Melvyn Bragg interview: The rising popularity of literature festivals

Emma Nuttall

We spoke to author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg about why, in the age of the internet, words and ideas are the new cool.

Like the offspring of copulating bunnies, literature festivals seem to have sprung up all over the place while we weren’t looking. We asked Melvyn Bragg for his take on their rising success: Lord Bragg is patron to Words By The Water, a literature festival held in his home county of Cumbria that hosted over 40,000 people this year. He recalls that, “in the 1960’s, literature festivals were modest affairs. Forty people would turn up to see me, now I’m greeted by a room full of 500 to 600 people.” But it’s not just literature festivals enjoying this attention; other events promoting new ideas (such as TED Talks and the School of Life) have also gained significant momentum. Music festivals like Liverpool Sound City and BBC 6Music Festival are now also programming novelists, scientists and journalists alongside gyrating rock stars. It would seem that, in 2014 at least, ideas are the new cool.

So what lies behind this surge in popularity? “There has been a massive increase in third stage education, a swelling population of the ageing but mentally active, and the less formal education now available on the internet,” says Bragg. “We are a country that is very bright and we are more interested than ever in learning new ideas and intellectual pursuits.” It’s certainly true that, at literature festivals, an idea that begins with the speaker radiates out amongst the audience, often becoming a way for people to connect to one another. “Audiences like to be together and to enjoy a ‘live experience,’” says Bragg – but what is it about writers in particular that means we are drawn to seeing and hearing them live?

People like to listen to writers, they feel they can trust them; they aren’t trying to sell you anything

It might have something to do with trust. “As a writer, when I go up on stage, the basic deal is that I talk about my writing and my ideas in the most truly honest way. People like to listen to writers, they feel they can trust them; writers aren’t trying to sell you anything. They are discussing something they have already created, how they created it and how it plays a part in everyone’s lives.” Understanding how a book you love came has obvious appeal – but the idea that writers aren’t selling something is an odd one. What else are the signings and book stands stacked high with paperbacks for?

With music festival giants like Latitude and Bestival introducing new mind-stretching “ideas tents” to their arenas, is the literary experience in danger of becoming a commercial behemoth? Are we actually contributing less to culture by drinking mediocre wine and standing in a queue for a signature than by simply spending the time at home reading? Yes and no. The value of literary festivals can’t be judged in terms of popularity and ticket sales alone, and they need to add something significant to the cultural landscape – which Bragg believes they do. “Interaction and debate encourages people,” says Bragg. “It’s simple; we are inspired by seeing or hearing somebody else. The implications of encouraging the general public to think and be vocal could be quite profound.”

By making books more visible and interactive, then, literature festivals draw readers, cultural commentators and academics away from isolated page-turning and into conversation with one other. And it’s this social element that may be behind the rise in spoken word nights across the north. These are the events that stoke literary culture – occasions that offer the chance for so many interactions to take place in the same room are a vital part of the scene. “Literary festivals could be the beginnings of a training ground that helps to cultivate a society open to the arts,” argues Bragg. “Improving and enriching our lives for the better, for the future.” As the number and popularity of literature festivals increases, they create a collective space where new ideas are listened to and championed, and where changing cultural debate occurs. It’s part of a growing, multi-layered conversation – and a way for literature to keep up in the age of the internet.

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Activity 3 April–30 October 2019, from £6

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