David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.


Literary Festivals: Exclusive Enclaves or Inclusive Innovators?

This post originates from roundtable event I was invited to participate in today, hosted at Queen Margaret University by David Finkelstein of QMU (http://www.qmu.ac.uk/mcpa/staffdavidfinkelstein.htm) and Claire Squires of the University of Stirling (http://www.english.stir.ac.uk/staff/claire-squires/index.php) as part of an RSE-funded study into book cultures and literary festivals. In this short post I’m going to focus on two things – the event format and its content (and it’s relationship with wider events and festivals research themes).

The event format was interesting because of the variety of participants invited. There was academic representation (cultural policy, literature, publishing, events and festivals) alongside a healthy number of practitioners, and a policy maker or two. Stimulated by an open set of questions about opportunities and challenges for literary festivals, the ensuing discussion was rich, passionate and insightful. There were no quirky ‘post-it’ note shenanigans – the more traditional discussion and debate format lent itself to a meaningful set of what us academics might call ‘research questions’ – formed ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ the practitioner community. For example, Alistair Moffat was in attendance, representing Bookfestival Scotland (http://www.bookfestivalscotland.com/), a collaboration of 41 literary festivals across the length and breadth of Scotland. For us researchers, being able to hear of the challenges faced by literary festivals on the ground helps to ensure our subsequent generation of research problems is informed, based on already-existing evidence and in tune with the needs of the research users.

So, the format worked well – discussions had to be curtailed rather than stimulated. What if the content? Well, for this post it is worth articulating the issues of relevance in two ways – 1) those common to other festival genres and 2) those specific to the field of literary festivals.

As I listened to the impassioned debate around the value of literary festivals to Scottish society, I was struck by the degree of commonality between all festival types. To summarise, the issues appear to be:

i) how to ‘make the case’ effectively for the value of these events – tied into an unsatisfactory set of criteria (largely economic) which merely scrape the surface of the meaning of literacy festivals to their stakeholders (authors, publishers, audiences, communities)

ii) how to reach into new markets and addressing new policy agendas whilst flat out delivering the festival itself

iii) diminishing sponsorship and increased competition for the audiences’ attention (whether from other festival types or from other firms if entertainment)

iv) how to secure the right balance between star attractions (signature events) and emerging and/or niche interest artists. The economic imperative drives festivals towards big hitters but at what cost to the ethos of the event? Is the participation objective conceded to ticket sales and profile raising?

Although these issues might be relatively common across festival types, the event also highlighted a few unique features/research problems for literary festivals:

i) the role of literature (and literacy) in narrowing the democratic deficit which exists in a de-politicised civic realm

ii) why Scotland has one of the highest number of literacy festivals per capita in the world

iii) what impact digital innovations have on the status of the book and on the practice of book readings at the heart of the literacy festival template

iv) the extent to which the literary festival has been influenced by the trend towards an experience economy and its impact on the nature of event production and consumption, thereafter.

Whilst not an exhaustive list (many more issues were discussed today) I think these research questions/problems encapsulate the general thrust of the event and its outcomes. This the start of a process which could lead to a series of research enquiries into the status of the literary festival in the nation that made such a significant contribution to the Enlightenment. Any other views?


David McGillivray • November 22, 2011

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