On surviving literary festivals

It was while singing a little-known number called “My Wife Left Town with a Banana” at this year’s Hay Literary Festival that I discovered a small and simple truth.  Festival-goers want to have fun. They may be carrying a collection of hardback collection of essays by Zadie Smith and bear the look of serious Radio 4 listeners who have an opinion on everything, but in their hearts they are the same as the people bouncing about at Glastonbury or Latitude. They want to enjoy themselves, to have a light literary experience  – chat, jokes, even songs –  that does not involve reading.

The book festival as entertainment venue poses a challenge to writers, only a few of whom are instinctive show-offs. For the rest, a basic etiquette guide may be helpful.

Upon not being recognised when you arrive, when you are there, and when you leave.
There is a strict hierarchy of guests at a literary festival. The unquestioned aristocrats at these events are celebrities – indeed, the less connected a guest star is to the world of books, the greater the excitement that their presence will cause.

At the next level down will be the famous author, invariably accompanied by his editor, publicist, agent and several members of his family. Then there is a large middle-class of festival regulars , solid, one-book-a-year types who can be relied upon to have a new book to plug. The rest are, frankly, there to make up the numbers.

A festival, in other words, can be a bruising experience. It is probably sensible to remember that this mad shop-window has little to do with the writing life, that an author’s most important work is done alone and without an audience. As you experience the small, painful indignities which are part of festival life, repeat to yourself now and then, “I am a writer… I am a writer.” Comport yourself with brave slightly pained good humour, like Prince Charles visiting a factory.

Upon keeping your audience happy.
The needs of festival-goers are not complicated. They want to see famous people, and possibly hear them talk as well. Even as they attend your event, their thoughts will be on Simon Schama, Stephen Fry or Mariella Frostrop. Any kind of story about the famous will be reassuring to them.

If, like most authors, you are unable to give celebrity value, even at second- or third-hand, it may be wise to go to the other extreme and impersonate an owlish, good-hearted innocent who has no knowledge of the world of the vulgar modern world. Ask innocently, “What exactly is Mariella Frostrup?”

Upon being interviewed by a dunderhead.
At some of the smaller festivals,  there will be the danger of being interviewed by a worthy but stupid local worthy. He has served his time on the committee, sent out the letters and his reward will be to talk to an author on stage.

He will have read your blurbs but not your books. He will worry away at irrelevancies, taking you further and further away from the book.

Behave as if you are being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. But surprised and delighted by the acuity of his insights. “Do I write by hand or on to the computer? Excellent question. I’m so glad you asked me that.”

Upon becoming a character
Ian McEwan once said that he separates the two professional entities within him: there is the creative McEwan who wrote the books and the marketing McEwan who went out and sold them. He was identifying the fact that many of our most successful writers have learned to adopt a stage persona when in public. Howard Jacobson is a rather frightening Old Testament prophet, Jeanette Winterson a possessed wise woman, Will Self a bovver-boy, the literary equivalent of Norman Tebbit during the 1980s.

It is worth deciding what kind of author you would like to impersonate while on stage. It makes audiences feel at ease. They know where they are with a character.

Upon sharing the stage with a much-moved public figure
There is a good turn-out for your event but, unfortunately, few of the people there have come to see you. By one of those cruel bits of casting which the festival circuit occasionally throws up, you are part of a discussion with someone who is much better known than you are.

The famous one only has to clear his throat for smiles of pleasurable anticipation to appear on the faces of those in the audience. His lamest quip will be greeted with gales of delighted laughter. When you speak, there is an unmistakeable restlessness in the room

Accept it. If you attempt to compete with celebrity, you will enrage and frustrate your audience. Be an amused, respectful courtier. Lead the laughter.

Upon having a humiliatingly small queue at a signing session
Nowhere is the pitiless hierarchy of the modern literary world more brutally in evidence than at a joint signing session at a literary festival. The threadbare illusion of equality between professional authors disappears when they sit down beside one another after an event to meet readers and sell books.

There is no lonelier person than the author sitting alone behind a pile of books within feet of someone who is being mobbed by bright-eyed fans.

This situation poses a delicate situation for both concerned. If you have a respectable queue, it is sensible to sign books slowly so that it will remain so for as long as possible. If you are alone, try to find someone (a publicist, a bookselling assistant, a security guard) with whom to engage in an earnest conversation. Once you can no longer hold on to your audience of one, make a dignified retreating, bidding farewell to your rival and explaining that you are due at a meeting with your agent.

Above all, remember that festivals are part of the entertainment business. You are a writer, you are a writer…

The Author, Autumn, 2010