Sunday, 30 March 2014

I went to the Oxford Literature Festival, and here's what I learned ...

It was a lovely day. The sun shone on the daffodils; the scent of hyacinths hung in the breeze; the streets were full of people clutching books.

I need to add that nearly all those people were white - so, in spite of the wonderful multicultural soupness of our society it's not a cross section that makes it to literature festivals. Since I;m certain that a love of books is spread across cultures, I believe this is something that needs thinking about ... I've done far more thinking than those few dots would suggest ... I don't have solutions, but do think it needs addressing.

I was in Oxford for just one day (not long enough - going to Oxford always feels like going home. It's not my student days I ache for, but the vibrancy of the city). I went to three events - which gave me thinking time - thinking is often as much fun as the events themselves.

First - a debate on the whys and wherefores of genre fiction, and whether that is distinct from literary fiction. The speakers were all writers of different genres, each determined to champion her (they were all women) own interests. They were erudite, played with ideas and metaphors, and more or less agreed that 'genre' isn't a useful concept; that whether a book is 'good' or 'bad' (not defined) is the point, not the genre it's slotted into. I suspect that agents and publishers would have argued the alternative with much more vigour than these respectable women.

Then - I went to see a short story writer I'd not heard of. How else am I to discover new thinking unless I take risks and go to see people I don't know? But not many others had the same idea - there were just six of us in the audience, and one was a friend and the other a cousin who hadn't seen the writer for thirty years. I suspect there was a long family story behind that and would have loved the two of them to take centre stage and tease that out. Instead the young interviewer took the opportunity to pick the brains of an established writer. But maybe that didn't matter, with so few people there. I admired the writer for ploughing on regardless and not suggesting we all adjourn to the cafe and chat over tea and cake.

Finally, I saw the Orhan Pamuk interview - at the Sheldonian theatre. There were hundreds to hear him, which isn't surprising. And he was fascinating - though this, too, wasn't without its challenges. I was sitting up in the gods, with my coat to soften the wooden benches but nothing to keep the temperature down. The sound system muffled his speech a bit by the time words reach the rafters; and though Pamuk speaks fluent English I had to listen very carefully to decipher his accent. That said, he was full of ideas and inspiration and enthusiasm. If I have any 'criticism' (too strong a word, really, for who dares to criticise a Nobel prizewinner) - I wish he had developed fewer ideas in more depth. So I'd have liked him to stick to identity, or politics, or Turkey, or religion - it's clear that he has profound and well-thought-out views on all of them, and I'd have liked to hear more about one rather than skimming over them all. But that's trivial - it was a great interview.

Phew. I was knackered after that. So I retreated to a restaurant for a meal before I went home (great food, shame about the noise. If anyone knows a quiet restaurant with good food on a Saturday night, in Oxford, do let me know.)


  1. Sounds very interesting. I've never been to a literary festival and I don't much like Oxford so I probably would never have made it to this, so particularly appreciate your comments. First, the writer with only six listeners. Well, one of them was you and you have blogged about it - and I hope that in the next post you will let us know who the writer was? Then she will have got some publicity out of it. I think that's the way it starts. I suppose the writer might have felt obliged to pay for the tea and cake if you'd adjoiurned to a cafe :)

    Genres.... yes, you are probably right. The publishers would see it differently. They're all about selling books - they're commercial organisations. it always seems strange to me that we keep thinking of them as if they are mostly cultural arbiters. Having said that, I think a few are, but with the difficult situation for all print media now, I wonder if that has gone out of the window altogether now.
    Anyway, thanks very much for this interesting post

    1. The brave short story writer is Elizabeth Russell Taylor - I'd not mentioned her name in case she was embarrassed to have her paltry crowd advertised. But you're right - she deserves her space here. She's written novels, and short stories - is now in her 80s and sprightly and wonderful.

  2. I used to follow the crowds, traipsing round our biennial book fair, looking at a few of the many books on sale. Now I sit and listen to talks and interviews. They're always interesting. And much more comfortable! Glad you enjoyed your visit to Oxford.

  3. I only realised yesterday that I've never been to Oxford. A friend suggested we meet up there and it certainly sounded like a lovely idea. I imagine the place to be like Cambridge - steeped in that kind of learned thinking that hovers around the architectural features. And I love going to any writing-related festival. It never fails to inspire me.

  4. I did festivals when I lived in Havana. The Latin American film festival in december, the International Theatre festival in September, the Internaitonal Ballet festival in October and Havana's Book Fair in February. There was a common thread to all of them: they were exhausting. And when I began to freelance midway through my uni years (the book fair was the first gig I did) it was even more knackering.

    Over here I've had my fair share of festivals but not many of a literature kind. That might explain why the many faces you saw in the crowd were white. I do't know whether there's a problem of content or marketing or both. Also, I don't think it should be a problem for the organisers. Unless you have a sign hanging on the door reading "No blacks, no Asians, no mixed race people" there should not be any deterrent for people to attend a festival. I believe that the problem is subjective rather than objective. It's a situation where people like "think" that there is nothing there to reflect our tastes and views. Speaking only for myself that would not be the case as I am comfortable with the latest Margaret Atwood as I am with the latest Zadie Smith. But I know that diversity in content might encourage others "like me" to attend a literature festival. The other issue is the venue. I would bet my last penny that a literature festival in Hackney or Brixton would have a different audience to one in Oxford, Cambridge or Surrey. So, location is also a factor.

    All in all that was a good post. Thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  5. It sounds lovely. I've never been to Oxford, we have meant to go a few times but never quite made it.