Being in another the country at the time – Yorkshire – I was unable to attend the launch of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the first to be ‘programmed’ by its new director, Nick Barley. The inverted commas are because Mr Barley has not programmed the entire festival himself, as was the wont of previous directors. Instead, he has handed over swathes of the programme to guest editors whom he doubtless hoped would attract writers outwith his ken or contacts book. That is his prerogative. Whether this is an idea whose time has come or is one that sucks remains to be seen.
What is undeniable, however, from the 2010 programme is a sense of deja vu. This has been growing over the past few years with some authors returning annually to Edinburgh in August as Glaswegians used to rush to Rothesay during the Fair fortnight. The trend shows no sign of abating. Of course it is good to see Seamus Heaney or Joyce Carol Oates or A.L. Kennedy again but while familiarity with them may not breed contempt it certainly gives the impression that the well of authorship is running dry.
Not that you would think so from reading Edinburgh¹s morning newspaper whose coverage of the Book Festival – sycophantic at best, feeble at worst – makes one want to throw up in disgust. Debate was what a previous Book Festival director always hoped to provoke though, needless to say, the content of the right-on Book Festival itself was not allowed on the agenda. You might think from reading the aforementioned newspaper that there was not a writer of any stature anywhere in the world who would not surrender his or her freedom to appear at Charlotte Square.
Maybe they wouldn’t. But the sad fact is that what was once a festival full of glittering nuggets is now one stocked to the gunnels with the literary equivalent of steak and chips where havering, hasbeen politicians, moonlighting BBC hacks and – ye gods! – hairdressers flock to flog their wares. Who needs Gore Vidal when you’ve got Vidal Sassoon?
Here’s a list of 50 writers – off the top of my head and in no particular order – from across the spectrum whom Mr Barley might like to put on his wish list for next year. Not all of them would I cross a busy road to see. Many people would, though. Most have never been within whistling distance of Charlotte Square. Some are getting to that stage in their careers when they may soon be unable to. There is no fee for this service.
John Le Carre
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Piers Paul Read
Edward St Aubyn