'Parochial' publishers accused of failing their readers

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The Independent Culture

The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which opens today, has accused Britain's publishing industry of being parochial and leaving readers largely ignorant of intellectual debate in the rest of the world.

Catherine Lockerbie said the book industry was not doing enough to convey the thoughts and opinions of other countries' leading writers.

"Publishing in this country is incredibly parochial," said Ms Lockerbie, who has worked hard to transform the festival from an exhibition of books every two years in to an annual literary and cultural showcase. "We don't publish nearly enough translated works in this country. We talk about joining Europe as a political entity yet more often than not we don't know what they're reading or what they're writing so we don't know what they're thinking.

"In the past four years, our attendance figures have more than doubled which just goes to show that there is an appetite for debate, discussion and exploration of ideas among the book-buying public in Britain."

Since the book festival began in 1983, it has become a major part of the main festival, generating a turnover of more than £1m a year for the local economy and earning a world-wide reputation for being able to attract the biggest names.

About 200,000 people are expected to visit the temporary tented village which houses the book festival. Among the topics discussed this year will be the clash of fundamentalisms between Christianity and Islam, turmoil in the Middle East and whether the Iraq war was justified. That will involve some 500 writers and academics, including Candace Bushnell, Susan Sontag, John Irving, Mario Vargas Llosa and Alan Ayckbourn.

Box-office ticket sales for this year's event have increased by 20 per cent on last year, putting it on course to be the most successful year yet.

"When the festival started, it had 40 events and now we have 650," Ms Lockerbie said. "Over the years, the emphasis has changed from the traditional author reading from his book to a much more participatory and egalitarian event with some of the greatest names in the world. Our reputation has gone before us, and writers don't come to be worshipped by their fans but rather to engage in intelligent discussions with the audience.

"We could sell many thousands more tickets if we moved the festival out of the tents and into the big theatres in Edinburgh but that would destroy the unique atmosphere we have which the audience and writers appreciate."

With no writer, however famous or anonymous, paid more than a flat-rate fee of £100 to appear, the festival relies on its reputation for intelligent debate. The EIBF, which is a "not for profit organisation", gets less than 20 per cent of its costs from public funding; the rest comes from ticket sales, sponsorship and book sales and it simply does not have the money to pay big appearance fees.

"If a writer wants a big fee to attend, they don't get invited; it's as simple as that," Ms Lockerbie said. "This is a book festival for anyone with a thought and opinion, with a desire to listen to the thoughts and opinions of others. [This] is an international literary crossroads where people from different sides and different places can get together, exchange ideas and talk in the hope we can learn to understand each other a bit better."

LAST YEAR'S FESTIVAL FURORES

¿ A week had passed since Cherie Blair left hospital after a miscarriage, but Germaine Greer felt no qualms about describing her husband as a silverback gorilla. "I want to say ... 'Leave her alone, for Christ's sake'," she said.

¿ The playwright Harold Pinter said Tony Blair and Bill Clinton should be "arraigned as war criminals". Of an incident in the Balkans when a US bomb killed a girl, he said: "Not only did they do it illegally, illegitimately, immorally and in my view criminally, but ... justified it by talking about humanitarian intervention."

¿ Doris Lessing, 83,attacked the ease with which young women were able to get their work into print, contrasting their popularity with the trials of a Norfolk writer whose work she has championed. "He's not 20 years old, he does not have boobs, he does not photograph very well."

¿ Antony Beevor's verdict on the character of mankind did not go down well. "I found myself acknowledging that perhaps most men could be rapists in extraordinary circumstances of chaos and collapse - and ... if they had a gun and there was no likelihood of retribution."

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