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Cultural Capital

30 August 2016

Literature festivals have grown beyond imagination in recent years, attracting increasing numbers even as book sales have fallen. We examine what’s driving the lit-fest boom, starting with the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature

How thick does a book have to be before it’s proper literature? Ask an author that question, and you’ll soon find yourself fleeing down the street as poorly aimed hardbacks fly past your head. In the same spirit, it seems silly to praise a literary festival for its girth, but the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature (EAFL) is a special case. Since 2009, it’s doubled in size, drawing over 170 writers, thinkers and speakers from 35 countries in 2016, and attracting around 40,000 visitors to 200 one-off events, making it the largest event of its kind in the Middle East.

“I am delighted and, yes, surprised by the incredible growth of the festival,” says festival director Isobel Abulhoul. “The location of Dubai, at the crossroads of East and West, makes it excellent in terms of reaching out to authors across continents, and I believe the time was right for a cultural event of this kind. There is a real hunger both in the Emirates and the region for intelligent and interesting live discourse.”

It’s the curse of big numbers to hide almost as much as they reveal, which is why we’re going to throw a few, even bigger, names into the mix. British poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy and crime writer Ian Rankin gave readings at the 2016 edition, as did Helen MacDonald, winner of the 2014 Costa Book Award for H Is For Hawk. Literature’s MVP William Shakespeare was in attendance, courtesy of Steven Berkoff’s one-man show Shakespeare’s Villains, and the scientists took off their white coats for five days to host talks, with zoologist Nicola Davies and brain specialist Susan Greenfield in attendance. Basically, anybody who’s ever read anything would have found something to be enthralled by, which is just the way the creators like it.

“Organising an annual international literary festival could be compared to climbing Mount Everest (in my imagination),” says Abulhoul. “It takes enormous effort from a dedicated team, and there are many challenges along the route. It becomes a tremendous and worthwhile achievement when you finally reach the top. The ‘top’ for me is when I pause for a moment in the main foyer of the festival and watch thousands of happy people, made up of every age group, nationality and background, busily hurrying from one session to another, usually clutching a book. That is pure joy.”

It’s not doing Dubai’s cultural credentials any harm, either. Up until recently, the city was a sugar-rush holiday destination, a giddy blast of five-star hotels, beautiful beaches, fine dining and adrenaline. Events such as the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature throw a few vegetables onto the plate, attracting people who might otherwise never look beyond the cultural delights of Europe’s big cities. And while we’re abusing food metaphors, why not delve into cliché for a moment. If a literary festival is food for the mind, the EAFL is Dubai’s lovely aunty, determined to make sure everybody eats until they’re ready to burst. The festival’s volunteer programme encourages locals to help out, while education days and competitions get people writing – in both English and Arabic. Authors visit schools across the UAE, inspiring thousands of students to read for pleasure, while the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition looks to launch UAE-based authors onto the world stage by putting the winners into contact with international agents. Many of these have gone onto multi-book deals, and even returned to the festival as speakers, offering a pleasing narrative circularity.

“As the centre of gravity in the world shifts further and further to the east, Dubai has a really great future and it has great potential as well,” says philosopher AC Grayling, who attended the EAFL in 2016. “Large numbers of people are coming here, literally in the millions when you think about all the tourists, making it a crossroads for communications. Dubai has the infrastructure, the geographical location, the wonderful development to become a marketplace for many things, including literature, ideas and open discussion.”

So, no pressure then? But the EAFL is keeping its feet firmly on the ground, incrementally improving the festival every year by bolstering it with fresh events while welcoming interesting speakers from varied disciplines. Fundamentally, though, no matter who’s on the podium, it’s a place for people who love books to congregate, meet their heroes, and share their passion for reading and writing with the local community.

“Packed venues, happy audiences and authors, and positive feedback from all sectors involved in the festival; these are all real measures of our success,” says Abulhoul. “But our work is not done when the festival is over. We immediately gather all the statistics; from ticket sales, room managers, researchers, authors, moderators, partners and the team members. We compare current results with past statistics, and we conduct surveys inviting audience members to send us feedback. Each year a theme is selected, and the 2017 theme is ‘Journeys’. This helps in shaping the programme and also the author selection. Next year we will introduce a publishing conference and a residential creative writing course. There will also be a happiness strand, in recognition of the never-ending quest that humanity has to become happy.” Nobody mention Dostoyevsky, OK?

The success of the EAFL isn’t an isolated story. Literary festivals are springing up as quickly as James Patterson novels. There’s now 350 of them in the UK, and nearly triple that in the US. There’s almost 100 in Australia and New Zealand, and 80 across India. And it’s not like these festivals are just a tent and some sandwiches in a field. The Zee Jaipur Literary Festival in India boasts crowds of 250,000, which makes the LA Festival Of Books’ 150,000 turnout seem positively threadbare. Australia’s Sydney Writer’s Festival gets 100,000 people every year, while the Lahore Literary Festival in Pakistan attracted 50,000 visitors in 2016. Pick almost any country on the map, and at some point they’ll host an event celebrating reading.

The question becomes: what’s driving this boom in literary festivals?

“Don’t forget, there are different kinds of book fairs,” says Stephanie Kurschus, author of European Book Cultures: Diversity As Challenge. “The world’s biggest children’s book fair [in Bologna] is for professionals of the business only. The masses in Bologna consist of publishers, booksellers, agents and authors… festivals are often seen as a means to boost a city’s image by proclaiming it to be a book town or literature city.”

It’s an understandable tactic, especially for middleweight cities that use the halo effect of the arts to attract sponsors, and big name authors to attract visitors. Case in point: Bradford in England, which received a government grant in January to run its Bradford Literary Festival for two years, with the aim of “developing the cultural infrastructure in Bradford and the North of England, leading to a step change for both literature and literacy”. Imagine the city going to the government with proposals for a five-day rave and you can see why literary festivals are so attractive.

“I have been at festival events, where in the space of an hour people are moved to tears, to laughter, to surprise and disagreement,” says Abulhoul. “People leave the venue and view the world differently. Festivals attract repeat visitors, who return again and again. That is a real plus in building cultural tourism. The EAFL provides events for the whole family across a wide variety of genres and topics, so from toddlers to senior citizens, enjoyment is there to be found.”

Burnishing a city’s reputation with cultural events is hardly a new phenomenon, but it’s surprising to see the number of literary festivals increasing even as book sales fall. A comparison can be drawn with the music industry, where sales of live performances have skyrocketed even as album sales have fallen – except instead of Mick Jagger’s geriatric hip gyrations, there’s the dulcet tones of authors and a nice glass of bubbly.

“Festivals and fairs that are open to the public serve as shop windows to the literary scene, allowing the public an intimate encounter with both authors and newly published books,” adds Kurschus. “They are supposed to quicken the appetite of potential readers. Meeting a favourite author is a good argument to visit a fair; listening to readings from unpublished books as well as the simple experience of enjoying books.”

It’s not just the authors who are in demand at literary festivals. Government surveys have revealed that 60 per cent of Brits and 80 per cent of Americans want to write a novel, which is a slightly demoralising statistic when placed next to the one per cent of manuscripts that get published. It’s a hard business, running on tight margins against fierce competition. Literary agents receive hundreds of thousands of submissions a year from wannabe authors, but only take a handful of clients on. They’re the unicorns of the publishing world and everybody’s stalking them, which makes every literary festival a rodeo for prospective authors. You just have to lasso somebody, and it’s not impossible.

“Festivals and fairs are important to agents in a number of ways as they may have existing clients speaking on panels or at the festivals but they may be also there to discover new talent,” says Harry Illingworth, literary agent at DHH Literary Agency. “Many festivals have ‘pitch an agent’ type slots where unpublished writers can pitch their novels to literary agents and get feedback. If the book is really great, this can lead to representation. Each festival is different, but you can be sure that there’s lots of socialising, great panel events, help for new writers, and usually a nice sense of community in there, too.”

DHH runs a number of smaller literary fairs itself, but instead of appealing to thousands of visitors once a year, it attracts hundreds over a series of events, each focusing on a specific genre, such as crime or fantasy, outside its Goldsboro Books shop in Leicester Square. From this perspective, as somebody who both benefits from literary festivals, and helps organise them, Illingworth has an interesting take on why they work.

“I think it’s important for authors to get themselves out in the public eye so that new readers can discover their work, but at the end of the day, these events are all about authors and readers, so it’s very important to look after them in the best possible way and ensure everyone has the best time they can,” he says. “From my perspective, and very simply put, I think [a good festival] is a nice balance between a fun, social atmosphere and healthy author care from the event organisers.”

Whatever the alchemy driving the rise of literary festivals, it’s good to see culture taking itself to the people, rather than standing aloof. Anything that draws readers from their armchair and authors from their typewriters is surely a good thing, and the way things are going, novelists are going to have to learn to write on the road, because literature’s becoming a touring profession.

The Emirates Airline Festival Of literature, March 3 to 11, 2017 emirateslitfest.com

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