4-7 today. For the majority of authors, though, indulging and developing one’s fan base is infinitely more valuable than the meagre financial remuneration. In return, readers—or fans, as they become at festivals—can converse with those whose voices are ordinarily accessible only through the unresponsive medium of print.

If the sense of belonging to a glittering community is fleeting, devoid of the glamour and lacking the youth and diversity that most British music festivals command, literary festivals do, at least, fan the flames of interest in reading. The Oxford Literary Festival staged a number of fantasy boxing matches between literary greats dreamt up by bibliophiles. The merits of Orwell versus Dickens and Middlemarch versus Emma were discussed with an ardour that only such pointless exercises can ignite. Gushed Jenny Hartley of Dickens, “He was the Jamie Oliver of his day”, and deserves victory over Orwell, if only for the refuge for fallen women he founded with Angela Burdett-Coutts: “a sort of Paris Hilton—longer skirts.”

Potentially more constructive, if less entertaining, were the debates on the issues of the day from Iraq and Afghanistan to the recession and multiculturalism. In “Writing for a Change: Responses to Climate Change” Philip Pullman and Jay Griffiths considered whether writers can be encouraged to incorporate climate change into their fiction. “We need a creative response” in order to mobilise a world mired in denial, argued Peter Gingold of Tipping Point, an organisation that seeks to harness the imagination to ward off climate change.

Alas, literary festivals have yet to save the world. The climate change debate lauded Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, possibly the only example of class-A fiction on environmental catastrophe that isn’t sci-fi. But, as Pullman pointed out, it is often difficult for writers to intentionally channel their convictions into their work if the writing is to be any good. As Jenny Hartley might have retorted, Dickens did. A more cautious Pullman counselled against overt contrivance to tackle climate change through fiction, as “in the short term, art is useless.” Whatever side of the debate one supports, literary festivals appear to be asking the right questions to an audience in search of considered answers.

Among the Oxford Literary Festival’s highlights, Mario Vargas Llosa spoke expansively about the origins of fiction. He identified the power of language to unite: we are “a community of people who think because we can speak.” By contrast, reading and writing are solitary and often hermetic. Those who gather at the literary festivals of Oxford, Hay, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, or indeed Frinton, Throckmorton, and Wells, overcome the seclusion of print by celebrating their shared love of a solitary pursuit.

Whether or not this communitarian spirit can yield tangible results or instigate change is more doubtful, and is hampered by the narrow demographic of festival-goers. The predominantly white, educated, middle class audience at the Oxford Literary Festival, as elsewhere, conspires to consensus. Hay-goers, say the organisers, tend to be “sceptical about monarchy and religion, not much bothered about hunting, very bothered about illegal invasions of other countries…and passionately engaged with the environment.” Literary festivals might be a great way to pass the time with similarly minded souls but they will have to reach a more varied congregation if they are to preach beyond the converted.

Katie Wake is studying the historiography of the United States at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She is the Writers editor of the Oxonian Review.