front of house
GUEST LIST Will Self
Renowned as the journalist caught smoking heroin on the Prime Minister's Election plane, The List’s guest columnist WILL SELF steels himself for the Festival experience.
THERE ARE FEW things that promote more grinding, grating and thoroughly shredding ambivalence in me than the prospect of attending a literary festival. Unfortunately, like well-organised outward bound courses, held for the sake of bookish delinquents, these lit-fests are all too often thrown in assemblages of tents. Everyone knows that books furnish a room — but a tent? I ask you.
Then there’s the assumption that ‘we’re all in this together’; that the practitioners of literature have some kind of intrinsic solidarity for which the festival is a gathering of the clan. This attitude is as spurious as the motivation that leads writers themselves to contact their colleagues when moving to a new town. You don‘t get heating engineers bothering to call up other heating engineers, with letters of introduction from a third boiler fitter, when they move. And by the same token there is little that writers have to say to one another that’s intrinsically interesting, apart from ‘How’s X, Y, and the kids‘?’.
The visible face of book festivals: the staged debates and panels, the readings etc. are altogether a different matter. These have a didactic, explanatory and publicity value that relates directly to the main business: selling books (and by extension enjoying them). In truth, the ability a festival affords for someone to read their finely wrought. 56-stanza tone poem on the independence movement in Tajikstan, is almost always underwritten by
the appearance in an adjacent mega-tent of
18 rueusr 15—21 Aug 1997
Ainslee Harriott. PD. James. or some other barbecue chef turned scribbler.
For the writer on her way up this is always underlined by the dreaded post-event signing session. Here. at a multiple gig. the respective writers are required to range along one side of a table while queues of people requiring signed copies line up in front of them. Almost every writer I know has had a similar experience to the one I encountered a few
'Edinburgh offers a nightlife that for sheer frenzy and ambition makes Trainspotting look like Bambi.‘ wm Self
years ago reading with E. Annie Proulx at the Melbourne Literary Festival. In the Self queue were the normal smattering of rehab candidates and lycra-wearing. existential inhabitants of the inner city: while the Proulx queue looked like the exodus of the Twelve Tribes frotn Egypt. lt snaked clear out of the hall and some blocks down the road.
This isn‘t simply sour grapes. Publishers will try and assure that sales of serious ‘literary' fiction are holding up well. but the truth is that things are as they have always been. There is the occasional ‘Iiterary‘ best-seller (usually backed up like The English Patient by a movie tie-in), but on the whole the literary list is a loss leader for the publishing house: reflecting the quality and acumen of its editorial staff and paid for by more ‘mainstream‘ genre fiction, or literary biography (which sells far more), or barbecue books.
_.~'< \(\ \ ‘\§; u
Will Self: enjoying a quiet cigarette, honest
This sense of being an embattled, declining medium tends to pervade literary gatherings. Worse than that. there‘s the fact that there is so little money to be made by writing the stuff that there’s an uneasy tension and jockeying for status among all concerned.
But all of this being noted. there are two massive upsides to attending the Edinburgh Book Festival. It gives me the opportunity to present my work directly to my readership, unmediated by the carping and cavillings of the critics, the media and all‘the other twerps. I’m always pleasantly surprised to find out just how switched on readers are — and it’s them that matter.
Then there‘s Edinburgh itself. which away from the moneyed precincts of the ‘oflicial‘ Festivals. offers a nightlife that for sheer frenzy and ambition makes Trainspotting look like Bambi. And lastly. there‘s the incredible sense of relief you’ll feel. if you attend the Book Festival and avoid the Fringe. Even I would rather listen to someone monotonously intone their finely wrought. So-stanza tone poem on the independence movement in Tajikstan than squat in some drill hall while on~stage an egregious luvvie emotes. and off-stage the audience desperately acts their part.
Great Apes by Will Self is published by Bloomsbury at £14.99. Self is at the Edinburgh Book Festival, International Cafe. Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, 0131 220 3990, Fri 15 Aug, 7.30pm, £6 (£3).