ALLi's Advice Centre Editor Debbie Young steps on her soapbox to respond to bestselling novelist Joanna Trollope's call for literary festivals to be focus less on celebrities.
Yesterday, in an interview with The Independent newspaper given from the Emirate Airline Literature Festival in Dubai, trade-published novelist Joanna Trollope called for literary festival organisers to stop paying high fees to celebrities to headline events, and instead treat proper authors with respect. (Ok, I admit that she didn't really say “proper”, but I suspect she would have liked to.)
Cynics might question the PR tactic of rejecting elitism at a conference held in the hugely wealthy United Arab Emirates, but it's hard to disagree with her plea to shift litfests' focus from lifestyle to literature, nor with the reminder that average author earnings are in decline.
Litfests have come a long way in the short time that they've been around, morphing from events drawing on local talent to universal line-ups. The world-renowned Cheltenham Literature Festival, claiming to be the oldest event of its kind in the world, actually started life as a local showcase. It was founded by author John Moore from the nearby town of Tewkesbury; locally born actor, the legendary Ralph Richardson, declared the first event open in 1949; a Cheltenham College teacher read poetry. Oh, ok, so that teacher did happen to be C Day Lewis – it helps to have gifted neighbours – but you get my drift.
The Travelling Circus of Modern LitFests
These days, wherever a lit fest takes place in the UK, it's likely to have pretty much the same key speaker line-up (Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, etc), many of the speakers famous primarily for something other than writing books.
I'm not downplaying their undoubted talents as writers. I've really enjoyed Cheltenham talks by both Fry and Palin, and being more famous for their original job doesn't mean their writing isn't up to scratch. But too many famous-for-other-things names do skew the feel of a festival towards celebrity-worship, especially when ghost-written politicians, footballers, pop stars and supermodels share the same bill as Booker Prize winners. What started out as local events have become like a travelling circus – same players, only the stage is different. Any author taking part could be forgiven for forgetting which venue they're at:
“Good afternoon, and it's great to be here in Cheltenham – I mean Hay – I mean Edinburgh…”
Festival organisers argue that they must buy in big names to raise the profile of their events. This strategy may boost ticket sales, but it also inflates ticket prices, putting the festival out of reach of many people. The cost of attending a litfest extends beyond the ticket price, to include travel, refreshments, and programmes, not to mention the books, which are very often available only in hardback. For many avid readers, taking their family to a litfest would be prohibitively expensive. Want to check the ticket sales demographics of a litfest? Do a quick headcount on pearls, pashminas and grey hair.
Rewriting the Book of LitFests
So what am I going to do about it? Well, inspired by the World Book Night, a UNESCO-led programme of distributing free – yes, free – books to reluctant readers to encourage adults to rediscover the joys of leisure reading, I'm launching a new kind of local literary festival that will focus on readers. I reckon that's what the average reader really wants, and the manager of my local public library and the proprietor of my local high street bookshop agree. Happy readers read more, and buy more books from bookshops, and borrow more books from libraries. In the long run, has got to be the best news for the author community, and for society too. Gosh, now I'm going to change the world…
- a humble, low-cost venue – the village pub (thus also helping local business)
- accessibility to local people who can't get to the big festival venues (a lady from a nearby village, overhearing me talking about it in the pub said “Can I come? We haven't got any culture where I live!”)
- free admission
- open door policy: no-one will be turned away, even if we have to decamp into the pub garden to accommodate any overspill
- none of the authors will charge or be paid for their time
- no VIP treatment for authors: they'll meet readers on an equal footing (though I will take good care of them, I promise!)
- none of the authors will be celebrities, almost all will be indies
- only one author present will be a household name: bestselling romantic novelist Katie Fforde, who lives not far from me, and is kindly giving her time and support for free (shortly before I went public about my plan, my mum gave me a copy of Katie's book “Love Letters”, in which a woman faces the challenge of setting up a litfest in a rural community, which I took that as a sign to invite Katie, famously encouraging of aspiring authors and not a bit celebrity-like despite her impressive book sales)
- every member of the audience will be given a free souvenir – though if they want to buy books, they'll be welcome to do so!
- there'll be a retiring collection for British children's reading charity Readathon, which encourages children to read for pleasure, thus raising a new generation of readers, for the benefit of society as a whole – and creating new customers for authors of all kinds!
- the festival events will focus not on individual authors but on stimulating reading-related topics such as “How many words does a story really need?” and “You couldn't make it up: the joy of non-fiction”
- the final session will be a tribute to readers, bookshops and library services under the title “We'd all be lost without you!”, making it clear that in this litfest, at least, it's all about the readers
I'm thankful to all the indie authors who have volunteered to take part (most of them ALLi members), and to friends in my village who have offered to help with the logistics. I'm hoping to it will become an annual event, offering a great opportunity for local readers and boosting local bookshops, libraries and other businesses.
If all goes well, I'll be happy to share a blueprint for the festival to help others to replicate the event in their own neighbourhood. Who knows, this could be the start of a whole new era in litfests…
For more information about the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, please visit its website: www.hulitfest.com
OVER TO YOU
Do you agree that litfests should focus on readers, or do you find events led by celebrities and household name authors more inspiring?
Do you know of any litfests that already operate on this democratic template?
Do share your views and your experiences via the comments box!