The format of literary festivals, which “privileges those from a specific cultural and educational background”, is hampering diversity, author Jon McGregor argued yesterday (29th November) at the Cambridge Literary Festival.
McGregor said the way festivals ask authors to stand at a lectern and essentially “give a lecture about themselves”, is suited to the privately educated, “those who have grown up with dinner parties and salons and debating clubs, those who feel comfortable and confident holding forth, those who expect to be listened to”.
He said the novel itself was created for that same socio-economic class. He asked: “Wasn’t that leisure class itself founded on the wealth drawn directly from the exploitation of the labouring classes, from the pillage of empire, from slavery? Shouldn’t we consider the novel itself to be a freakish indulgence, forever tainted by the stain of colonialism and slavery, as ugly in its way as the stately homes and gilded statues which stain our landscape?”
If the industry is to open itself to a much wider range of voices, it must “stop asking our writers to conform to a Victorian idea of the public intellectual”. It must change its idea of how authors should behave and present their work, he said, suggesting festivals could, first of all, get rid of the lecterns.
He added: “Why does the audience have to sit still for an hour? Can we not have a break to go to the bar, to absorb what we’ve just heard, to talk to the friends we came with?”
Other ideas included having writers go on tours of book clubs, or even having book events without the author present. “Why do we want to meet the writer in person at all? Might their work come across better on film, or on audio? Or headphones?”
McGregor said he wasn’t asking for the wheel to be reinvented every time a writer appears in public, but stressed that events run in traditional formats exclude many writers.
“If we’re serious about diversity, and about wanting to hear the great stories that we’re currently missing out on, then it’s time to do things differently,” he said.
McGregor’s speech was commissioned by Writers Centre Norwich as part of its National Conversation series. The full speech can be read on the centre’s website.