Does London need its own literary fest?

Next week sees the launch of a significant addition to the London cultural scene: a 10-day literary festival called The Word. The programme embraces 350 readings, debates, performances, workshops and lectures throughout London's 33 boroughs. It includes some obvious highlights - appearances by international luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Jan Morris and Derek Walcott - and an abundance of more modest events: poetry workshops in local libraries, talks on science fiction, radio drama and children's book illustration.

It all sounds busy and purposeful, though whether we truly need another literary festival is another question. It is not as if there is a shortage. The British Council's guide to arts festivals lists more than 70 such annual events: everything from the sizeable gatherings at Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Brighton, Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham to the smaller get-togethers in Abergavenny, Richmond-upon-Thames and Bracknell. Culture vultures with time on their hands can while away the entire summer by checking out the scene in Harrogate, King's Lynn, Rye, Dartington (home of the Ways With Words Festival, sponsored by this newspaper), Ilkley, Sheffield, Cleveland, Wells, Lancaster, Guildford, Canterbury and Hastings.

The modern conference industry now represents a likeable new perk for authors. They are routinely ferried around to meet one another and have dinners in nice restaurants, where they crack jokes about the inanity of the questions they get asked by the public. No one disputes that this is fun for them - but is it fun for anyone else?

These literary carnivals broadcast a false image of writers as cosmopolitan, cocktail-hour jetsetters, when the truth is that they tend to be solitary types who spend most of their time scratching their heads. They also tend to promote authors rather than works, personalities rather than ideas. Publishers, as is now well documented, are increasingly obliged to consider the attractiveness of their authors. And if this does not yet define what gets published, it does help determine what is publicised. The standard publishing term for a pretty author is that she (and increasingly he) is very ... um ... promotable". There is also the fear that the gregarious nature of these events is actually inimical to the more tranquil (and therefore arduous) business of reading.

But only a spoilsport could seriously object. A festival is by definition a feast: it implies excess. Scanning the programme for The Word it is easy to see it as inflated, as a queasy superfluity of literary chit-chat. But no one has to go to all of it, any more than we have to watch everything on television.

Besides, none of this is new. Dickens went on reading tours, and the idea of festivals is a basic urge which goes back a very long way: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were all products of the vivid drama competitions of ancient Greece. As it happens, gold medals for art, architecture, music and literature were actually included in the Olympic Games until 1948 - and the idea of the arts as a competition lives on in our charts and prizes.

Indeed, this ancient idea of culture as sport is attractive in itself, and certainly preferable to some loftier procedure. There can be a touch of despotism about arts festivals. Tyrants like them - it shows how sensitive they are. But The Word seems inspired by a more demotic impulse, similar to the one that drives people on to streets in Rio de Janeiro or Notting Hill Gate. Richard Dawkins will speak at Bromley Central Library; Margaret Atwood at the Secombe Theatre, Sutton; Martin Amis in Swiss Cottage; Ian McEwan at the Harrow Arts Centre. The Word spreads far and wide.

The most striking thing about The Word, however, is its decisive international flavour. Festivals cannot afford to be merely bourgeois museums. Ideally they should be forums for the promotion of new or difficult work, places to experiment - arts laboratories, as it were. If festival-mad Britain were to continue down this heritage-industry route, serving up inoffensive entertainments in the gap between a cream tea and dinner in the Duke's library, then it wouldn't be a heartening trend. But this doesn't seem to be what is happening.

The Word includes events on Chinese calligraphy and Hindu storytelling. It has sucked into London many notable writers from overseas: Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, Hugo Claus from Belgium, Bei Dao from China, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, and others far less well-known. This is not London promoting itself to the world. Instead, the world is coming to London. About time.

The Word (0171 971 0408; www.theword.org.uk): Fri to 28 March.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment