Book festivals may be two a penny, but organisers should not be complacent if they want them to thrive, argues Andrew Motion
So far as I’m aware, there’s no such thing as a "history of public readings". It’s a pity: most punters and performers would be interested to know more about the tradition of which they form a part. If there is a tradition, that is.
Although writers have been performing in one way or another since time immemorial, it’s really only since the 1960s and the celebrated Albert Hall event starring Allen Ginsberg that readings have developed their recognisable modern character. Before then, they were generally occasional and small scale: Keats "chaunting" to a charmed circle; Tennyson testing the patience of his friends by giving exhausting back-to-back renditions of Maud .
Now they are ubiquitous and popular. So popular, that where interested parties once had to wait for the big three (Cheltenham, Dartington and Hay) to fill a slot in the cultural calendar, now they can turn up more or less whenever they like to see what’s happening in dozens of middle-sized towns across the country. Festivals are two a penny. They’re a network, a year-long carnival.
And by common consent they’re a Good Thing: good for writers because they sell books and get to meet their audience; good for readers because public appearances help to demystify writing and make the content of books seem intimate. Sure, there are nay-sayers: people who argue that festivals are as prone to celebrity worship as every other walk of modern life, who worry that the solitary pleasures of reading are being eroded, who suspect that the opportunity to read here, there and everywhere might create difficulties for writers as well as rewards. But, by and large, they’re welcomed and likely to continue expanding.
There’s no good reason to be sniffy about this. But at the same time, it’s reasonable to ask some questions — about organisation and composition, for instance. Because festivals involve public institutions that expect at least some return on their money, it’s inevitable that programmes should concentrate on famous names. This is tantamount to piling success on success and, while there’s plenty to be said for letting people hear what they want to hear, there’s also a need to develop readerships as well as simply confirm them. Which means that festival organisers have a responsibility to recruit less well-known names, emerging names, local names, crowd challengers as well as crowd pleasers.
This doesn’t require much in the way of ingenuity, especially if organisers are realistic about the audiences they might expect and don’t condemn people with a small following to appear in humiliatingly huge venues.
But the dangers for writers are more insidious. No matter how sure writers might be of their aims and subjects, most admit that their best work often comes to them as a surprise. When their imaginations lead them away from their familiar selves into darker and less well-explored parts of their mind. When they risk breaking the patterns that have sustained them in the past and venture into new territory. Giving a lot of readings can sap this spirit of adventure — partly by making writers overly aware of what "works well", therefore tempting them to produce more of the same, and partly by seeming to prove that writing loud and clear is better than writing quietly and suggestively. It ain’t necessarily so.
And there’s another thing. At roughly the same time as festivals have proliferated, the relationship between academy readers (students and teachers) and general readers (the main part of festival audiences) has become attenuated. Of course, there are still overlapping interests — the set-text writers can always be sure of a large public audience. But because universities in particular tend for quite proper reasons to have a special interest in ground-breaking and "difficult" work, and festivals need to fill seats, they are often working in parallel rather than in tandem.
Does this matter? Maybe not if today’s difficult work becomes tomorrow’s staple fare — as has often happened in the past. But there are still reasons for thinking that to maintain their momentum and fulfil their potential, festivals need to do more than celebrate what is already commended and popular. They need to live dangerously as well as make money by playing safe, to whet appetites as well as satisfy them, to explore the edges of the picture as well as illuminate the centre. Programming is key, but so is thinking more freely about matters of apparently narrower academic interest and other kinds of minority writing.
Even if the present health of festivals seems stable, the reading (and listening) audience is not so enormous that it can afford to live in segregated compartments. The best festivals are ports of departure, as well as a form of homecoming.
Andrew Motion is Poet Laureate, professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and patron of the Runnymede International Literary Festival, which runs until April 23.