Literature festivals have always fascinated me. Not so much what they present but how they work. How is it, I wonder, that you can put on a middle-ranking novelist at a decent venue mid-week in a city and draw a crowd of twenty or so. At a festival hundreds will show up.
There’s a marketing parallel here. The best place to open a new shoe shop is, of course, right next to an existing one. The two of you become a cluster and attract those in need of choice. Sales increase. Both enterprises benefit. So too, it seems, with literature.
A heavy weekend of thirty or more events will draw larger crowds than the same sort of thing put on weekly on Tuesday nights. Festival goers don’t come for the literature either. Well, of course, they do, but it isn’t the hard-core stuff that pulls them in. They don’t want fictioneers reading chapters out of their latest books or poets declaiming from the lectern and then sitting down. Rather they want discussion, controversy, argument, debate, and most of all glimpses of fame. They want to nudge up near Philip Pullman as he queues at the ice cream stall. They want to bump into Rowan Williams in the bookshop. See Stephen Fry being interviewed live standing outside a tent.
Most of all they want to see those who whose main business may not be actually writing but in the process of getting through their complicated lives have actually published a book. Ghost written, self-written, compiled with the help of another, who cares. Fame glitters. It drives the book world on.
The Hay Literature Festival (26th May to 5th June) are experts at this. Not only can they be relied upon to provide one of the greatest literary shows on earth but they also excel at the fame game. Visit Hay where this year you’ll rub shoulders with, among a hundred others, Jo Brand, Sarah Brown, Nobel Peace Laureate and weapons inspector Mohamed El Baradei, Howard Jacobson, Paul Merton, Philip Pullman, Vanessa Redgrave, Sue Perkins, Sandi Toksvig, and legendary film-maker John Waters.
Running concurrently and in the centre of Hay itself is the annual Poetry Jamboree, a left-field alternative poetries smorgasbord of sonic improvisation, projective verse and alternative approaches. This year’s programme includes Alan Fisher, Sean Bonney, Kelvin Corcoran, Carol Watts, Tiffany Atkinson, Frances Presley, Gavin Selerie, Paul Green, Angela Gardner, Rhys Trimble, Glenn Storhaug, David Annwn, Robert Sheppard, Zoe Skoulding.
John Williams, Richard James and Richard Thomas’s lit and music Laugharne Festival runs over the long weekend of 15th to 17th April. Here post punk, alt folk and Welsh acoustic mix with presentations of cult fiction, new verse and the buzz of music culture as book. Check the web for details.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #188