Literary Festivals and Expectations

Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d been to fewer bookish events than I would like this year, mostly due to focusing on my MA course. However the arrival of Bath festival was a brilliant chance to get back out and hear some really amazing authors interviewed by amazing people. My health unfortunately meant I didn’t get to everything I wanted – but I did have a great week at what I was able to do.

All of this got me thinking about what makes a good literary event – what is it that we’re looking for when we turn up and take our seat? Someone I know commented on an event being directed towards readers rather than other writers – which surprised me, because that’s what I had expected from this kind of event. But what you walk in expecting will influence how you feel about whatever it actually is.

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Stage ready for Ali Smith at Bath Literary Festival, May 2017

I attended a panel run by the TLS on Overrated/ Underrated books, which I had assumed from the description on the website would mostly be about contemporary fiction, but as it turned out the panelists’ picks were for the most part pre-1960 (and in one case, Shakespeare). I enjoyed the panel in any case, but I was wrong-footed by the reality not matching what I had expected. I didn’t walk away particularly disappointed, but mostly feeling ambivalent. The event was also structured in what I felt was an awkward manner – moving between panelists one at a time to give their Over and Underrated writers, with frequent reminders of limited time from the moderator. There wasn’t room for a great deal of back and forth or discussion – when this sprang up naturally, it had to be swept aside in favour of keeping within the hour allotted for the event.

These factors lessened my enjoyment of an event – but what is it that makes a good one? My favourite, without a shadow of a doubt, was Ali Smith, interviewed by Creative Director of the festival Alex Clark. Everything about the interview was brilliant – from the two of them opening with enthusiastic support for the soon-to-be-released debut novel of their introducer, to reminding us that Jane Austen had been in this room, to Ali singing about saving Bath library. I was inspired and moved by many things she said, and I loved hearing her read her own work. Lots of authors aren’t particularly good at this part, but those who can read aloud well bring something new and sparkling to their text. They guide you through the intricacies of it, the rhythms and emphases. I love being able to pick up something else by that author and hear their voice in my head as I read.

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Reading on the train home

Partly, I loved that event because I was invested in the people speaking – I admired them and had come specifically to hear them, rather than going to a panel where I was interested in the concept and knew almost nothing of the participants beforehand. But what stands out about this event to me was how naturally it functioned – an interviewer and interviewee who knew each other well enough to laugh and joke together set an atmosphere of friendly relaxation for the whole room. The questions were insightful and the answers passionately given. Even when the audience came up with only two questions at the end, it was not an uncomfortable quietness – Alex Clark joked that they had ‘stunned us into silence’, and moved on. The little bit of magic came because the two women on the stage managed to make an interview in front of a packed crowd feel like a personal conversation we were all a part of.

I think the common factor in the events I’ve really loved, of all the ones I’ve been to, is that the best ones invite the readers in: the people who are there to learn and understand something about the author, who are eager to know how she made that connection or what gave him this inspiration. The most memorable events always remind me that writers are human, just like me. And because of that, I walk away admiring them even more.

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