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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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism