The problem with literary festivals

Most have big money sponsors but fail to pay authors - splurging on comedians and celebrity politicians instead. Scottish festivals set the best example, but will anyone listen?

Imagine an arts festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. It is sponsored by a world-famous newspaper and an assortment of multinational companies. It draws in performers from around the world. Imagine a sort of Glastonbury for the middle-aged, or even a “Woodstock of the mind”. The festival turns over millions of pounds and yet little of that money goes to the performers. Such a thing barely seems possible but that is how most literary festivals work.

Take the Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, which finished last night. In 2012, it sold more than 140,000 tickets at an average price of £8 each. It is sponsored not just by the Times but by Waterstones, HSBC and Sky Arts, too. That’s a lot of money coming in, yet Cheltenham doesn’t even offer participating authors travel or overnight expenses.

It’s a similar story over at Hay – which is now a global empire with offshoots from Cartagena to Nairobi – except, when making hotel reservations, it charges publishers a 15 per cent booking fee on top of the author’s room price. The festival does, however, give authors a few bottles of Cava for their trouble. Back at Cheltenham mere writers seem far down the list of priorities. A look at its website reveals little sign of actual literature. The photos emblazoned across the top show Ray Davies, John Bishop and Brian May. The only professional writer is Helen Fielding.

To say that performers aren’t paid is not strictly true. The big festivals will pay whatever it takes to bring in that attention-grabbing celebrity. Bill Clinton was rumoured to be paid £40,000 to appear at Hay where he came up with his priceless (to the organisers) “Woodstock of the Mind” quote. I doubt Al Gore was paid much less to jet in and warn us about the dangers of Global Warming. Cheltenham is rumoured to have very deep pockets when it comes to stand-up comedians. There’s always money for the right names, it’s just that they’re not normally writers. The literature strand of the Cheltenham programme, for example, subsidises its music and poetry festivals where performers aren’t mugs and won’t work for free.

The literary festival of old was based on a communal model. All authors, from Max Hastings to debut novelists, were treated the same. The big authors pulled in the punters and subsidised the smaller writers. The smaller ones one day became the bigger ones and would in turn do their part. Everyone was in it for the greater love of literature – and to sell their own books, it is true. It was a lovely idea but rarely happens nowadays. Many festivals have a two-tier approach to author care. The big names get limos, love and impeccable organisation whereas the smaller names are shunted off into small venues and quietly forgotten about. Often there is nobody to show them where they are supposed to go or introduce them on stage. This is not a good time to be an author – most don’t make enough to live on and yet at festivals everyone is being paid except them.

The retort would be that festivals are about raising profiles and selling books. Authors are expected to be paid in book sales but most novelists I know are lucky if they sell a dozen copies. And it is not just unknown writers: one former Man Booker-winner regularly fills 500-seater venues but afterwards might sell just 20 books. Is it any wonder that some authors are breaking away from the traditional festival model and demanding a cut of the gate? This year, rather than do a one-off event at the Edinburgh International Books Festival, the American humorist David Sedaris sold out a 700 seater fringe venue for a week. I spoke to a comedy promoter who told me that at £23 a ticket, Sedaris could have earned £5,000 a night. A standard book festival author would have been paid £150.

The problem with festivals isn’t just money. Most events are frankly dull. The fault lies not just with the authors but with the festival organisers who rarely think of how the event is going to work. Once an author is booked, many think that that’s their job done. That approach is fine with a Melvyn Bragg or a Sebastian Faulks but many authors aren’t that good at speaking in public. One needs a well-prepared, modest interviewer who has spoken to the author at length before the show. This rarely happens: instead one frequently gets a less successful author with a book of their own to plug, someone who is doing 30 events that year and hasn’t read the book, or someone who has no idea about how to draw out a story. Most exasperating are the interviewers who use the Mark Lawson technique of making a long statement and then saying, “Do you agree?” to the author. This is if you’re lucky. Those lower down the food chain have to sit on specious panels called things like “Women Writers” or the dreaded “Writing the Diaspora”. Often festivals don’t think where the audience is going to come from. I once called Oxford Festival to enquire about the ticket sales for an event and was told that it was not the festival’s job to find an audience.

Despite their flaws, literary festivals can be enormous fun: you get to hang out with D B C Pierre in the Green Room, there are parties in the evening and something you say might be quoted in the Scotsman. For an author who spent four years sitting on his own writing, a literary festival can be confirmation that somebody is interested. But all this jollity has to be paid for. A trip to Hay for one author will cost a publisher a minimum of £150 for the train fare plus a B&B stay. The current business model is based around three things that are decline: arts funding, publishing and newspapers. Publishers are starting to think very carefully before sending authors to festivals and for how much longer will newspapers have the money to sponsor them?

I don’t want to damn all festivals. The Scottish ones, perhaps because of some sort of Arts Council version of the Barnett formula, always pay a fee and accommodation. In fact of all the big festivals, it’s Edinburgh that gets it right more often than not with big authors subsidising little ones, impeccable care, a light sprinkling of celebrity but the emphasis very much on literature. The other ones that are thriving have a real sense of place, community or purpose such as that by Charles Spencer at Althorp, urban ones such as Stoke Newington or specialists such as the Chalke Valley History Festival.

The next few years are going to see some great changes. Authors will only continue to work for free if they feel they are doing something altruistic. Festivals with corporate money will have to pay a fee and expenses. Many will go under and many will have to change in order to survive. There’s going to be a lot less fiction because festivals now realise how hard it is to turn something as intimate as a novel into a live event. As a reader it makes no sense to me to spend £10 on a ticket to see someone mumble unhappily for an hour when for the same price I could read the book and have hours of pleasure. If you really love literature, buy a book.

Shiny, happy people: A family fondles an apparat at Hay. Photograph: Getty Images.
Dolores Montenegro is a pseudonym. She is a literary agent who is writing a novel and, if it ever gets published, wants to be invited to Hay.
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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.