Book festivals - for whom and for what?

Claire Malcolm
Opinion - Festivals Monday, 04 February 2019

Festivals are booming. They should be about a lot more than marketing opportunities, writes Claire Malcolm

The northern book festival circuit is thriving, with several new festivals joining the more established circuit in the last few years. In the spring, Hexham, Huddersfield and York literature festivals take place; Bradford follows in the summer; and in the autumn there are the long-established festivals in Durham, Manchester, Ilkley and Sheffield. But while the region continues to see festivals growing and demand increasing, many of these events are serving audiences who face economic challenges, and are operating in areas where opportunities to gain much-needed corporate and media sponsorship are on the decline.

Aside from recent heated arguments about paying authors fairly for events, there is a lack of wider debate about the mission and purpose of books festivals. Of course authors should be paid for their work. Beyond this, what value do festivals create for the organisers, audiences and readers? Whom are they really for? And what are publishers and writers supporting when they agree to appear at a festival or to send an author to an event?

At New Writing North we produce the Durham Book Festival, which was created 30 years ago and takes place every October with reach to about 10,000 readers. Durham is a small jewel of a city in the North East, with a world-class university and a UNESCO World Heritage site at its heart. However, the wider county has suffered immense post-industrial hardship since the 1980s, and is one of the most deprived local authorities in the country. Beyond the city centre, it has a higher than average rate of disabled residents, and low literacy levels in children. So why have a book festival there? Why not focus on a busy urban centre with an established, middle class audience?

Durham Book Festival is made possible by investment from Durham County Council, Durham University and Arts Council England. For us and our partners, the festival is about the wider benefits and contributions that a good, locally embedded festival can make for both books and their authors and for the development of the local community through literature.

New Writing North is a development agency that runs a festival as part of a wide portfolio of activities, and I think that this gives us a deeper vision and purpose for our work in Durham: we know that festivals are excellent ways to sell books and build authors' reputations - but they can be so much more than that. Durham Book Festival is a platform for new commissions, an environment that develops new and different voices, a place to celebrate and develop regional talent, and a mechanism for amplifying and showcasing the year-round work that is going on in libraries, schools and communities. In our programme, we try to connect the hyper-local with world-class artistic excellence and engage in national "conversations". And boy, do we all need more of that engagement in 2019.

At Durham Book Festival we invest heavily in wide-ranging community activities including a Big Read project that buys and gives away 3,000 free books and supports those who might not see themselves as readers; the project, which last year shared Sarah Waters' novel The Little Stranger, holds reading and book group sessions in prisons, schools, libraries and community venues. We also took to the road to create the Izzy Gizmo Story Gig as part of our Little Read project, which saw us share Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie's picture book with pre-school groups and primary schools in rural areas across the county, engaging them in craft, music and song writing workshops along the way. These outreach efforts take time and resources, but mean that the festival gives a clear social return, as well as an economic one.

We also know that coming into the city to an intimidating building might be out of some people's comfort zone and budgets. Through embedded work with communities, we help residents build their confidence to take part in the festival, as we make events available locally. We've also begun to invest more in digital by filming one-off events, recording podcasts, and making available book group and schools' resources to extend the life of the work we've invested in.

In areas that lack wide cultural provision, a book festival is an exciting chance to celebrate writing and ideas. Book festivals should be special for audiences, from the careful curation of speakers and event chairs through to offering opportunities to see new work that is commissioned and premiered locally. For us that's anything from commissioning an essay from the historian David Olusoga reflecting on growing up in the North East to working with the TS Eliot Prize-winning poet Jacob Polley to produce a multimedia performance, which goes on to tour the UK, based on his collection Jackself.

Festivals can also be places to make books. Last year we published two books through our small press Mayfly: a graphic novel from Una, who worked with a local women's group in County Durham over two years; and with the estate of the late North East writer Julia Darling we published Pearl, her collected stories, with a glowing introduction from Val McDermid.

A good festival can result in books being sold, artistic careers being built, and loyal and diverse audiences being developed for the future. Better still, a lasting legacy and value can be created for local people with manifold civic and social benefits for those involved - whether that's building dialogue in communities, reducing loneliness through shared reading, or introducing pre-school children and their parents to the benefits of books and cultural engagement.

Having a vision for Durham Book Festival that has particular outcomes for everyone from writers and publishers to communities and individuals creates a financial challenge each year, but in our view a festival without this mission would be a hollow one. As book festivals continue to spring up, I think it's time for all involved to start demanding more from these events than pure marketing opportunities. Literature can do so much for our communities, and we should all help it to thrive.

Claire Malcolm is the chief executive of New Writing North, the writing development agency for the North of England. New Writing North runs a wide portfolio of work: it produces festival and events, commissions and publishes new work, manages prizes, and has an award-winning programme of activities for young people and communities. @nwnclaire

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