How British literary festivals have reckoned with covid-19
NOT FOR the first time in her life, Scotland’s first minister is getting ready to enter a television studio in her home city. But the purpose of Nicola Sturgeon’s forthcoming visit is not to answer questions about Brexit or public health; instead, she will conduct a probing interview with Bernardine Evaristo, a black British novelist, who will be waiting at a studio in London.
As a discerning reader, Ms Sturgeon is already an established figure at the Edinburgh Book Festival, which has drawn huge crowds in recent years—265,000 people in 2019—to one of the city’s handsome 200-year-old garden squares. This time the content of the festival, which began on August 15th, is remarkably unchanged, with 200 authors and illustrators from more than 30 countries sharing their work and ideas over 17 days. However, thanks to the pandemic, the technology is utterly different. The offering consists of 140 online events including readings, debates, chat rooms and short one-to-one e-meetings between fans and their favourite authors.
Nick Barley, the festival’s director, is hoping to match the achievements already chalked up by Britain’s other extravaganza for bookworms. With only a few weeks to make the switch, the festival in Hay-on-Wye, a village in Wales, drew about half a million virtual visitors to its digital portal in May, twice the number who had physically travelled to the event in 2019. In neither case did the organisers find the change easy or pain-free, but they all claim to have discovered some unexpected advantages and sponsorship of Hay, from Baillie Gifford, an investment management firm, among others, remained robust. (In the new order of things, it has never been easier to respond to a digital literary event by ordering one of the participants’ books; but sadly, electronic festivals will be a devastating blow to the small, family-owned bookstores for which the village of Hay was famous long before the festival started in 1988.)
For writers and readers alike, the excitement of converging on a remote Welsh hamlet, endowed with a remarkable number of small bookshops, was almost transcendental, recalls Hay’s veteran director, Peter Florence. “Eating together, hugging each other, was a quasi-religious experience,” he says. But as with religion itself, at least part of that mystical moment can be reproduced digitally and shared more widely. “Many of the people who electronically visited this year said they could never have afforded to travel to Wales,” notes Mr Florence. And this year’s experience shows that in the covid-19 era, “the written word is in a much stronger place than dance or music.” (Admittedly, one Hay event mixed all those mediums: Fernando Montaño, a Colombian dancer, was seen performing in his studio as a backdrop to his memoirs.)
As Mr Barley acknowledges, the electronic success of Hay blazed a trail for the Edinburgh jamboree, which had more time to prepare for a digital future. Compared with the Welsh one, he sees the Scottish show as more thematic and less focused on individual authors: the self-imposed task in Edinburgh is to reflect the world’s shifting concerns, whatever they might be, as they appear in words. This year, apart from the pandemic, the topics include climate change and new thinking about gender and sexuality. And besides Ms Sturgeon, plenty of other Edinburgh attractions are bridging the worlds of literature, ethics and politics. Gordon Brown, a former British prime minister, is starring in a discussion on green policies in Europe; Ruth Davidson, an ex-leader of the Scottish Conservatives, is chatting to Alexander McCall Smith, a writer of detective fiction.
The Hay festival has franchises across the world, especially in Spanish-speaking countries, while Edinburgh has partnerships with gatherings in such places as Berlin, Melbourne, Toronto and Rio de Janeiro. For both British events, going digital has involved drawing on the experience of others and sharing generously any lessons learned. Forthcoming Hay-inspired events in Mexico and Peru are expected to show the potential of a digital-only approach when authors have huge trans-national followings but may be unwilling or unable to travel.
Next year, says Mr Barley, Edinburgh is hoping to have a “live element” in its offering but the organisers are also reckoning with a sobering reality: not for the foreseeable future will 800 people feel comfortable gathering in a small theatre. Very similar dilemmas, on a much smaller scale, face the organisers of lesser literary events which have built up a devoted core of followers. A summer school and festival in memory of the Irish poet John Hewitt has been held in the Northern Irish town of Armagh in recent years. Among its many purposes is to expose international writers, including many from eastern Europe, to the light and dark realities of Ireland, and to give local wordsmiths and thinkers an extra breath of fresh international air.
This year, says the prime mover Cahal Dallat, they managed to hold nine online events, compared with more than 30 physical ones in a normal season. With up to 300 people, the audiences at the streamed sessions were comparable with those for the most popular physical shows in other years; the bonus is that the modest e-festival has attracted thousands of hits after the events. Both Mr Dallat and Anne-Marie Fyfe, his wife and co-organiser, are writers who have spent decades in London but have always kept close links with their native Northern Ireland. For the moment, those links will be mainly electronic, but does not make them any weaker.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/08/18/how-british-literary-festivals-have-reckoned-with-covid-19
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