Years ago I worked in the marketing department of the Southbank Centre. I looked after marketing for the dance and performance, education and literature programmes. I loved being on the Southbank. I never tired of hearing Big Ben chime the hour and I developed a partisan attitude towards the building and what I believed it represented. I made the most of my three years there by seeing as much of what was going on as possible, and I think I can honestly say that I began to understand what world class entertainment could be within its walls and environs.
Live literature puzzled me somewhat though. I never truly understood the attraction of hearing a writer read from their book and take questions afterwards. Even with writers I revered, I was reluctant to spend free evenings at these events. I was confused by their old fashioned format, their lack of imagination, their sterility almost. They didn’t, I felt, do the books justice. One or two I went to became quite lively, but there was definitely a ‘type’ that went along and I didn't want to be one of them.
There was usually a strong contingent who would ask questions specifically to demonstrate their intellect. Others gushed eloquently with no real question in mind at all. And chair people / interviewers ranged from being only quite good to actually rather bad with their range of presentation and questioning styles, most of the time the writer was pretty much on his / her own.
Around that time I read an article, which didn’t help my attitude, by a writer who described the horrors of being forced by their publisher to do a book tour where numbers of attendees could usually be counted on one hand, or even had found themselves there by accident. It sounded like torture, at least for the writer in question.
So, fast forward 10 years or so (ahem), and you'd think I would be happier now in this age of literary festivals like Hay and Port Eliot, also Latitude, Wilderness and the like? Actually, for all their good intentions, creative efforts and in some cases rock and roll context, no, I'm not. These events basically attract the same kind of crowds I sought to avoid all those years ago, except in vastly larger numbers. It’s entirely subjective of course, but this is not how I want to enjoy books.
However, there is another way. I can understand the attraction now, the appeal of hearing about a book from the proverbial horse’s mouth. It is enlightening and it can broaden one's understanding and appreciation and all that kind of stuff. So very recently I sat and listened to four writers of four very different types of books, skilfully navigated around their subjects in an integrated way by a seasoned presenter, and I was perfectly happy. They were sitting in a tent in a field filled with people I didn't want to hang out with, but i didn’t have to be there in person to experience the discomfort this would cause. Why not? Because it was on the radio. It wasn't at all chin-strokey and I learned about the writers as people, with opinions on matters beyond their own immediate concerns, as well as discovering more about their own books and their individual approaches to writing them. It lasted thirty to forty minutes, with no interval, and I've never felt more like buying the books ‘on the way out’. Despite not being able to physically do this (being in the car) I contented myself with a plan that included going to a book shop - where you don't have to talk or listen to anybody else at all, where you may even get a signed copy without having to confront the author- for my kind of live literature event! Book now.