Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Literary Festivals: the magic ingredients
Gatherings of writers can be odd events where egos and insecutirites make a toxic mix. But at their best they are creative and compelling meetings of minds and ideas.
How to nuture this mix?
Literary festivals have been on my mind recently, having just been to a few, and as we start to look forward to the 2012 Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
One question is who or what is the festival for? If it is for the audience then I think that they feel a little flat for the writers. They turn up and meet an audience, say the same old things about a book they finished possible one or two years before, at best, and then they 'come down' with a slice of cake and a cup of tea: and then head home.
If that's what you're offering the writers, then I think you're missing out. And certainly writers will pass on the lack of enthusiasm they have for that event.
One simple way festivals seem to approach this is in the name. Literary festivals tend towards the static interaction; 'writer's festivals' tend towards something more interactive and stimulating. This can be workshops; more informal gatherings; literary walks; and of course - hanging out in the pub with writers - which is probably the favourite part for most writers where their audience can talk back to them.
You see - writ
ing is a really odd art form - where, uniquely, the artist never meets their audience, and perhaps the creation is divided from the experience of that art by years or decades, and thousands of miles.
I sit alone in a room and write, and then after an unknown period of time and space, another person sits alone in a room and reads my books. And most of the time I have no idea what they liked or didn't like about the book. Or what questions and responses they had etc.
So what does make a literary festival?
Centralised locations: where people can hang out between and after events. Where there is a buzz, a unique place where story and the written word are for once taken out of the normal world and celebrated. This can be the tent square of Edinburgh or the bar/restaurent of the Beijing Bookworm.
The audience speaks back: breaking down the barriers, so that writers are not just talking to audiences. In Chengdu, for example, I visited a school for disadvantaged children, many of whom had lost parents in the earthquake. And although I was there to talk about writing and my experiences in China, it is impossible to talk to young adults who have come so far in their lives, and not be affected. That's an audience a writer does not forget.
Stimulating: everywhere that has a festival has something special about it. This should be brought into the festival. An obvious example is the Ubud Literary Festival in Bali, where the culture is brought into the festival in food, music and setting. But it's almost unimportant - as long as there is a conversation between place, writers and people.
Authors: interesting authors are a must. That's a duh!
And Audiences: harder to control of course, but places with interesting audiences make for much more stimulating places to visit. Because, we come back to the point, I think: that good literary festivals should be a conversation between writer, audience and place. And not a one way conversation.