Al Senter 2 Mar 2017 10:00am

The rise of the literary festival

From bookworm conventions to 21st century thought exchange forums, Al Senter puts pen to paper on the rise of the literary festival
Caption: From bookworm conventions to 21st century thought exchange forums, Al Senter explores how literary festivals came to the fore.

It was all so different a decade ago when the smartphone first appeared in the marketplace. The book, as an object of cultural significance, seemed on its last legs, heading down the road to obsolescence. As can be seen every day on our streets, 21st century man and woman have an intense relationship with their smartphone, cradling it in their hands, gazing at it in adoration every waking moment of the day. You would have thought there was only room for two in this relationship, but the book is more than holding its own, thanks in no small measure to the continuing celebration of the medium that is the literary festival.

In the UK, every ambitious town of any size seems to have set up its own book festival. From Aberdeen to Alderney and Dartington to Dorchester, via Colonsay and Budleigh Salterton, popular authors engage with their fervent followers at all points of the compass. At a rough estimate there are more than 300 of these literary gatherings each year. They might celebrate a particular author such as Agatha Christie in Torquay, Devon, in September or Daphne du Maurier each May in Fowey in neighbouring Cornwall. They can feature a particular genre such as the Chalke Valley History Festival in June or the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate in July.

And book festival mania is by no means restricted to the British Isles. In fact, there is a worldwide passion for writers and writing as evidenced in the Jaipur Literary Festival in January; in Writers’ Festivals in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney; and in FLIP in the Brazilian coastal resort of Paraty, which was established by Liz Calder, the doyenne of British publishing and a co-founder of Bloomsbury. March also sees the renewal of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai, the brainchild of Isobel Abulhoul, a British expat and serial entrepreneur.

“In 2009 we had 65 authors over three to four days,” says Abulhoul. “Now we have 160, taking part in more than 250 sessions over nine days. I’d never been to a literary festival so I had no idea of how they were done. I tend to commit to doing something and then I find ways of achieving it. We already had good connections in Dubai and I knew what was popular. Yet it was still a huge learning curve for me.

I knew that we had to have as broad an appeal as possible and so in our audience we have every nationality, every culture and every age group.”

Abulhoul brings a fresh eye to the institution of the book festival and takes full advantage of the Dubai locations. The highlight of the opening ceremony is the parade of horses and camels – not animals you often see at literary events in the UK.

“We take authors out into the desert and it is a wonderful setting in which to hear poets reading their work. It is such a stirring experience under the stars. You settle the authors on comfortable cushions and they can feel the sand under their feet.”

Part of the appeal of the Emirates Festival is the hospitality authors receive over the eight nights of the celebrations. “Whereas most writers appearing at a UK book festival do not remain once they have participated in their event, in Dubai the writers have greater access to each other and so friendships form that can deepen during the round of international festivals.”

To judge by this year’s programme, Abulhoul strikes a careful balance between writers in English and writers in Arabic. Many of the authors travelling from Britain are familiar literary festival participants such as Alan Titchmarsh, Jeffrey Archer or Ben Miller.

I like to hear writers talking about their books and the process of writing. It opens up a whole new world to me and I’m fascinated by what goes into the writing (Wimbledon resident Stephen Midlane)

“We work hard to make sure that language differences are never a barrier,” Abulhoul explains. “What’s really important as far as our audience is concerned is that they are enlightened, entertained and made to think about things. Our audiences are mixtures of everything, a mixture of dress, of language, of creed and include people who are prepared to approach an event with an open mind. I’d argue that book festivals are so popular because part of being human is that we are social animals and we like being sociable. My definition of a book festival is summed up in these three words: intelligent discussion live.”

Abulhoul’s opposite number at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (founded in 1983) is Jenny Niven, acting director while Nick Barley takes a sabbatical. She is another in the series of dynamic women who have been instrumental in the foundation and development of the literary festival. She identifies a coherent development in an apparently contradictory situation: how
is it that the book festival is thriving in the face of a rampant social media that enables the individual to rise above the collective?

“It seems logical to me,” she says. “Already we have online literary festivals including the Digital Writers’ Festival and there are probably more. People are more fluid in their interests and will explore further than what is being published.”

In 2005 Niven set up the Beijing Festival together with her business partner Alex Pearson, who’d established both a bookshop and a lending library in the city.

“We decided to hold that first festival around the existing Beijing International Book Fair and it really took off. It was a time when Beijing was involved in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics and it was a period of tremendous change. In China you had certain barriers to overcome and you had to persuade the writers to take a punt on you. Obviously if you were a government-funded organisation as we were, you had to work within certain parameters without losing your credibility.”

Niven then went on to work for a series of Australian festivals and she singles out a number of other festivals in Asia, notably in Bali and Sri Lanka, for a favourable mention. She also praises the Berlin Festival, which is held in September because: “I love the way people will willingly sit and listen to writers speaking in three different languages – unlike the Brits.”

She argues that in an era of rapid and often bewildering change, people are increasingly looking to book festivals to make some sense of it all. “In an age of post truth, people are looking for answers. Reading is still one of the most participatory activities that is available to us. People have an unending love of books and they are reading more. They also like to be exposed to new ideas and there is something about listening to just one person at a live event that is very addictive.”

As a native of south-west Scotland, Niven takes understandable pride in the growth of the local Wigtown Festival (September) that has apparent ambitions to being Caledonia’s version of Hay-on-Wye.

“I grew up in Galloway and I have seen many rainy Tuesday nights in Wigtown in February so I have witnessed the growing love which the local community has for its festival.”

There is something of the same feeling of a community identifying with a literary festival when you visit the Wimbledon Bookfest in its two marquees on a patch
of Wimbledon Common in south-west London win October. Festival director Fiona Razvi reflects on the 10 years it has been running.

“What’s interesting is that it has never been just about a literary event. We have always been quite broad in the scope of our programming, covering film, politics, sport as well as fiction. Our audience is drawn from a community that is more diverse than people might imagine, and in a way the festival acts as a kind of a focal point for other, smaller community groups.”

Literary festivals, especially on the scale of Wimbledon, can bring together like-minded people with similar interests. Razvi points out, however, that “we get a lot of single ticket purchases that implies that people are happy to come to one of our events on their own”.

Wimbledon resident Stephen Midlane is a loyal supporter of his local book festival. “I like to hear writers talking about their books and the process of writing,” he says. “It opens up a whole new world to me and I’m fascinated by what goes into the writing.

“There is also the social element since you always run into somebody you know and it can be very entertaining with somebody like the writer/director Andy Hamilton appearing at an event. He was both brilliantly funny and very perceptive.

“We’re a highly educated society and so I wonder if there is a hunger for ideas out there. I think so, inasmuch as people like to explore areas that are new to them and in a way this is what book festivals do.”

Literary festivals are not immune from what is happening outside their gates and in August 2014, the Edinburgh International Book Festival played its part in hosting debates around the Scottish Independence Referendum held the following month.

It is fair to assume that three years later space will be found in the programme for continued exploration of Scotland’s relationship with Europe and with the rest of the UK. Whatever the future throws at us, there is likely to be a book festival making sense of it all.

Lit fests 2017

Oxford 25 March-2 April

Bath 19-28 May

Hay-on-Wye 25 May-4 June

Harrogate 20-23 July

Edinburgh 12-28 August

Henley 2-8 October

Cheltenham 6-15 October

Wimbledon 6-15 October