Q&A: Literary festivals, their audiences and their impact on culture

Friday 27 April 2018

Literary festivals worldwide have drawn crowds and controversies. With more than 450 of them happening each year in the UK and Australia, and many more in the US and other countries, it's worth examining these events to understand who attends and why - and what their impact is on the broader culture.

Dr Millicent Weber, a lecturer in English with the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, has been researching the sociology of literary festivals. Her latest book is Literary Festivals and Contemporary Book Culture, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

What motivated you to write and research about literary festivals?
I first became interested in literary festivals when working with writers’ draft manuscripts at the National Library of Australia – they show you one very specific version of a writer, and literary festivals offer another. The research project that became this book was sparked by the Q&A session at the end of a Melbourne Writers Festival event in 2013. Junot Diaz had just spoken, in response to a keynote from Amanda Lohrey, about the political potential of writing. The audience responses were extremely diverse, ranging from politeness, to political solidarity, to ill-concealed xenophobia. I could see that something interesting and complicated was going on, and I had to know more.

What were you interested in exploring through your research into literary festivals?
I was interested in understanding what people – individually, and as a community – get out of literary festivals. I wanted to know why people personally attend them and value them, what they do for specific communities of writers, and how they tap into bigger debates happening in the media or online.

What’s the function of literary festivals, and can you speak to their importance?
Literary festivals serve a variety of functions. Depending on the festival, and the specific festival events that you’re looking at, they celebrate and market books and writers, offer space for public debate, and perform important social functions as public events. They are closely attached to celebrity authors—individuals who are very much in the public eye, and they also have strong connections with communities active in print and social media. Consequently, when scandals flare up at literary festivals—and they often do, for a variety of reasons—these are widely publicised. This has the effect of revealing to public scrutiny some of the tensions and power structures that exert pressure on the field of literary culture.

Having said all this, it’s important to remember that these festivals are also not inherently ‘functional’ entities – as cultural objects, they have value to us that goes beyond their direct political or social utility. Assessing the value or the function of cultural objects is a matter of ongoing debate among researchers, which is another reason why literary festivals make for rich objects of study.

Literary festivals have been criticised by some as being sites of privilege. Also, the Australian publishing industry has a huge impact on this, but how well would you say Australian literary festivals represent and engage with issues/the reality of diversity?
Literary festivals are implicated in wider patterns of unequal access to cultural participation. As my research demonstrates, they’re disproportionately attended by people of privileged backgrounds – generally speaking, their audiences are wealthy, well-educated, and white. But it’s important to recognise that the same can be said of many cultural sites, for example galleries or museums. This is not a problem that’s caused by these cultural sites, but rather one that reflects the fact that we live in an unequal society – and that participation in cultural events demands the kinds of cultural and social knowledge afforded to the privileged. Indeed, on the contrary, literary festivals make sustained and concerted efforts to draw attention to, and question, these problems. Festivals like Blak & Bright, the Feminist Writers Festival, the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival and the Chinese Writers Festival, were all held for the first time in 2016, the final year of my fieldwork, and were organised with the support of two of the festivals I studied, the Melbourne Writers Festival and Emerging Writers’ Festival. In other words, literary festivals recognise these broader problems with the way that cultural participation is structured, and are actively working to promote, for example, the writing of women and people of colour.

These days, the bigger Australian literary festivals are very digitally savvy, with sophisticated websites, an active social media presence, podcasts and livestreams. Could you offer a comment on the ways in which technology has affected how festivals reach/engage with audiences and how audiences engage with them?
This is one of the key research questions that I answer in my book. In a nutshell, online and in-person engagement with literary events and literary communities tend to feed into one another. Attending an event in person and listening to or watching it online both have their affordances, and the audiences for both tend to be pretty savvy in navigating a cross-media literary space. Online literary festivals like the Digital Writers’ Festival and the #TwitterFictionFestival force us as researchers to consider carefully the assumptions that we make about the cultural and social elements of literary festivals that people value. Generally speaking, however, an uptick in digital participation with literary culture correlates with increased engagement with live events. 

To keep up with Dr Weber's happenings, you can follow her on Twitter @Millicent_Weber.

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