Voices 2002

29 June - 13 July 2002

The 2002 Literature Festival was preceded by a series of Newsletters carrying advance information about the programme, and other material. The April Newsletter contained this essay by Festival patron Chaz Brenchley:

Oxymoron is one of my favourite words. I love the sounds and the shape of it, and I love the concept too. It means setting two contradictory words or ideas against each other in the same phrase, for added impact; sometimes the result is just funny (or indeed moronic), and sometimes it's strikingly sincere. "Being cruel to be kind" is an oxymoron; so, famously, is "military intelligence".

And so, perhaps, is "literature festival". A festival is a feast, a celebration; it needs to be loud, and it needs to be public. Fireworks come to mind, and so does alcohol. Music, dancing, all of that; all the stuff that's no fun on your own. Literature, on the other hand, is by definition the most private and solitary of all the arts, the one that most demands a one-to-one concentration.

Writers almost always work alone, and readers almost always read alone. On a crowded train, in a busy pub, on a sunlovers' beach in a bikini: you're still alone with the writer, the two of you gone somewhere that isn't quite like anywhere else. Even a roomful of people all reading the same book will still be a roomful of separate spaces; everyone's imagination builds different pictures from the same set of words. We pass books around, but we don't truly share them.

That sense of isolation is one reason why we take books on trains, into pubs, down to the beach. It's a way to cut ourselves off from the crowd, a way to be alone in a crush of strangers. So what is this with a literature festival, what's that about? Can you put these two things together, the public party and the intensely private experience, and have them make any kind of sense?

Happily, the answer to that is yes. Oh yes, indeed you can. It's all about added value, it's about broadening and deepening. A literature festival is a way to introduce readers to new books and new writers, a way of saying that if you like that you're going to love this, and why don't you try something different while you're here? It's also a chance to show people something new, even in the books they've read already. Hearing an author read their own work can be a revelation; audiobooks are increasingly popular, but hearing it live is something else again. So is the discussion that follows a reading. Writers give emselves away all the time, we can't help it, it's in the job description; we're much more vulnerable live, though, where we can't edit what we say before you hear it. Readers ask questions that cut to the heart of our work, which means that we bleed from the heart, because we are what we write.

And yet, we the writers keep coming back to the festivals, and not only because we are all of us readers too. None of us writes for critics, for reviewers, or to occupy space on bookshelves. We write to be read, to be listened to. We don't all like performing in front of a live audience, but some of us love it; and almost all of us love to meet readers, to talk about books. Not even necessarily our own: if someone says, "I'm sorry, I haven't read your books," that's fine. It means we meet on level ground, I don't have to be either embarrassed or grateful, and we can spend half the night arguing over other people's.

Which of course we can do in pubs or restaurants, on river walks, at parties. A literature festival is as much of a feast and a celebration as any other kind. Not every writer likes to drink, but many of us adore it; and some of us dance, and we all have to eat, and none of that is any fun alone.

Mind you, some festivals go to extremes. Fireworks? Fireworks are nothing. I went to the Semana Negra in Spain, where the festival site is a giant fairground; and they brought us-the-writers from Madrid in General Franco's personal train, and the town band was there at the station playing As Time Goes By, and there was a great crowd of people come to see us; and they pulled us through the streets in a carriage towed by an elephant with an orang-utan on its back, and they presented the awards in the tigers' cage, and...

Chaz Brenchley, 2002

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