literary festivals in my part of the world. And yet the originators of the two plans have completely different aims and objectives. The first, a local hotelier, sees the establishment of a literary festival as a way of attracting new visitors to his hotel. The second, a local poet and teacher, envisages her festival as a vehicle for promoting local literacy as well as local literature and performance poetry. Neither of them mentioned what you might think was the principal aim of such festivals: the marketing and selling of books.
In both cases I felt a degree of enthusiasm for the plans but I wasn’t sure why, other than having a vague sense that literary festivals are a Good Thing. But because the two originators have such different perspectives, it did make me think more carefully about the benefits of such events. The success of the larger festivals suggest such events can pay dividends, not only to writers and readers, but also to local hotels, restaurants, shops and other small businesses. This is especially true when the festival features internationally famous authors who can draw in not only local readers but also visitors from other parts of the country or even from abroad. This has obvious benefits for tourism and the local economy, but it also bolsters a local sense of pride.
An annual literary festival can also provide local educational benefits. The involvement of local schoolchildren and their teachers would help develop an interest in books and reading, encourage creative writing (through competitions and workshops) and help develop literacy. To quote one event organiser, literary festivals ‘don’t just cater for audiences, they create them.’ Having said that, and perhaps because I’m a reader who is also a writer, I’m turned off by the current trend of packing festivals with celebrity ‘authors’ to sell tickets. But I do appreciate that without the presence of celebs these festivals may not survive.
My own preference is for events that are more of an ‘author festival’– with the emphasis on writing and writers as opposed to book selling. I’ve mentioned here before how much I’ve enjoyed the Small Wonder short story festival in the past. That’s because it enabled me to meet like-minded people who care about the short story, and to do so in a pleasant setting. So from a personal point of view, I think the primary aim of literary festivals should be to entertain readers and connect them with writers. And there’s no reason why a festival can’t do that while also encompassing the wider objectives of such events. I guess it’s all a question of balance.
I’ll end with a quote from a Guardian editorial, in 2006: ‘Providing a market place for writers and booksellers, provocative and stimulating encounters for readers and a season-enhancing boost for towns that now rely on luring visitors, the literary festival is one of those rare ideas that seems only virtuous.’