Business profile: James Runcie, head of Literature and Spoken Word, Southbank Centre

Business profile: James Runcie, head of Literature and Spoken Word, Southbank Centre

Having spent the past four years working as the artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival, James Runcie, the new head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre, knows a thing or two about festival programming. So when it came to this year’s London Literature Festival (20th May–8th September), he had some big ideas and one key philosophy: entertainment.

“I wanted Bath to be an Open University degree mixed with a party and I’m still thinking about that as a model. I think literature festivals have to be more than just flogging the latest books. You can’t just expect the audience to turn up and be grateful, you have to be entertaining.

“Literature events can be boring and you have to stop that, you have to ‘produce’ them more than you used to, so if you have a dodgy chair you’re done for. Even though it is books, it is still the entertainment industry and if it’s not entertaining then there is no point turning up and I think that is sometimes forgotten—we are all having to become sharper about what we’re doing.”

For Runcie one key way to ensure an audience’s enjoyment is participation: “This is a sweeping generalisation but I think people are sick of being treated like they’re stupid. You have to give audiences a chance to join in and allow more time for questions and participation. The great thing about a literature festival is that it gives you the opportunity to answer back.”

Having chaired packed-out events with superstar authors like J K Rowling, Runcie says the best way to increase audience participation is to “go with your instinct for what is good writing. Great writing does leap off the page, so if your publisher links are good you can get to authors early and start small. I’m interested in tracking authors from the start, so with someone like Taiye Selasi—author of Ghana Must Go (Viking)—you know she is an incredible talent so you grow the audience with her and build on it year on year.

“Just look at Hilary Mantel. Before Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate) we would get 100 people for events in Bath; after Wolf Hall we did an event with 365 people; and this year, after Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate) we sold out a crowd of 1,800. She’s had to wait a very long time indeed.”

Ghetto superstar

One of Runcie’s first decisions upon accepting his new job was to move the festival from July to May to “cheekily” run alongside the Hay Festival to capitalise on international authors already destined for the UK. Key events for his début LLF include a five-lecture Claire Tomalin mini-series—with talks on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, and ending with Mary Wollstonecroft in the week the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner is announced.

Runcie is also “quite pleased with this rather risky thing, a digital novel written on Twitter”. The novel is called Exquisite Corpse—named after a surrealist term for a collectively assemled work—and over 10 weeks, an outline for the story will be given on Twitter, with tweeters providing the dialogue. A murder mystery set in Lambeth, the story will then be published as a free e-book.

He also suggests that “literature doesn’t live in a ghetto and so literature festivals should work across art forms”. To this end Ute Lemper, the German singer and actress, will sing the poems of Pablo Neruda and 40 leading female poets and performers (including Miranda Richardson, Juliet Stevenson and Samantha Bond) took to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall to perform, “a bold, mad, ambitious thing”—one poem each from Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.

Despite having such starry events lined up, and years of festival experience under his belt, Runcie says that “it is much harder in London . . . the stakes are much higher. You have to do what nobody else is doing. In London you will get different audiences all the time, very global audiences. I would know what to do with Rose Tremain in Bath, but in London I’m not so sure.”