Packing in the punters - authors, publishers and summer festivals
Tania Harrison, Arts Programmer at Latitude, on how festivals got literature.Comedy has been the "new rock n roll" since the early 90s, but one of the most surprising developments within the arts in recent years has been the massive success of literary tents and stages at summer festivals. Of course people have been gathering en masse to watch the latest bands play since the Sixties, but what is it that now draws people in their hundreds and thousands to watch Alan Hollinghurst read from The Stranger's Child, or listen attentively to Simon Armitage's latest poems?
The main reason why festivals have become artier and more literary is the changing demographic the people who go to them. Many people who got in to the habit of festival-going in their teens and 20s have stuck with it as they got older, but now expect different things out of the experience. Yes, they still want to see music acts, but the arts - and particularly literature - are increasingly deciding factors for the culturally engaged but often time-poor people who come to festivals. And for this reason they play a very important role in keeping publishers and authors in touch with a much wider readership than the hardcore fans who can usually be relied upon to come to dedicated reader events or standalone literature festivals.
I think people are culturally curious, and for someone with wide-ranging tastes it's a much more efficient experience to be able see Siri Hustvedt in the afternoon, catch some new theatre, and then move on to see some bands at a festival, than it is to book tickets for five or six separate events. And let's also remember those culture-lovers who live outside major metropolitan areas, and who do not have theatres, bookshops and concert halls on their doorsteps. For them, a festival is an opportunity to go on an all-you-can-eat culture binge, but on a single ticket price.
For authors and their publishers, summer festivals have the added advantage of offering a ready-made crowd of people in the right frame of mind. Anyone who's been to a deserted bookshop or library talk knows how difficult it can be to attract an audience, even for highly acclaimed and bestselling authors. Festivals, however, are one of the few occasions where you find 35,000 people all looking for something to do all the time. And the fact that literature events often take place cheek by jowl with comedy, cabaret, film and music means an author can effectively ambush a new audience.
It's a well-known phenomenon that festivalgoers usually walk away from a festival with a new favourite band, but there's no reason why that couldn't be a new favourite writer or poet too.
Latitude Festival runs 12 to 15 July, with authors including Siri Hustvedt, Iain Banks, Simon Armitage, Tim Lott, Ned Beauman, Dave Goreman, John Cooper Clark, Blake Morrison, John Pilger, and Paul Mason