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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.

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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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