Literary festivals

It is best to stick to books at a book meet

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 11.02.18

Not so long ago, there weren't any literary festivals in India. You heard of them as noises off, bookish jamborees that happened elsewhere. My first experience of one was the festival in Cheltenham in England in 1997, the year Arundhati Roy won the Booker for The God of Small Things. I knew of Cheltenham as a place to which old colonels retired after a life spent in the service of empire and from Dick Francis's wonderful novels I'd learnt that it hosted landmark events in Britain's horse-racing calendar. What I didn't know was that its literary festival was one of the oldest of its kind, founded a few years after the end of the Second World War, in 1949. The sponsor of the festival in 1997 was the Independent; the festival has outlived the newspaper which now exists only as an online news site.

I remember being startled by the fact that every session of the festival was ticketed. People paid pounds and pounds to listen to writers talk about their books; not just the famous ones like Colin Dexter, but quite obscure writers, barely a book old. A delegate pass gave me entry to all the sessions, a privilege that can only be properly appreciated by a desi. Free! One morning I was hanging around, at a loose end, when a woman in her mid-sixties who had attended my session walked up and introduced herself. She was a poet, Jenny Joseph, most famous for a poem called "Warning" which opens with the marvellous line: "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple."

We had a sandwich lunch together and talked about writing and the business of getting published. I said that it was hard getting reviewed in the Sunday papers; I had written a novel a couple of years before that had made the 'briefly mentioned' round ups of the Observer and the Sunday Times and I still brooded about that sometimes. She tilted her head and looked at me consideringly. "But you got reviewed," she said. "In the fifties and sixties, poets wrote with little expectation of being reviewed at all." It was matter-of-factly said, not so much about the virtue of then as the routine expectation of notice now.

Jenny Joseph was a well-known poet in 1997. I didn't know this then but Philip Larkin, a poet I hugely admired, had included "Warning" in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. I knew the poem but since I didn't know her work and she wasn't A list famous, I decided she was complaining. She had bought tickets to all the events because she felt that local writers ought to support this celebration of reading and writing if they could afford to. I fingered my open sesame delegate pass and thought to myself that she was nice but mad or at the very least eccentric.

Cheltenham was everything I thought literary festivals ought to be: there was the excitement of watching writers you admired perform, drink in the 'green room', even glamour and malice. The theme for Colin Dexter's session was writing for the screen because "Inspector Morse" had become a massive hit as a television series. Dexter looked like a genial gnome and performed like a pro. People had paid seven pounds for his event and he gave them their money's worth.

He was asked if he resented the fact that the television series had altered his readers' perception of Morse's sidekick, Lewis, by making him younger. "No, no," he said, grinning, "it was a good idea." Did he want more creative control over the series? "No, no," he said, laughing now, "I just wait for the cheque to drop through the door. My Morse is in the books, and nothing's going to change him. If you ever write a book someone wants to film, don't worry about control, just take the money!" He didn't mean it, though I thought he did at the time. Dexter left strict instructions in his will that the mature Inspector Morse was never again to be played by any actor other than John Thaw. He was entertaining an audience by playing the grasping author and he did it well.

The festival coincided with the announcement of the Booker Prize. Arundhati Roy had spoken about her novel to a packed house and a day later, still in Cheltenham, I watched the prize ceremony on television. There was a bit before the actual ceremony where a panel of television experts, writers all, talked about the shortlist. I remember A.S. Byatt because she really disliked The God of Small Things. It was, she said, a clever novel but a manipulative one. She spoke in a full, fruity way that was old-fashioned even twenty years ago; it required the speaker to make most of her sounds with her mouth nearly shut, just letting her lips puff open when vowels had to emerge. After that little performance it was particularly satisfying to watch The God of Small Things win, the more so since I had put a hundred pounds on it at 9 to 4. There's nothing quite as satisfying as having your literary judgment vindicated by money.

The glamour was supplied by Salman Rushdie, then still in hiding on account of the fatwa. His publishers had organized a private dinner for the desi writers at Cheltenham; it was all very last minute and hush-hush. Martin Amis turned up in the middle of the meal and seemed very concerned that Arundhati Roy had won the Booker. Concerned on her behalf, that is. He thought it was a terrible burden to win the prize so young. I looked at him wordlessly, almost certain that he didn't speak from experience.

Now winter in India is dense with literary festivals. Despite the fact that lots of sessions are terrible, this is a good thing. Should they be free? There's a decent argument in favour, from the standpoint of democratic access in a poor country, but it's not self-evident that writers should perform for room and board when it's taken for granted that musicians perform for money. If writers were paid for performing and if spectators paid for watching, there might be smaller crowds but more attentive ones. Writers might exert themselves to be interesting instead of just turning up and taking their audiences for granted.

Also it might encourage festival organizers to scrap the 'panel discussion', that blight on public conversation. The idea that a literary festival should host discussions on large issues un-anchored by a book is borrowed from television news and often moderated by television anchors. It inspires the same incoherent narcissism in a literary festival that it does in a television studio. If literary festivals stuck to their last, that is, books, and their sessions stayed close to the printed word, the ensuing conversations are more likely to be coherent because the ideas discussed would be grounded in a text. There are numberless places in modern India for free-floating bloviation; perhaps the chat in literary festivals could be daringly confined to books. Smaller, ticketed events might even moderate the need for sponsorship money from bad actors. To have propagandist media houses sponsor literary events would be as bad as the Congress For Cultural Freedom underwriting literary magazines. Oh, wait.