Why Do People Go To Literary Festivals, Exactly?

     With Hay Festival and Charleston Festival both happening in the UK this week and my Twitter timeline being flooded with mentions, photos and quotes from both, it started me thinking, why do people go to literary festivals? At a music festival, you go to hear the music played live, at a food festival you go to eat; but a literary festival? It's not like you go to hear the books read aloud. So why do people go, exactly?

     My first thoughts weren't really the kindest: in my head the attendees are all aspiring writers and wannabe publishers, wanting to be in close proximity to greatness so they can declare themselves a contemporary, combined with a little artistic poseuring ('I can't dahling, I'll be at Hay that week' and ‘you had to be there, VS Naipaul said the funniest thing,’), executed in the hope that, as well as making them worthy members of the self-conscious culterati, that they will be picked from the crowd by the professionals for their uniqueness, completed and closeted manuscript in hand, its world-changing radiance clear to even the uninitiated, heralding a triumphant return in a couple of years as 'the writer who was discovered at Hay (dahling)'. 

     Either that, or they're hoping that the essential 'magic ingredient' that transforms an aspiring writer into a published one will be inadvertently dropped by a doyen backstage (something far simpler than 'hang in there and keep writing', of course) and that only that person stood right next to the stage will be the one to hear it so you must make sure it’s you! I wonder what percentage of the attendees are actually aspiring writers/publishers, by the by? Of course, it could be so people can hear more about the books, but if the books are successful pieces of literature, shouldn't everything be in there already? Shouldn't they be able to stand alone?

     Now I realise that most of these thoughts are entirely reprehensible, not least because I am now running a book club and, as you may have noticed, a book blog, both of which are based solely on the idea that there are interesting and illuminating things to be learnt from the deconstructive discussion of books. Also, I've been to two separate Vintage publishing events in the last month or so and very much enjoyed listening to the writers featured there talk about themselves, their creative processes and their books. I even wrote about it here and here. I applaud any celebration of books as a worthy pastime or intellectual pursuit and completely understand that it is fulfilling and tonnes of fun to meet people with the same interests as you. And strangest of all, I REALLY, REALLY WANT TO GO.

     In spite of all that, I still find the idea a little icky - maybe it's the idea of turning the most private of pastimes (i.e. reading) into the most public of events. On consideration, maybe they’re even a little gratuitous; hard-covers faced out so everyone can see being the intellectual equivalent of flashing (not that there’s normally so much scope for that, in a field in Wales). Or maybe the sticking point is that I can see myself in all my perceived stage-hanging wannabes (uh oh). Perhaps it's just that no-one asked me… *sob* *

     I don’t know; maybe it’s just sour grapes?

*This isn't actually true. My civic duty is the only reason I'm not at Charleston right this instant.


  1. I go for the funnel cakes and tractor pulls.

    Oh wait, that's the Minnesota State Fair.


  2. Hi Lyndsay, we met at one of the Vintage events you mentioned :)

    I do agree there's lots of potential for 'artistic poseuring' at festivals like Hay, which I'm off to next week. And yes, I'm an aspiring writer! But I think the main reason people go to literary events is because the events sound so mindbogglingly, eclectically FASCINATING.

    That and the chance to hang out in beautiful (if damp) countryside with like-minded people.

    My take on the programme is that the events about writing itself, or getting published, are a small minority. It's actually as varied as the subjects of books themselves. I'm going to see talks about moonlight, the Jewish experience, choreography, the US-Mexican border...

  3. Tom, if you'd said sheep shearing competitions or tressle-table cream teas, it could be anywhere near where I grew up too. By the by, what's a funnel cake?

    Sally, hi, I remember you :) This is the thing, I believe them to be interesting, relevant and entertaining, it's just that I can't shake the vague ickiness....Clearly I have some deep, dark, literary-festival-esque demon that needs confronting! You're gonna have so much fun; will you blog about it?

    Also, how's the novel/course?

  4. Haha! Will prob post something. Been a bit lax on that front lately...

    Truth is I have no idea what it'll be like. Am hoping it'll be the antidote to my music-festival-esque demon that makes me feel antisocial and deeply uncool. Fingers crossed for a real geekfest...

    The MA course is pretty much done except the long and lonely summer of final submission and dissertation writing. Novel is sloooooow-going, but learning a lot in the process. Thanks for asking :)

    Right, off to borrow some wellies (dahling).

  5. It'd be awesome if you blogged about it - my mental block about lit fests is probably due in large part to my inexperience with them. And see, I LOVE music festivals...

    Good luck with the novel and dissertation and wellies (dahling!); looking forward to the blog link!

  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funnel_cake

    Pure American heartland goodness.

    A blessed Memorial Day (or bank holiday) to you!

  7. Have recently returned from the Hay Festival for the first time, it was quite an experience. Nothing like I expected at all, and there are positives to that statement and negatives.

    I am thinking about writing a blog post on it to help people understand what the current set-up provides both aspiring writers, and general readers. A very different experience for both.

  8. Tom, sounds like the ultimate in tasty yet fattening - my kind of food! (Not really.)

    James, I'd be really interested to read that. Maybe post the blog link here as it's so relevant?

  9. I would be honoured to have the link posted on here.

    Was not still sure whether or not I would write it but you have convinced me that it may be of interest to people.

  10. It is written but not posted. Thought it might come back on me when I want to be invited someday as an Author.

    If I was a journalist I would be encouraged to publish it. But an Agent would surely advise their client not to...

    Dilemma, dilemma.

  11. If you change your mind later, just use it as a sign of intellectual growth...

    Everyone knows success changes everything anyway :)

  12. Will keep that in mind or post it anonymously.

    Love the new design to your site on the iphone. Looks beautiful and very easy to read...which means I and many others can read it more often.

    Hopefully one day we will have the Tolstoy Is My Cat app in the iTunes store.

  13. That's so interesting James, not at all what I was expecting to hear! Basic stuff too, huh? It sounds like they are missing several tricks (and then some).

    I'd also be disappointed about late start times, transport issues and a lack of innovative or forethought. Shocking, too, about the lack of writer networking (I can't believe it's entirely geared towards readers) and a whole separate backstage area for those people have come to see.

    I'm hoping this year was just a blip, but I guess time will tell.

    Thanks for posting the link here!


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