Friday, 15 July 2005

Are there too many non-literary stars at literary festivals? Howard Jacobsen debated this with Kay Dunbar, director of the Ways with Words Literary Festival, on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning (Real Audio).

Jacobsen is happy to be the skateboarding duck or the dog that says "sausages" on the Today programme, rather than being at the heart of their agenda, but is annoyed by the encroachment of Today's cadres, in the shape of its presenters and correspondents as well as its regular interviewees, into the Literary Festival circuit at the expense of Proper Writers.

A quick scan of the programme for Ways with Words does tend to support Jacobsen's argument. Lots of big names from the BBC (Michael Buerk, Fergal Keane) and the celeb circuit (Princess Michael of Kent, Greg Dyke). Is this what makes WwW "Britain's premier Literature Festivals"?

But if Jacobsen had his way, who would be speaking at Dartington in place of these media stars? Julian Barnes and Louis de Bernieres, Melissa Bank and Penelope Lively are already on the schedule (and didn't sell out). I suspect that Jacobsen would want more of the same. I don't see him inviting more commercial writers like Katie Fforde, Anita Burgh or Jill Mansell, whose books might actually have been read by those who turned up to hear Princess Michael and Sheila Hancock.

While Dunbar justifies her big-name attractions on the grounds that literature festivals should be about more than just fiction, and Jacobsen fights for the cause of Lit Fic, it strikes me that nobody in this debate is supporting popular fiction at all.

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