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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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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia