Illustrated by John Broadley

Literary festivals: sheer hell in a tent

To make people laugh for an hour is good business sense — but it says nothing about writing, or creativity, or art

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Every author, whether an established titan or a quivering neophyte, has a golden expectation of what their first — or indeed subsequent — literary festival will be like. The location will be a charming cathedral city or beautiful rural town, and the audience will be packed. The organisers will be the very definition of charm, hospitality and clued-up experience, and the pre-event drinks in the green room will be a welcome lubricant for an hour of engaged chatter.

The questions will be penetrating, but never impertinent; at best, they might even suggest new ideas for future books. The signing will be convivial, the number of books sold plentiful, and all fellow authors encountered will become lifelong friends. As the writer heads home, it is with the warm satisfaction of a job done superbly, to say nothing of a handsome fee for their participation. 

There are, indeed, festivals like this. (To name names, the Appledore, Warwick, Hexham and Chalke Valley events are absolute models of this kind.) But there are far too many where the experience is a rather less idyllic and rather more woebegone one. 

The author finds themselves driving or training across the country to some indeterminate location, where they are greeted not with warmth but with the sullen words “It’s going to be a rather quiet event, unfortunately.” The only people in the audience are angry locals for whom you are vying with Countryfile and niche internet pornography for attention. 

Someone thinks that he (it is always a he) knows more about the subject than you. There is an argument during the time allocated for questions. No copies of your book are sold. It rains. You are never invited back again.

During the Eighties and Nineties, the concept of literary festivals was popularised by various showboating types

The growth of British literary festivals over the past few decades has been an exponential development. It has also changed the idea of what people expect from authors. For many decades, the only opportunity that the average reader had to encounter their favourite writer was either at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, founded in 1949 and still the world’s longest-running event of this kind, or vicariously through a broadsheet interview, radio appearance or similar high-profile piece of publicity. 

The idea of the author-as-entertainer simply did not exist. For the more flamboyant of the tribe, this may have frustrated, but for many more, it was a blessed relief. The incorrigibly bookish could be left alone from year to year to write, and the only disturbance to their hermetic existences would be an occasional — often fearful — trip to London for a meeting with a publisher. The idea that they would take to the stage and, heavens above, perform simply did not exist. 

And then, during the Eighties and Nineties, the concept of literary festivals was popularised by various showboating types, not least Peter Florence, who founded the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 1988. 

Not only is (or possibly was, given Florence’s recent disgrace after being found guilty of bullying) Hay the most famous festival of its kind in Britain, if not the world — Bill Clinton famously described it in 2001 as “the Woodstock of the mind” — but it has also changed perceptions of what people expect from those who appear on stage as guests.

It is a huge event, with hundreds of audience members at every reading or discussion, expecting to be enthralled and entertained by A-list authors. And therein, for many, lies the rub.

The economic realities of publishing remain as depressing as they have always been since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. Eight out of ten authors never pay back their advances — which were paltry in the first place (a loss is never required to be returned, so bean-counters minimise publishers’ exposure to even relatively small shortfalls).

Children’s book publishing is so dominated by celebrities that ordinary authors stand virtually no chance of seeing their books taken into print. Issues of diversity and social justice have changed the industry beyond recognition. Brutally speaking, the chances of getting a book published if you’re not a well-connected Oxbridge graduate (some things never change) or a member of an under-represented group that has become a cause célèbre for a major company are as low as they have ever been.

Even if, somehow, you manage to pass the gatekeepers and get your book on sale, and it’s reviewed well, and it sells, you then face a new challenge: how to sell yourself at public events to audiences who are sat, metaphorical arms folded, expecting an hour’s entertainment for the price of their ticket.

I have been to literary festivals where authors are so terrifyingly charismatic and funny that they have seduced an audience within moments. Conversely, I have seen some of our best-known and most interesting writers appear at events where they have been monosyllabic, disengaged and perfunctory.

At the time, I remember feeling disappointed. Now, I understand quite clearly that they were probably shy.

While there are undeniable links between writing and performance, there is no criterion for being a good writer that also means that you will be adept at entertaining an audience with the pizzazz and charisma of a stand-up comedian, even as you bring erudition, literary talent and authority to bear. Some manage to; more, inevitably, fail.

But even if you are competent at entertaining an audience and selling a book at the same time, being invited to appear at these festivals is by no means a given. Audiences tend to be conservative with a small c, keen to see people who they recognise from television or their earlier books.

Historians and non-fiction writers can sometimes break through if their subject is a universally recognisable one, but if you’re a first-time novelist, your only real chance of exposure is to be shunted onto a mid-afternoon panel with other similarly inexperienced types to speak about what it’s like to be a first-time novelist. From this the chances of selling books are, regrettably, low. 

There are other things to bemoan about literary festivals. The cliquishness — Hay was especially egregious in this regard, forever giving the impression of a private party that hoi polloi ticket buyers were never invited to; the low fees; the sheer, relentless number of events that seem only to feature the same dull guests; the catering. 

But the real problem with them is that they are another, increasingly pernicious, feature of a literary establishment that has ceased to prize writing for its own sake, and that has instead become hooked on the cheaper methadone of headlines and “initiatives”. 

To make people laugh for an hour and sell some books is good business sense. But it says nothing about writing, or creativity, or art. Therein lies the rub, perpetually. Still, I have a new book out next year. Time to roll up my sleeves and write “Dear Mr Warlock-Williams, why of course …” 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover