DJ Taylor: 'Ego-massaging aside, literary festivals also offer lessons in humility'

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Edinburgh is lately concluded. In a fortnight it will be Woodstock. A little further into the autumn, as the nights begin to draw in, there follows Beverley (a bugger to get to) and Lancaster (ditto) with Cheltenham looming in their slipstream and Southwold well worth a visit. Already bookings are being taken for Spring 2010 in King's Lynn, Oxford, Cheltenham again, and, for the international jet-setters among us, Dubai. Oasis on tour? National Hunt race-meetings? No, what we have here is a by no means complete list of the next half-year's worth of literary festivals, whose unrelenting rise is one of the great features of the modern cultural marketplace.

The principle is more or less antediluvian. Since the days of cuneiform and Ogham script there have always been writers who get a kick out of meeting their public. Dickens and Thackeray made fortunes out of the mid-Victorian lecture-circuit, both here and in America. In the 1930s, The Sunday Times used to sponsor what were called book "exhibitions", in which such A-listers as Dorothy L Sayers could be found addressing "the techniques of murder". But these were tentative first steps in a profession whose suaver end was chary of vulgar self-advertisement. Evelyn Waugh, for example, restricted his public appearances to Catholic clubs, and would have fainted with horror if a publicity director had phoned to discuss his "autumn tour".

The literary festival's coming of age is always thought to date from 1962, when the Cheltenham organisers convened a panel discussion on the hot topic of "sex in literature". The participants included Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller (who offered the view that the manufacturers of mink coats had corrupted more girls than any book had ever done), Carson McCullers, who had had too much to drink, and the French writer Romain Gary. In its aftermath, Amis left his wife for the festival's artistic director, Elizabeth Jane Howard. By any ordinary standard, Cheltenham '62 had everything, from controversy and drunkenness to extra-marital bad behaviour. Since then the phenomenon has never looked back, and the big festivals such as Hay and Oxford have since turned into mini-industries, attracting tens of thousands of visitors and requiring months of diligent pre-launch planning.

All of which, in the context of popular entertainment, is something of a paradox. We live, as the media analysts never tire of reminding us, in a world where cultural diversion is increasingly stay-at-home, touch-button and solitary. Curiously enough, the average reader continues to crave some kind of personal interaction with the writer whose books he or she enjoys. Up at the corporate level, meanwhile, there is even civic pride involved. At a rough guess, quite half the literary festivals in England came into being because some harassed town hall bureaucrat stared enviously at the publicity hand-outs emanating from the town 20 miles away and declared that (or she) could do better.

From the writer's point of view, the literary festival is an enjoyable paid holiday, full of free meals, comfortable sofas and the occasional presence of people who have not only read your books but itch to tell you so in person. As publishers' lists grow thinner, and chain bookstores stock fewer titles, it is also an opportunity for obscurer authors to shift product. A hundred copies sold over a weekend at full price can make a hefty dent in an optimistic print-run.

Ego-massaging aside, the lasting value of a literary festival is its habit of offering regular lessons in humility. I once skipped out of a tent at Hay with Nigel Planer and Tony Hawks after the three of us had, or so we thought, delighted a baying crowd, and sat at a long, shiny but remarkably punter-free table piled high with copies of our books, while an endless, serpentine queue trailed past a rival booth staffed by the pixie-ish figure of Frank McCourt. He was still there when I came back an hour later. As the author of The Dwarves of Death, which might just be described as a thriller, Jonathan Coe was once invited to attend a crime-writer's convention. He arrived at the lecture-hall to find a single patron who, once he had begun to talk, introduced himself as the event's chairman. Somehow these humiliations never quench the rapt, indomitable spirit of the festival invitee, and I shall be off to Woodstock in a fortnight's time on the next leg of that eternal writerly quest for free lunches, civilised chat, and above all, an audience.

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