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A homage to literary festivals: why they should be at the top of a post-lockdown list

Attending a literary festival is a joy like no other. There is something utterly exquisite about the buzz of excitement in the air. People of all ages, though normally on the mature side, wait in a long queue, books and tickets in hand for the event about to unfold. People congregate in a hall, the capacity of which is relative to the author’s apparent popularity. There is a hush of silence as starting time arrives. Then, a loud rush of applause as the author and their interviewer are welcomed on stage. An hour (sometimes more) of insight, discussion, and enlightenment.  

I have been to many literary events at the biannual Cambridge Literary Festival where that atmosphere, that rule of thumb for literary discovery, has appeared time after time. Following their discussion and time for questions – where super stewards whiz around the auditorium, microphones at the ready – another queue descends on the author for good old-fashioned book signing. Some will have bought the book as preparation for the talk. Others will have been persuaded by the context of the discussion to purchase the book and open their minds. That pattern repeats itself throughout the entire festival, with many people going to multiple events.  

It is like humans have broken the fourth wall of publishing, by peering into the lives of authors

Unfortunately, all those events, in Cambridge and beyond, have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. While some festivals were able to innovate during the slight easing of coronavirus restrictions, by hosting drive-through events similar to drive-in cinemas, most have had to move their entire festivals catalogues online, or cancel them all together.  

At times, the cancellation of festivals has allowed for technological discovery. I wrote last year about the brilliance of the Cambridge Literary Festival creating an online Listening Festival. It provided the chance to hear podcasts, archive events alongside Zoom recordings of planned literary discussions. That was wonderful, inventive, and ensured individuals needing their biannual festival enjoyment could access it.  

But it wasn’t – and would never be – the same. The spirit of literary festivals is so defined by the opportunity to see authors in person. It is like humans have broken the fourth wall of publishing, by peering into the lives of authors. Most of their time before Covid was spent at a desk looking at the same four walls as they desperately tried to complete the book society is now discussing.  

Festivals provide an opportunity for the spontaneous, something which has been so lost over the last year

The reason literary festivals worked so well is because they showed an author who has completed the entire process. From coming up with the idea for a book to reaching publication, every author must go through so many stages to ensure their work, which is often completed over years, reaches the bookshelves. The festival circuit is often an intrinsic part of the market process to ensure as many people as possible have access to a book and it sells as well as possible. Although, naturally, many successful authors enjoy annual book deals with a longstanding publisher, seeing a debut novelist triumph in their literary and publication dream is a sight to behold.  

Festivals provide an opportunity for the spontaneous, something which has been so lost over the last year. Any kind of return seems distant, with pubs and restaurants requiring customers to book in advance. What literary festivals offered was the potential to see authors and hear ideas you had never previously considered. If an event hadn’t fully sold out, last minute tickets were sometimes available. They provide last minute opportunities to see authors you would never normally give the time to. 

Of course, I look forward to returning to the Cambridge Literary Festival at the nearest opportunity. It is my home city and always puts on terrific events. And there are of course the classic literary festivals I would want to attend: the Hay Festival, the Cheltenham Literary Festival. They are the best known and biggest festivals in the UK that will always enjoy top profile guests. The future literary festivals I would enjoy, however, are probably those I know the least about. Small towns or communities that are based on their beauty, trying to attract the highest quality of guests. Though, for someone like me who doesn’t drive, they might be tricky to access, however, the quality of discussion, literary engagement, and sense of revelation would make the experiences entirely worthwhile. 

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