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24 March 2014updated 09 Sep 2021 1:14pm

Literary festivals haven’t always been as inclusive as they should be – but we can change that

Books and the act of reading are about removing barriers, and public events that celebrate them must do the same, as Alex Clark, guest programmer for this year's Cambridge Literary Festival, explains.

By Alex Clark

One thing I’ve discovered about planning a literary festival is that it’s good to fast-track the moment when you’re kneeling on a biscuit-crumb floor surrounded by spreadsheets, proof copies and despair; it will come no matter how enthusiastically efficient and Pollyanna-like you are, so try and get it out of the way quickly, around about the moment you get your fiftieth ‘I’d be thrilled, if only I weren’t out of the country’ note of the day. Another: when in doubt, focus on the green room snacks, and don’t be fooled into weighing up quantity v quality. Both are paramount, and a mini-quiche or seven go a long way to soothing an author who’s had a hellish journey, can’t find their reading copy and has just spotted a mortal enemy on the bill.

A few months ago, I was in a festival grey area – a frequent visitor to all sorts of different live literary events as a chairperson; what you might call associated personnel rather than staff, and definitely neither an author nor a punter. If I messed up chairing an event I might be in trouble; but if the building suddenly flooded or a writer failed to show, not my problem.

One festival that I returned to again over the years was Cambridge Wordfest; it always seemed to hit the right combination of writers you wanted to see plus engaged and abundant audiences plus beautiful setting plus generous green room snacks. (A treasured memory: sneaking into the back of a packed chamber with Ali Smith to hear Tony Benn in conversation with his daughter Melissa.)  Crucially, it had very little of the corporate over-organisation that has, perhaps inevitably, accompanied the rise in popularity of literary festivals over the last few years; but nor did it feel amateurishly thrown together. This achievement lies squarely with the festival’s founder and director, Cathy Moore, who twelve years ago felt like going to a local literary festival, discovered there wasn’t one, and so started her own. This summer, after I’d chaired a one-off, sold-out event with Zadie Smith, I asked Cathy if she needed any help and lucked into the precise moment when she was looking to transform Wordfest into the Cambridge Literary Festival. Half a bottle of red later, and I was a guest programmer.

It’s been an instructive few months. At one level, creating a festival is terrifically easy. It’s like being in a really well-stocked bookshop and working out who you want to invite round for a knees-up. But it’s also a party that you’re planning to open to the public and charge them to for entry. And now a whole separate issue emerges: the business of making literary festivals not merely attractive, but important. A couple of decades ago, they numbered only a handful, and their rarity both enticed visitors and preserved the sense that writers were distant, solitary creatures. Now, authors struggle to string together discrete blocks of time in which to write between public appearances. Readers who aren’t able to attend in person can often watch their favourite writers’ live appearances online, and interact with them via social media. While few would want to perpetuate the image of the writer as a shrouded, mysterious homme de lettres, do we really need permanent access to the literary zoo?

Obviously, I’m unlikely to be the sole Christmas-voting turkey (a mixed zoo-farm metaphor; apologies). If I didn’t believe in festivals, I wouldn’t go to so many. They are certainly not part of a get-rich-quick scheme, and nor are the service stations of the British isles endlessly appealing. Do we have too many festivals? Quite possibly. But do they provide something of genuine value to the literary landscape? I think so.

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An unintended consequence of celebrity culture is that we’ve become suspicious of the personal encounter with an object of admiration. Why do you want to meet a writer if you’ve got their book? (Persuasive, given how happily we read books by dead people.) If literature’s a celebration of the life of the mind, then why are we turning it into a vulgar entertainment? Rather than stand in a book-signing queue, shouldn’t you be at home reading an unsigned book?

Perfectly true – and yet. All books are the start of a conversation, but most of the time it will be not be a literal one. It will begin with the writer and radiate gradually out to readers; it will splinter off as readers talk to one another, as critics deliver their verdicts, even as the book, as in the case of an adaptation, morphs into other art-forms. All these conversations are part of a healthy and exciting literary culture; but they rarely happen in the same room. At festivals, they can.

I’ve frequently experienced the thrill of a writer revealing something about the genesis of their book or the process of writing it that has been thoroughly and grippingly unexpected; it’s even occasionally happened that I’ve suggested something in their work that they hadn’t been aware was there. In general, audience questions are of a high standard – if you’ve come to sit in a draughty hall for an hour, you’re probably pretty interested. But even if you have wandered in by accident, there’s something especially magical about listening to a writer reading their own work. Some alchemy happens when you listen to someone read their own words, words that they might have spent years making go with one another. 

Obviously, we would like as many people as possible to come to our party. Therein lies a serious point, and one that applies to every single literary festival I’ve ever been to. Writers, publishers and festival organisers love their audiences, but they would also love them to be as diverse as possible: to include readers of every class, race and gender. Books and the act of reading are about removing barriers; and public events that celebrate them must do the same. Over years of going to festivals, I’ve been struck by a sense that this is not the case, or not nearly as much as it should be. I recall being at a festival – let it remain nameless because it could be any single one – and interviewing a writer of colour. It was a sell-out, and one of the most spell-binding events I have attended. But I would be surprised if the non-white members of the very large audience got into double figures. If we can start to change that at Cambridge, in whatever way we can, however long it takes, then the anguish over the coffee-spattered spreadsheets will have been more than worth it.

Highlights from the Cambridge Literary Festival:

Eleanor Catton, Tuesday 1 April, 6pm

Emma Donoghue, Tuesday 1 April, 7.30pm

Damon Galgut, Wednesday 2 April, 6pm

Carol Ann Duffy & Gillian Clarke, Thursday 3 April, 7.30pm

Kirsty Wark, Friday 4 April, 7pm

Hanif Kureishi, Saturday 5 April, 11.30am

Alev Scott, Saturday 5 April, 2.30pm

Jim Crace, Saturday 5 April, 4pm

New Statesman Debate, Saturday 5 April, 5.30pm

Germaine Greer, Saturday 5 April, 7.30pm

Alan Johnson, Sunday 6 April, 11.30am

Natasha Solomons and Charlotte Mendelson, Sunday 6 April, 2.30pm

David Owen, Sunday 6 April, 4pm

Simon Singh, Sunday 6 April, 5.30pm

Pat Barker, Sunday 6 April, 7pm

More details of the programme and how to book tickets can be found here

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