The Boar at Cheltenham Literature Festival
Following a hiatus from in-person book events due to the pandemic, the 2022 literary calendar is now in full swing, and the book industry truly feels like it has hit it’s stride once again. One of the most recognisable events in this calendar is Cheltenham Literature Festival – which this year took place from the Friday 7 to Sunday 16 October. I travelled down on the penultimate day to experience the festival and explore all it had to offer.
Primarily located in Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham Literature Festival takes place in the beating heart of the town centre. The scope is pretty breath-taking as a first-time visitor, and it is evident to see why people might travel year after year. Inside the park itself there are multiple pop-up theatres that house up to a couple hundred guests, a generous street market and a whole area for children to explore. It is truly impressive on first entrance, most book signings I have attended have had less than 50 guests so to see so many other readers in one place was an exciting feeling.
However, we started our day outside of the park as we headed to the Town Hall to listen to Ian Rankin discuss his latest Rebus novel, A Head Full of Heartstones. Being a complete newcomer to Rankin’s work there was a fear I would not exploit the full value of the talk, but it is difficult to not be infatuated with him once he starts to speak. Diving into his career as a whole as well as the evolution, and potential death, of the police detective novel, it was evident that Rankin is a true great of the genre and he offered insights that highlight his deep understanding of the crime novel, which comes from being a contributor to it for so long. Yet, it is his humility that really stuck with me, his descriptions of his life in Edinburgh and his time drinking in the Oxford Bar. Describing his time working on the late William McIlvanney’s unfinished novel, The Dark Remains, he recalled visiting McIlvanney’s wife who once finished reading the book told Rankin that it was as if her husband was sat next to her. It was a truly beautiful moment, and it was evident the pride Rankin felt, and highlighted the reason he writes.
Despite the brilliance of Ian Rankin, hearing him talk was partnered with an unsettling feeling. The average age of the crowd was unsurprisingly high, and I did feel out of place. Although I am aware that Rankin has been writing novels for some time, and therefore his audience was going to be older, it does feel a shame that the opportunity to inspire a future generation of both readers and writers isn’t there. I do think the ticket prices have a part to play in this, although they are necessary for the maintenance of the festival, I feel they also act as a barrier for access for some groups. I feel privileged that I got the opportunity to listen to Rankin speak but I can’t help but wish that others my age had that opportunity. I fear it is not an isolated case, and there is a vicious cycle of the young generation not reading, and therefore not wanting to visit book events, which then means they don’t have the encouragement to read – and there is no way out of this cycle. I went to Cheltenham, I listened to this fantastic, well-established author and it was through this that I decided to pick up his debut. You can’t help but wondered if more young adults had this chance, then maybe they would do the same.
I can’t help but feel my generation is forgotten
It must be said that Cheltenham Literature Festival has a fantastic ‘Wild Wood’ which is a dedicated space for younger readers, with lots of free events and activities – and if you’re lucky you might even bump into the Gruffalo. This acts as vital encouragement for children to get excited as books, if they can start reading now then there is much more chance, they will carry on as they get older. Since the festival site is actually free entry, this space is accessible for all, payment comes in entering workshops and talks. This a real strength of Cheltenham, there is a real family community feel and it is great to see so many young children wondering around with a sense of awe painted on their faces as they attempt to crack a secret code or take part in a craft. You can see the beginning of a love of books, but then you wonder where they all go when they get that little bit older. The demographic of Cheltenham felt like the two extremes, and there has to be plaudits for the interactivity for the younger generation but I am visiting as a 20-year-old, and I can’t help but feel my generation is forgotten.
Our next few events showcased the diversity of the festival as we moved from listening to the commercially successful Richard Osman to hearing from the six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize just days before the winner was announced. After each there was an opportunity to meet with the authors, which provide some of my favourite interactions I get the privilege to experience. I think you spend so much time in solidarity with a book and to be able to express your feelings to the creator of it is unlike any other communication. The prestige of Cheltenham also means the calibre of authors is very high, and I got the chance to speak to authors that I usually wouldn’t have the privilege of meeting. This is evident throughout the fortnight, with names such as Stephen King, Graham Norton and Stanley Tucci all making appearances in 2022. In fact, there is close to 1000 authors and speakers at the festival, an incredible feat.
This array of guests is another strength of the festival that impressed me, I challenge anyone to look through the programme and tell me there is nothing of interest to them. Even individuals my age should be encouraged by some of the names, the Tik-Tok success Taylor Jenkins Reid or Love Island star Dr Alex George. It comes back to issues of price, the roster is good but if you can only afford one or two events, the festival falls flat.
The insight of the likes of Malorie Blackman and Ian Rankin was truly inspiring.
It is interesting to compare the structure of literary festivals to music festivals. For the latter you pay one fee and see as many artists as you like, it means you enter the festival grounds, and it is well set up for you to spend the day there with plenty of activities and places to take a break. Some literary festivals follow this structure, notably the Young Adult Literature Convention, but for most each individual event is priced and ticketed separately. This removes the immersive feeling of entering the festival site, and aside from the children’s zone, Cheltenham matched this pattern, with not a lot to do outside of the talks. At first, I was blown away by the size of the festival but upon closer inspection, there was not much going on. I was lucky that I was able to go to four different talks, which filled up the day, but I feel if you didn’t have this opportunity, you would be disappointed.
Overall, I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to go and listen to so many fantastic authors discuss their works and their lives, the insight of the likes of Malorie Blackman and Ian Rankin was truly inspiring. However, I was disappointed with the festival as a whole and I just wish more focus was placed on those generations above childhood. I think publishers could be invited, or there could be some form of fair which could act as an avenue for self-published authors to promote their books, it would also offer an extra, less costly activity for attendees to participate. Despite this, I would not wish to discourage others from attending and if the opportunity does arise, I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. I will definitely go back, but it will likely be to see one of the bigger names I would otherwise not have the chance to see.