BOOKS / Making Hay: The Festival: From next Friday until Monday 30 May, Hay-on-Wye sees a flood of writers and performers. Blake Morrison anatomises the craze for literary festivals: showbiz or academe, camaraderie or adventure?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT WAS a boiling May afternoon, and the train from London, having idled among cow parsley some miles back, had missed its connection at the country station. No, not Adlestrop, but Newport, where three of us got off and quizzed the stationmaster and moped by the refreshments counter. The other two made a handsome couple, she in a long skirt and floppy hat, he with a neat grey beard. They looked, in the heat- haze, as if they had stepped out of Shadowlands or a Ken Russell adaptation of D H Lawrence, on their way to a weekend at Lady Ottoline's. But this was 1993, and these were British Rail plastic teacups we were drinking from, and I guessed my fellow travellers must be bound for the same place as me, the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.

Maybe this is one of the attractions of literary festivals, that they seem to belong to a more leisurely age. In fact, they are a phenomenon of our time - as important a feature of recent literary culture as the rise of Waterstone's and the decline of public libraries. Hay-on-Wye, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Brighton, Ilkley, Dartington, to name only the more celebrated: ten years ago their book festivals didn't exist or were barely established, but each now boasts its annual or twice-yearly event. And yet, for all the modernity of these festivals - the marquees, the clip-on microphones, the improvised bookshops and dumpbins - there is a faded charm about them, the atmosphere of a country house weekend. With their pleasant locations, often in towns with spas or rivers, small hotels and good second-hand bookshops, they feel much older than they are - as if, like Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh, they have grown out of the enthusiasm of a particular patron.

But what are literary festivals for? The punters at film festivals go to see films which are new or rarely shown. Music and drama festivals are important because the interpretation, the meaning, some would even say the existence of a symphony or play depend on performance. But novels and biographies aren't written to be performed: they are written and consumed in private; their raison d'etre is the printed page. So what is gained by having novelists, poets, essayists and biographers appear in public?

The publishers' answer is that these appearances are an essential part of publicity and promotion. Back in Lady Ottoline's day, you brought out your new novel and hoped for a 600-word review in one or two of the better papers, and that was that until the next novel three years later. For an author with a book out in the 1990s, it's very different - signings, readings, interviews, debates, 'in conversation with's and book festivals are all part of the package. You are expected to strut your stuff, and to sell copies of your books on the back of it.

Not that the public necessarily sees it that way. Last August, in Edinburgh, I took part in a discussion with three excellent novelists, all with recent books out: it was well attended, with plenty of questions from the floor. Afterwards, the four of us dutifully sat behind copies of our books, ready to sign, and waited . . . and waited. Not a single copy was sold: the audience had paid for a live event, and didn't have the money or inclination to buy books as well.

Publishers, who often have to foot a heavy bill for their authors' travel and accommodation say this isn't the point, that there is a general 'knock-on' effect from festival appearances which does help boost sales. But that Edinburgh experience does highlight the fact that publishers, authors and readers all have very different motives for coming to festivals.

For authors, many of whom begin writing out of inarticulacy and introversion, performing in front of an audience is an ordeal: some find an unexpected (and unattractive) appetite for it, but the majority feel that if they'd wanted to sit in the spotlight on a stage they'd have trained as actors. They come to festivals, nonetheless, because festivals allow them to meet readers and fellow authors. It's a chance to escape the solitary room, to eat, walk, get drunk, have adventures, talk into the small hours.

For authors, festivals are not about writing but about being a writer, or playing the part of a writer. Hay-on-Wye has one exception to this: it offers masterclasses in which select groups can practise their craft - Joseph Brodsky was a tutor in the past; this year's tutors are Carol Ann Duffy, Barry Unsworth and Alan Plater. For the most part, though, book festivals are about play, not work, and once authors have attended one festival they're armed with the necessary qualification to attend another: gossip. The gossip sometimes has an official stamp: at Hay-on-Wye they like to tell the story of Mario Vargas Llosa, who had only a day in Europe to spare, being flown in from Heathrow and back again by helicopter. 'In Peru I ran for President and never got a helicopter,' he told the waiting cameras. 'At Hay I'm a writer and they give me one.'

Of course, everyone has a private fund of anecdotes, though they can sound suspiciously like the anecdotes you've already heard from someone else: the philosopher who danced intellectual rings round his opponents by day but puked across the dance-floor at night; the science fiction writer whose fantasy world did not extend beyond a girl on a stool at the bar; the poet who came wearing two left shoes; the writer who crawled across several roofs at 3am to get back into his hotel room and then received a phone call from the manager: 'I know you've got a woman in there.'

It may be that readers are drawn to book festivals for similarly indecorous reasons: for good food, drink and sex, for books last of all. More simply, though, they want the chance to see and hear authors whose works they have done time with. The spur is curiosity, which may be satisfied by mere observation, or may require that awkward questions be asked.

Books exist to tell stories to strangers, and in a pure, Barthesian world the author would remain invisible and uninterrogated. But ordinary readers, no less than critics, are often curious about the stories which books don't tell, which peep out tantalisingly between the lines, and which an author will sometimes yield up in performance: the local newspaper item or piece of music which started X's poem off; the traumatic personal experience on which Y's novel was based, despite its being set in a 13th-century monastery; the stories which Z, in deference to the libel laws, had to remove from his biography of the famous film star, but which he doesn't mind recounting to a live audience.

This, more than the gossip, is the stuff of literary festivals - a cross between showbiz and academe. The latter element shouldn't be underestimated: book festivals instruct as well as entertain. I've often thought that if you were writing a thesis on Seamus Heaney, say, or Margaret Atwood, you could do no better than spend a year following them round from reading to reading, recording their glosses, footnotes, paraphrases and declarations of authorial intention. A year in libraries trying to track down sources and allusions might furnish less material.

At best, literary festivals close the gap between writers and readers. The grungy middle-aged male novelist, forced out from behind the word processor, finds that his audience, which he'd imagined to be as hostile and stupid as his reviewers, is young, charming, witty, beautiful - at any rate, more knowledgeable about his books than he'd dared suppose: god, some even seem to have read that 1971 critical flop set in Belgium.

His audience, for their part, get to see him in something other than his Booker Prize dinner-jacket, which is the only way he allows himself to be shown on his dust-covers: but my, hasn't he aged, and isn't he touchy. The experience can be rewarding on one side or the other, sometimes on both. And the overall effect is to make writers and readers less suspicious of each other.

This is quite an important effect, aesthetically. It would be going too far to say that, if there'd been literary festivals early this century, Modernism might never have happened. But certainly the contempt for audiences to be found in, say, the proclamations of Ezra Pound ('As for the public . . . damn their eyes') would probably not have developed in a culture where writers are regularly brought face to face with their readers.

In the end, though, it's the unpredictability of book festivals that fixes them in the memory. That striking couple I met at Newport station last year on the way to Hay-on-Wye turned out to be Jill Tweedie and her husband Alan Brien. We started talking at once, and jabbered all the way there on the train; I got up at six o'clock next day to read her book, Eating Children; later, I sat on stage with her and Auberon Waugh, discussing tyrannical fathers. None of us knew how ill she was - not even she did, though she complained of tiredness and was having difficulties walking. But it must have been her last public appearance before she died of motor neurone disease last November. And though I have happier memories of Hay-on-Wye, this will be the one that sticks: coming briefly into the orbit of a remarkable, funny, original woman; never meeting her again.

Novelist Alison Lurie reads and discusses her new stories with fellow American

Pam Houston: Sunday 22 May, 12.20pm

Ian McEwan talks about screenwriting and how his novels have made the move to the cinema: Sunday 29 May, 2.10pm

Vikram Seth, author of the bestselling A Suitable Boy, reads his Beastly Tales of world animals: Sunday 29 May, 10.30am

John Banville, Irish author of Ghosts and The Book of Evidence, in discussion with other novelists: Sunday 29 May, 6.10pm

Michele Roberts with Nicole Brossard and Sylvie Germain (in French with simultaneous translation): Saturday 28 May, 12pm

Cees Nooteboom, award-winning Dutch novelist, appears with John Banville and Glyn Maxwell: Sunday 29 May, 6.10pm

Welsh poet R S Thomas: a rare opportunity to hear him read and discuss his work with Grey Gowrie, the chairman of the Arts Council, on Friday 20 May, at 7pm

Translator and novelist Tim Parks: could fiction gain in translation? Supported by Russia and Iceland: Monday 30, 10.20am

Maggie Gee, author of Lost Children, on stage with novelists Andrew Solomon and Joan Brady: Sunday 22 May, at 6.10pm

Novelist and critic Edmund White will deliver the TLS lecture, 'The Personal is Political', on Saturday 28 May, 4.10pm

Doris Lessing, whose latest book is African Laughter, gives a passionate celebration of Zimbabwe: Saturday 21 May, 2.20pm

South African journalist Rian Malan, novelist Colm Toibin and Mikal Gilmore on writing about evil: Saturday 21, 4pm

Award-winner Lesley Glaister discusses new British writing with Andrew Motion and others: Saturday 28 May, at 2.10pm

Michael Ignatieff, the novelist and critic, talks to David Grossman about Israel and the Middle East: Saturday 21, 12pm

Sylvie Germain, Parisian author of Days of Anger and The Medusa Child, talks to Michele Roberts: Saturday 28 May, 12pm

Josie Lawrence and fellow comics ask Whose Line is it Anyway? The Comedy Store comes to Hay: Monday 30 May, 9pm

(Photographs omitted)