Arifa Akbar: Rock 'n' roll writers catch festival fever

The Week In Books

Friday 17 July 2009 00:00

Come summertime and an army of tousled haired troubadours begin to trudge out of tour buses onto grassy verges and muddy fields, microphones in hand, to entertain a sea of festival-goers. These performers are not pop stars per se but a new generation of writer-performers who are well on their way to acquiring a hybrid rock star status.

Writers have, increasingly, been getting booked for music festivals as part of the literary line-up at Latitude, Green Man, the Big Chill, and most recently, Glastonbury, which introduced its first lecture series last month, at which writers including Tom Hodgkinson and Alex Bellos, gave talks from under the shadow of the Pyramid Tent, drawing a crowd of thousands who had probably had their fill of Bruce Springsteen.

Matthew Clayton, who developed this side to Glastonbury, said he was inspired by the amorphous legend that is the Islington pub, Filthy McNasty's, which famously brought together books and music in a smoke-filled back room where Alex James, Nick Cave, et al, riffed with words before riffing with music (even the toilet graffiti quotes poetry!). "They really mixed it up. I wanted the same spirit. Reading from a book is kind of boring," he said.

Authors appear to agree; Simon Armitage, Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Coe and Hari Kunzru comprise the literary billing alongside musical line-ups featuring Pet Shop Boys, Bat For Lashes and Basement Jaxx, at the country's biggest music festivals later this month, and next.

While it's not a new phenomenon to provide a cerebral antidote to the musical hedonism of a summer festival, writer-performers are growing in popularity and range; Latitude has seen its arts programme almost double in size over four years, with ten tents (rather than the original six) including extra speakers outside, and a 'Literary salon' created in the style of a Bloomsbury drawing room; Port Eliot, the Cornish event that originated as an alternative book fest, has now evolved a quirky music arm in which 'crossover' writer-musicians read, or play music, or both (Kunzru DJ-ed in previous years with the festival's co-founder, the Hamish Hamilton publishing director, Simon Prosser and Louis de Bernieres is set to play mandolin this month); the Big Chill has installed a bookish element called Words in Motion.

But although the festival circuit is taking writers out of the dusty bookshop Q&A and remoulding them into trendy, 21st century troubadours, some feel this is part of the ruthless process of marketing the author instead of, or as well as, the book.

The concept now has its very own marketing professionals; literary promoters are enlisted to fill up festival tents with the right sort of writers; North London's iconic music venue, The Roundhouse, holds readings by Will Self, Iain Banks, AL Kennedy; writers are groomed for TED talks, The New York journalist Malcolm Gladwell has paved the way for on-the-road 'lecture tours', impresarios train novelists to perform to 3,000 seater auditoriums at the Sydney Opera House.

The 'take it on tour' mentality might suit Mick Jagger, but it can be excruciating for a crowd-shy writer who prefers to perform with words on paper, not punt them to a live audience. De Botton sees the good, and bad, in the rise of the festival-going, lecture touring new writer. Few, he says, would argue with the idea that literature and its live delivery, has any less drama than a Coldplay concert and some writers who spend most of their lives in isolation relish a captive audience.

But not every writer is a natural performer, though some might be pushed by their publishers to become so. In a recession hit market when it is harder to make a living from books, let's hope writers are not forced out on the road but enter the festival tour bus in the true, kickback spirit of summer rock and roll.

P.S.The graphic novel has covered the gamut of adult topics, from politically inflammatory Manga to the comic erotica of Alan Moore. Now, Philippa Perry, the wife of cross dressing artist, Grayson Perry, is penning her own Manga tale (left) in collaboration with her Japanese housekeeper, Junko, with whom she communicates in drawings (due to Junko's limited skills in written English). The result, Interruptions of Contact, is a story of psychotherapy, following an ambitious barrister with a "compulsive habit" (a touch of OCD?) and his psychotherapist, taking in the graphic thrills of dream interpretation and erotic transference. A strange topic it may seem, but I imagine it will be every bit as fascinating as one of Grayson's pretty vases, which, on closely inspection, reveal a lurid cast of drug peddlers and tramps.

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