Summer is the season when writers cover their typewriters, holster their pencils, unplug their computers and step, blinking, into the light of their adoring readers.
Between May and October writers travel across the UK in packs, moving from Wales to Harrogate, London to Devon and Edinburgh to Wigtown, dispensing hour-long nuggets of writerly wisdom. Wide-eyed, disbelieving debut authors tell us ‘how I got an agent to read my half-page proposal and sign me up to a six-figure deal for an unwritten series of 5 books’ while seasoned professionals in the autumn of their careers share secret misdemeanours and confess that they want to kill off the character that all their readers love.
Book festivals attract thousands of readers who congregate in wind-tossed, mud-bespattered, seat-rationed tents to hear writers they recognise repeat words they already know. Sounds daft when you put it like that. So why do we do it?
The basest, most elemental fact about book festivals is that writers and their publishers/publicists come to sell their books.
There’s also the gossipy side of the book festival. What are they wearing, how do writers speak or perform? Do their spoken words and personality live up to their written words? [And let’s not go down the “are they photogenic” route: a lot of writers would not be published … ahem, enough said…]
What about readers? We know that selling books is big business. At the festival, we even buy them at full price and in hardback. Yet, something else is at work that we want to be part of.
There’s a mystique about writing. Exciting things can happen, it seems. Anonymous writers can be plucked from obscurity to overnight success, their books turned into best sellers with a life-changing book-to-film deal. Listening to someone talk about their writing, how and when and why they write and how they come up with ideas or deal with writer’s block is helpful and inspiring for new and beginning writers. The EIBF has almost as many seminars and talks about writing as author events.
Book festivals are the ‘X-Factor’ of writing. We think it could happen to us.
So far this year I’ve been to two different book festivals in Edinburgh: the West Port Book Festival
The WPBF is organised in the shadier side of Edinburgh, in and around the second-hand bookshops in the Grassmarket area, while the EIBF takes place in Charlotte Square in the city’s posh end [a ‘come in, you’ll have had your tea’ kind of place].
At WPBF I met the poet J. O. Morgan
and got his first ever signed copy of Natural Mechanical (he was bemused with the idea of signing and would only sign in pencil: a transitory medium)
The entire WPBF programme included magicians, musicians and a ‘twestival’ as well as poets and authors and a final ceilidh. The setting for the free reading events is deliberately intimate with audiences kept to between 15-25 people. It makes for lively sessions and plenty of questions. For instance, Peter Burnett, author of The Supper Book, was asked, after a particularly riveting talk about crisps, if he’d ever eaten a ‘white roll and crisps’, which he hadn’t, but promised to add to his diet!
I’ve been to Elaine Showalter’s talk at this year’s EIBF and have tickets for Victoria Glendinning and Sarah Waters. Although pretty expensive, at up to £9 each, the tickets sold out really quickly. Too quickly. I missed out on hearing William Boyd, Ian Rankin, and also the EVENT of the festival: Margaret Atwood’s launch of her new book The Year of the Flood with musical performance in St. John’s Church.
Showalter was on sparkling form. I knew I’d like her. I’ve already reviewed A Jury of her Peers so I’m familiar with her thesis and I’ve watched The Guardian pod cast where Showalter speaks about the book and shares her enthusiasm for her subject, so I’ve heard and seen and read her words. And yet, and yet, I still learned from the experience of listening to her speak about the ‘romance of research’, of digging in untouched archives to expose the hardships women writers encountered and have overcome during the last five centuries. In person her tone was convivial, conspiratorial. For a delightful hour we joined her ‘sisterhood’ of women writers and readers and pondered the dangers that lurk behind innocent labelling. Showalter pointed out that if women writers had come up with their own group name rather than quietly holding on to and even writing towards the ‘chick-lit’ label they would have a wider readership and greater literary standing.
I’m off to the EIBF again tomorrow – currently finishing off reading The Little Stranger ….