Whenever a writer we know walks through the door of a bookshop he gets the willies. So many books, so many of which he has not read and is unlikely ever to read, ranked on the shelves do not for him reek of temptation. What he feels, he says, is a sense of panic, of reproach, of inadequacy. Then comes despair. Why add to their number? Why go on writing, especially in this day and age, when books as he has known and loved them and aged with them are being supplanted by their virtual usurpers? Where once it was taken for granted that books, like love, would be all that survived of us, we are growing accustomed to the idea that they may not. And we can’t say we weren’t warned. “It is a mistake,” said E.M. Forster with awful percipience, “to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again.”
The same, doubtless, might be said of book festivals. Their lineage, of course, is nowhere near as long as that of the object which brought them into being twenty or so years ago. Edinburgh has ever been in the vanguard of book promotion and many moons before there was a book festival – international or otherwise – books and writers were venerated and celebrated. In the early 1960s, for example, there was the notorious Writers’ Conference, organised by John Calder, the maverick and innovative publisher. He it was who enticed the likes of Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell and others, many of them native, to a city that still smelled like a brewery and looked as sooty as a mill town. It was a great success though what its purpose was remains lost in a fog of memory. What was remarkable was the public visibility of writers known only to their readers by their photograph on a dust jacket.
Much has changed in the intervening decades. Where writers were read and rarely seen now they are frequently seen and rarely read. For many ‘readers’ this appears fulfilment enough. For an hour they can vicariously enjoy a writer’s company and then have nothing more to do with him. Some, however, may be enthused to buy one of the writer’s books and thus a relationship commences. The beauty of book festivals is that they allow writers and readers to connect. If there is a downside to this it is that writers become a little less mysterious and a little more mundane. Once you’ve put a face to a name and heard him talk and seen him walk the words on a page may read differently. It is like watching the film of a book before you read it. You can’t but help view the characters as they were portrayed by actors. But, given the chance, who would not like to attend a book festival whose guests included Jane Austen and George Eliot, Marcel Proust and Leo Tolstoy?
Since its relatively modest beginnings the Edinburgh International Book Festival has grown into a behemoth. This year it boasts around 700 ‘events’ and about as many writers, which rather belies the opinion of those who deny that everyone doesn’t have at least one book in them.
In its earlier incarnation it was small and intimate and rather wonderful, the size of a Scout camp rather than a rock festival. But, as Hayden Murphy recalls in this issue of the SRB, it managed nevertheless to attract writers of international renown, including James Baldwin, John Updike, Maya Angelou, Anthony Burgess and many more. For some, though, the highlight of those early festivals was the no-show in 1987 of Hunter S, Thompson who claimed that a drunken taxi driver had made him miss his flight from the United States. Left to cause as much mayhem as he was eminently qualified to do was Ralph Steadman, Thompson’s sidekick in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He later described the scene in Charlotte Square, which was heaving with chemically supercharged Hell’s Angels, as one of “quintessential ‘Bad Craziness’”.
Things, the anarchically inclined may say, have never been the same since. Certainly they have been somewhat duller. This is not to deny the EIBF’s success, commercially and culturally. Indeed, so successful has it been that it has spawned countless imitators at home and abroad.
In Scotland alone there are over thirty book festivals which, in turn, has led to the formation of an organisation to encourage co-operation among them. Chances are that even more festivals will be mooted in future which is one of the few signs of optimism for those employed in what used to be called the book trade. For as bookshops disappear from high streets everywhere book festivals are increasingly seen as retail opportunities. To writers and publishers this brings some relief in the current chilly economic climate.
But what is also apparent is that book festivals, which were perceived to have an evangelical role in championing books to those uninitiated in the joy of reading, more often than not have appeared in parts of the country where that is by and large unnecessary. Thus you will find them in the likes of Linlithgow and St Andrews, Melrose and Milngavie, where the well-heeled congregate. Good on them but do the burghers of such places need public subsidy? A literature policy might have offered direction and clarity in such matters but that seems now a pipe dream, ensuring that those who know how to ask get, and those who don’t are left bereft.