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New Zealand’s literary festivals are constantly evolving (Design: Archi Banal)
New Zealand’s literary festivals are constantly evolving (Design: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 6, 2022

Are Aotearoa literary festivals doomed?

New Zealand’s literary festivals are constantly evolving (Design: Archi Banal)
New Zealand’s literary festivals are constantly evolving (Design: Archi Banal)

Books editor and longtime lit festival maker Claire Mabey responds to the question of whether writers festivals will last the distance.

A clutch of people sent me this article, recently published in The Guardian, titled “Are literary festivals doomed? Why book events need to change”. The article asks why UK literary festivals are experiencing decreasing attendance levels. 

Maybe numbers are down because a proportion of the usual crowd is reluctant to come out for fear of Covid. Maybe it’s because the cost of living has gotten so high that people simply don’t have the cash to spend on tickets. Towards the end of the article it is put forward that some of the more traditional book festivals simply don’t cater to a wide enough audience, so interest is waning. 

All of these things are likely to be true, at least for the UK. They could be true for us here too, though it’s a dodgy game to assume that what’s true over there also fits for us. What I would add is that perhaps the waning numbers may also signal the reconsideration of an obsession with scale. For a long time the bums-on-seats mentality ruled, particularly where funding was concerned. The pandemic has helped us see that small can be beautiful; intimate is powerful. 

Festivals are responding, with relief I might suggest, and downscaling is a pattern I’ve noticed in Aotearoa and around the world. Biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best anymore. Particularly when the costs of production are higher and when the makers themselves are stretched by the pressures of the last few years.

At first, contemplating the state of literary festivals at large made me feel tired. I have wrestled with the beasts for over a decade as the founder of Verb Wellington and LitCrawl Wellington, trying things, learning things, and then unlearning them. That is the way of the festival to my mind: constant and deliberate evolution. Trial and error; back and forth; listening; pushing ideas; playing. We tried a pop-up container venue in a park one year… not a hit (the door broke on day one). A LitCrawl event celebrating Kirikiriroa/Hamilton in a record shop on a Saturday night = huge hit.

This process is different for every festival: they are each on their own trajectories and timelines. They have their own genesis stories, their own pattern of ups and downs. The most fundamental principle for me is all about the vibe. I believe in vibes. I think there are ways to create good vibes and surefire ways to make bad ones. Every interaction from the core of the organisation outward should attempt to evoke a sense of joy, of celebration, of respectful engagement. The reason is that festivals exist to bring people together. In a word: manaakitanga. 

It’s true that festivals in Aotearoa haven’t always got this right and I think the reason is simple: the standard book festival model didn’t come from here. Like the classic Edinburgh-derived multi-arts festival, the model came from somewhere else – the UK. We’re still deep in the process of adaptation: of breaking down and re-making that model so that these festivals become our own. 

LitCrawl 2018 (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for a long time literary festivals were for the entertainment and edification of a narrow band of followers. I have always felt wary, however, of criticisms aimed solely at the sight of groups of older people, mostly white women. As though there is something wrong with women above a certain age gathering and thinking and talking.

Nevertheless, the clusters of grey hair are held up as symptomatic of the fact that the festivals don’t offer enough choice – that they are a habit of a particular few. While I don’t think it’s the crowd of curious older, pākehā women who are the actual problem, it’s true that there is a perception that book festivals don’t look like an option for anyone else.

A famous performance artist said to me once: “But what is a writers festival? What do people do there? I really don’t get it.” I could see where he was coming from. It sounds like a bunch of people are coming together to celebrate making marks on blank pages. It’s not a particularly evocative concept. Writers/book/literary festivals aren’t quite what they say on the tin. Their job is to air the thoughts and ideas of writers. They’re about conversation and performance. They are about celebrating that a writer has finished the extraordinary act of faith of completing and publishing a book (or have offered up their stories via other mediums) and now they are allowed to be seen and heard in conjunction with that work.

As good as it can feel to be a part of such a gathering, with such a mission, making a festival can be an uncomfortable thing to do. When I started out I didn’t fully appreciate that while I was trying to make more space for the kind of casual/chaotic bookish gatherings that I thought were more accessible, I was actually also turning myself into somebody that decided what books to talk about, and by default what not to. 

This question of gatekeeping – who designs what goes on stage and the way in which that stage is crafted – is at the heart of the jostling in the Guardian article and in the art world at large. If your festival only has room for a certain type of curator who is going to curate a certain type of writer in a certain kind of way, then you’re only ever making something for a certain type of attendee. Your audiences will shrink. We’ve known this in Aotearoa for a while now. 

Festivals here have been working hard at evolving to make space for new ways to do things, for new curators with fresh ideas and values. We’re figuring out what to chuck, what to keep, what to upend and make anew. We are also getting used to the fact that it’s OK, more than OK, for festivals to be different from each other.

Verb Wellington (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

As festivals have focussed on the fact that they are specific to a particular place and time, they are evolving more unique identities. And that is a brilliant thing. Festivals should offer choice. They should be as specific as they like. And they will continue to diversify as we work out even further what a breadth of Aotearoa book festivals can be. Programmes will get even richer, better, more interesting, and as a consequence audiences will refresh.

I can’t imagine festivals ever settling on one form. By nature they need to be responsive. For example, in response to the need to have a kaupapa Māori literary festival, the first Ngā Ringa Tuhituhi Kupu Māori Writers Festival was held; a brilliant addition to the landscape of lit festivals in Aotearoa.

Even still, the pace of change will appear to be slow for some. There are still a lot of knotty conversations to be had to dig deeper into these models and pull them apart. I am impatient for this myself. 

There are structures around the making of festivals that are even harder to break down than the festival itself: funding patterns, timelines, the publishing industry, expectations about size, scale and a city’s return on investment. Sometimes it can be difficult to take the time needed when you’re constantly racing against the ever-quickening wheels of money and time. 

In order for book festivals to survive they need to feel free to embrace the chaos of change. They should be allowed to pause to re-make themselves. Or even come to a healthy end if the lifecycle has reached that point. They should step out of comfort zones, make mistakes and from those hard conversations see what new shapes emerge. 

I have seen great shifts in the last five years. I see audiences made up of all kinds of people, of all ages, with various interests. From what I can see, I think Aotearoa book festivals are already working hard to build vibrant and beautiful experiences from the inside out. WORD Christchurch just delivered its 25th Festival with a beautiful, rich programme; Auckland Writers Festival shifted its model this year with multiple curators weaving their own events throughout outgoing director Anne O’Brien’s programme.

Whānau, audience and speakers Stacey Morrison, Qiane Matata-Sipu and Georgia Latu keep the kōrero going over kai after WORD Christchurch Festival’s session NUKU:100 Kickarse Indigenous Women. (Photo: Supplied)

In short: no, I don’t think book festivals are doomed. When I imagine the end of the world I see some iteration of a literary gathering. There will be a poet surrounded by a sea of faces and that poet will ease things with a slant explanation. With a story. My most idealist self believes that festivals are our planet’s own flares. A bright blaze in the expanse. Chaotic, shapely, quick to burn out into pale smoke but leaving something with you all the same – the memory of brightness, some impression that helps expand your inner eye. Literary festivals are not doomed, but they will change. 

Claire Mabey is currently The Spinoff’s books editor and is also founder of Verb Wellington, which holds a festival every November.

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