There have been two complaints made recently about the state of literary festivals: that they are too focused on celebrity, rather than literature and that men appear to be disproportionately represented on some festival stages.
I’ve spent the last week at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. And it has prompted me to spend some time pondering these two concerns.
I think that the celebrity complaint smacks of snobbery and is pretty easy to debunk. On Sunday night, I saw US author, T. Coraghessan Boyle (if you haven’t read him, I recommend you start with The Tortilla Curtain and keep going from there). He is my festival highlight so far, but more than 30 others can’t have joined me at the event. Meanwhile, big names like Roger Moore, Clare Balding and Benedict Cumberbatch – none of them famous for writing works of literature other than their autobiographies – spoke in front of capacity audiences. Whilst I’d have loved to have seen more people enjoying Boyle’s charming and intimate storytelling, I don’t mind this emphasis on celebrity. Every sell-out audience for a famous face enables a smaller and, at Cheltenham, often free event.
The second issue is trickier and I think For Book’s Sake’s make a compelling argument with their statistical analysis of gender at major literary events. I haven’t been through the Cheltenham programme and counted the number of women and men appearing there. There are many hundreds of events and several people at each and I really don’t have the patience for that. But my gut feeling is that the Cheltenham programmers have made at least a decent stab at getting the balance right.
I started my Festival with three women writers of historic fiction, each discussing their female protagonists. Set in 1887, Clare Clark’s novel, Beautiful Lies, tells the story of the wife of an MP with many secrets. In biographer Frances Osborne’s first novel, Park Lane, the women’s rights movement of the early twentieth century brings together two women from different backgrounds. And in Abdication, Juliet Nicolson describes the events of 1936 through the eyes of a young Barbadian woman working as a driver. Each captured beautifully the immense changes of these times and the impact on the women living through them.
A few days later, I heard two young Nigerian women talk about their debut books. Chibundu Onuzo appeared at the Festival the day before her graduation from UCL with a first class degree in History, while her first novel, The Spider King’s Daughter, has just been published by Faber and Faber. That’s quite an achievement by anyone’s standards. She was joined on stage by Noo Saro-Wiwa, a travel writer who explores Nigeria – the country she left at the age of two – through her book, Looking for Transwonderland. Both were smart, sharp, witty and talented writers with a driving interest in the politics and culture of Nigeria. I left with an enormous sense of optimism that these two women’s voices will be heard by more and more people.
In another, more riotous double-hander, Adrian Mole author, Sue Townsend, discussed personal journeys with Rachel Joyce, whose novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker prize. Townsend and Joyce ran rings round their compère: Townsend her usual irreverent self and Joyce warm and engaging. The two women bounced off one another, both clearly finding the other inspiring. They were the most self-assured people I’ve seen speaking at this festival, men and women included.
I didn’t set out to curate a female-orientated programme for myself and I have seen plenty of men talk at the Festival (Simon Garfield, Adam Horovitz, Sean Borodale, Andrew Collins and more), all of whom were fantastic and worthy of an article of their own. But, I suppose because I’m interested in feminism and the way women write about women, my Festival experience has reflected that.
Literary festivals will always be dictated by the book industry they are there to promote and many still argue that it’s a male dominated industry. But I’ve had the most wonderful week at Cheltenham so far, being inspired, challenged and entertained by as many women as men.
Main image via welovethesky’s Flickr