Taking The Lid Off LitFests
One of the peculiarities of appearing at literary festivals is that people always ask you if you’re having a great time, to which my pal Joanne Harris replied with just the right amount of testiness; ‘We’re working at the weekend.’ Usually for nothing more than the love of books and (hopefully, if they’ve been ordered) some books sales.
It’s true; people do tend to think you’re swanning around with a drink having a whale of a time. Sometimes we are. Often we’re not. So what’s it really like behind the scenes?
First, it’s a bit like attending a bathroom fittings convention. We drink too much, stay up too late and have a good moan about work. We don’t discuss what we’re writing at the moment, though – that’s far too gauche and marks out the wannabes. And God forbid we mention what we’re being paid – although that doesn’t stop one female novelist I know from shooting her mouth off about her royalty cheques every time I see her.
I’ve just returned from doing panels at the Bristol Crimefest. This is an unusual festival in that it seems to have evolved into a festival for writers and publishers rather than wander-in-off-the-street readers, so you’re mostly dealing with your peers, which is great. These are perfect for getting book recommendations and discovering new authors, but probably not the best places to find a new audiences (I just won the Last Laugh Award for ‘Bryant & May and the Burning Man’ at the event, BTW).
Litfest attendees are often of a certain age; they’re collectors, editors, writers, agents. Every town, it seems, has one these days, and some are better than others. Harrogate is the one to beat – huge, packed and beautifully organised, it draws international audiences and writers, and is always a pleasure for writers and readers. Mark Lawson usually broadcasts from it and the Q&As are a challenging delight.
At the other end of the scale, WhitLit, in the estuary oyster town of Whitstable, has proved a surprise success, mainly because it is run with incredible polish and flair. Likewise, the short story festival at Charleston in Sussex, at the manor house of the Bloomsbury set, is a grand and starry affair, as is Cheltenham, sponsored by the Sunday Times, a slick, glamorous day out that’s also a bit of a writers’ sausage factory; you’re whipped in, served a fabulous salad, miked up, photographed, perform, sign and you’re back on the train before you know it.
The Oxford Literary Festival is also a very stylish weekend of fine events, and you’re put up in the colleges, which means High Table dinners.
Interestingly, the one festival I’ve heard mixed reports about these days is the once-popular Hay, which has rather dropped off the events calendar. It’s become an event dominated by celebs and is treated with dismissal by many professionals.
Lately some festivals have caused an uproar by making unusual demands in their appearance contracts (yes, we sometimes have contracts for PAs). Harrogate asked for an exclusion zone to prevent its authors from appearing at nearby festivals, and with the proliferation of events perhaps it’s not so surprising – but many question the use of festivals to authors in the age of blog tours, when you can reach a far bigger audience by doing a day of blog Q&As.
One thing that will never change – those nights when you have room service, standing at your hotel window wondering what you’re doing…