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.

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