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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.

Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit