There's a new fixture in the international literary calendar. It's a long way from the traditional meeting place for the cosmopolitan-minded publishing professional, but the adventurous will be rewarded with culture and conviviality. The green sauce, the movenpik ice cream for breakfast, the €20 glass of champagne are all notably absent. The weather is perhaps the only consistent factor (reliably terrible) but that's where the similarity ends.
Crossing Border Festival in Den Haag, the overlooked and underrated administrative capital of The Netherlands, has emerged as an unlikely underground alternative to the likes of London, Frankfurt and Turin Book Fairs. It is an annual event spread over three days in various bars, theatres and performance spaces in the heart of the city. The festival is driven by its passionate engagement with literature and music, and the fertile ground where the two meet. It is now commonplace for festivals in the UK to host literary tents and festivals, like Hay and Edinburgh have in the past expanded their literary remit to occasional gigs. Crossing Border, the first 'edition' of which was in 1993, could justifiably claim pioneer status in this respect. And what makes the festival so stimulating and surprising is the way boundaries between literature and music are dissolved and, even, ignored. Readings and in-conversation events run bumper-to-bumper with performances by renowned, established and cult musicians. Novelists and poets share equal billing with fashionable American bands and this approach can lead to fascinating experiences and discoveries for publishers and public alike.
It's safe to say there is nothing quite like Crossing Border - principally in its adventurous programming sensibility - in the UK, and the agenda for international publishers is a relatively new innovation. I was first invited by Louis Behre, its legendary founder and host, back in 2003 and have contributed to the programming as a curator of events and moderator ever since. Over the past dozen years I have seen, and participated in, remarkable performances at the festival by a staggering cast of bands, artists and writers including: Irvine Welsh, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Richard Hell, Edna O'Brien, Thurston Moore, Marilynne Robinson, Lou Reed, Roberto Saviano. Publishers and agents are in the minority at a festival that principally caters for Dutch intellectuals and music enthusiasts. There's a sense that discovery is just as important as familiar or revisited pleasures. And fans of the latest generation of low-fi Americana will be in their element.
The programme for international publishers at Crossing Border - 'The Addict' as it is called - is at an exciting stage, in its second year of development. Two hundred or so publishers and agents meet on the opening afternoon of the festival in a social environment, which is as far from the Frankfurter Hof as can be imagined. After an hour or so of short readings by selected international authors, editors, scouts, and agents are free to move between the half a dozen venues in the city, crossing paths along the way and eventually converging at the festival's after party which runs both nights from midnight until 4am in a different venue each year. Publishers are, of course, a shy and retiring type, but the chemistry of pop stars, Dutch literati and writers is an infectious blend and Crossing Border after parties have taken their place in the pantheon of publishing social events. Michel Behre, son of Louis and now festival director, says 'The Addict' naturally grew out of the accumulating numbers of overseas publishers keen to experience the Crossing Border vibe. "There was no particular plan," he says modestly. "For us it is really important the publishing world is here and they contribute to the programming. This is an eclectic group of people and they add another dimension to the festival."
It is tempting to predict that in the future an environment like Crossing Border is the perfect place for publishers to meet, connect, share stories, and even do business. Where like-minded people gravitate around shared passions, exciting things start to happen. The festival is not like LIBF or Guadalajara where a pitch is acquired and you are fixed to a grueling timetable of meetings, drinks, dinners and parties. 'The Addict' removes the formal elements of a conventional book fair and instead provides an immersive experience at the leading edge of literary and pop culture, where you can spend the afternoon in the breathtaking rooms at the Mauritshuis and the evening listening to The Low Anthem or Necrobutcher from Norwegian Black Metal legends, Mayhem, talk about church-burning. The programme will continue to thrive and expand organically because Louis and Michel Behre, are passionate believers in connecting people through culture, and principally literature. For those who prefer making their friendships and alliances off-piste, Den Haag in November has become an essential and civilised alternative to the heavyweight book fairs. Its eclectic charm will appeal to publishers who love music and musicians with a passion for literature. Next year marks the 25th edition of this unique festival as it migrates to a hybrid status as unorthodox book fair for those in the know. And how, I ask Michel Behre, does one get invited? "Ask a friend," he says, enigmatically.
Lee Brackstone is creative director, Faber Social.