Man about town: literary festivals and Q&As

Why ask a question which seemingly asks nothing?


I’ve grown to dread the end of talks at literary festivals, not because I’m sad that they’re over, but because the Q&As invariably attract the show offs, bores and the frustrated who think it should be them on stage.

At the Hay-on-Wye literary festival last week, the very interesting historian Anne Applebaum was subject to a number of rambling questions, the worst of which was from a woman, who described herself as a “historian” before criticising the thick book at length, for what wasn’t covered.

Later that day we went into town to visit How the Light Gets In, the excellent philosophy festival for a discussion on relativism. One man, ostentatiously taking notes, asked a deliberately complicated question that drew blank looks from everyone, from where I was sitting it seemed to be merely an exercise in trying to impress the girl by the door.

While the audience in the hot tent was reeling from that one, another chap then stood up and took the microphone and began a meandering, pointless speech which was vaguely criticising the speakers and seemingly asking nothing. The academic chairing the debate tried twice to bring his "question" to a close. Titters from the audience graduated to incredulity as he just wouldn't shut up, even when his microphone was turned off.

I bring it up because this is not, sadly, an isolated problem, but one that afflicts literary gatherings everywhere. I can, however, suggest a solution – the ASBOLF (anti-social behavioural order at literary festivals).

These would serve as a deterrent and a warning to the verbose attention seekers – such as Mr Long-Question, who plague such cultural gatherings.

Challenging, pertinent questions are, of course, to be welcomed. But those whose questions last longer than 25 seconds or those who take the microphone, state their expertise and start by saying "this is more of a comment than a question" should be escorted from the room and handed an ASBOLF. Repeat offenders should be banned from all literary festivals altogether until they’ve proven that they can keep quiet.

This is not, however, just about punishment - ASBOLF holders should be given training so that they can see how annoying they are being, and counselling to see whether they can substitute their questions for something else, a blog or a Twitter account say, or possibly a sex life.

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