The Problem with Literary Festivals?

Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, responds to an attack on the economics and values of contemporary literary festivals. She argues that it is ‘frankly, old fashioned’ to suggest that festivals should only showcase ‘high literary forms’ and that mounting a festival is an expensive undertaking, with little room for profit.

Many literary festivals turn over millions, yet little of that money goes to performers. In fact, non-celebrity writers are rarely paid. This is the opening gambit in a recent New Statesman article on what is wrong with contemporary literary festivals, written by a literary agent who is writing a novel, publishing under the pseudonym of Dolores Montenegro. Her many complaints include a lack of care about literature, a misplaced focus on celebrity and poor organisation. Her focus, understandably, is the festival scene in the UK, where she is based.

I agree with Montenegro that authors should be valued for their time and paid for appearing in writer’s festivals. On the whole, I did not recognise the festival experience that she describes in her article.

In Australia, authors are usually paid for festival appearances. Most of the major literary festivals pay their authors a similar rate – around $200 for a panel appearance, up to $500 for a lecture, and $250-600 for professional development events (seminars and workshops). Additionally, it is festivals who foot the bill for travel and accommodation (rather than publishers, as is the UK model), and interstate artists are generally offered per diems on top of their honorariums.

Montenegro’s complaints imply that literary festivals squirrel away vast profits for themselves, rather than pass the money raised on to writers. This reading of the economy of festivals is a little off the mark. Income does not equal profit, and mounting a festival is an expensive undertaking. In 2013, Melbourne Writers Festival spent 25% of its income on fees, travel, accommodation and per diems for artists. Additional festivals expenses include staff wages, office overheads, venues and technical production, and marketing and publicity, to name a few key areas. Australian festivals are generally non-profit organisations, and do not quite fit the picture that Montenegro paints of rolling in cash. One unusual element of some British festivals – including the global Hay Festival that Montenegro mentions – is that they are private companies.

As in the UK, some festivals in Australia do pay more for writers with a large audience or who have some star power – but not just ‘comedians and celebrity politicians’ as Montenegro suggests; fees are also sometimes requested by superstar literary authors. Festivals increasingly need these big-name drawcards to thrive. Having ‘a sprinkling of celebrity’, as Montenegro puts it, draws media attention to the festival, which throws a light on the festival programme overall.

Jennifer Byrne interviews Junot Diaz at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

Jennifer Byrne interviews Junot Diaz at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

Additionally, having one or two blockbuster events lifts a festival box office overall, allowing the organisers the space and income to program events that appeal to smaller or more niche audiences – but which are no less important. (This is not dissimilar to the model that publishers have used for years – to put out blockbuster titles whose success subsidises the development of important but less commercial works, such as literary fiction and poetry.)

Hand in hand with Montenegro’s criticism of celebrity seems to go a disdain for the programming of non-literary writers as a concept. She accuses festivals of being no longer ‘in it for the love of literature’ – which is just not true. Her suggestion that literature’s only value lies in high literary forms is, frankly, old fashioned.

As with the UK, Australian festivals are programming more diversely these days – and we are richer for it. It is becoming more widely recognised that good writing and ideas come in all forms and genres. Rather than ruining literature, I believe that diversity helps to broaden its appeal.

Estelle Tang interviews Tavi Gevinson at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

Estelle Tang interviews Tavi Gevinson at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013. Photo courtesy of MWF.

It misses the point to suggest that having Tavi Gevinson speak on digital publishing, Teju Cole on Twitter, The Moth on storytelling or Marjorie Liu on comics – as we did at Melbourne Writers Festival this year – is not worthwhile. Writer’s festivals should be dynamic, enquiring spaces that present writers that appeal to all different kinds of reading audiences.

This doesn’t mean that forms like literary fiction or poetry will be lost or become irrelevant. While most writer’s festivals in Australia are taking an increasingly open-minded view to the kinds of writing and writers they present, most are still looking for ways to find a satisfying balance between traditional literary forms and more contemporary genres and platforms. The point is to create a program that appeals to a wide variety of readers.

Supporting the machinations of the publishing industry – promoting and supporting writers, celebrating and selling books, creating networking opportunities – is only one aspect of the mission of a writer’s festival. The other major purpose is to entertain and inspire audiences, adding to the creative and intellectual life of a city, and promoting the values of literature and literacy overall.

The strong connection between those two aims is played out at the festival, and a successful festival should add to the outcomes of both – which makes it surprising to read Montenegro’s claims that British organisers don’t care for creating interesting events with quality moderators, or about promoting the non-blockbuster events. In Australia at least, most festivals believe that putting care into the author experience – ensuring they are well looked after, housed in an appropriate venue, with a good host, and talking on a topic they can shine at – generally ensures the audience has a good time as well.

Montenegro notes that disappointing live events can’t compete with the pleasures of solitary reading. But that rather misses the point of what a writer’s festival is all about: the conversation between author and audience. And when done well – the goal that I believe all festival directors strive for – that live connection creates magic moments for all involved.

Portrait of Lisa Dempster

Lisa Dempster is the Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival.