On the Outside Looking In: Democratising Literary Festivals Post-Pandemic

9 December 2020

With over 50 writers festivals in Victoria alone, it can seem an overwhelming prospect to choose which ones to invest time in. For people outside of the industry, it can also sometimes feel intimidating to attend such events in the first place. Last year, I went to the opening night of the Melbourne Writers Festival with a couple of friends. As soon as we arrived at the pre-talk networking event, I felt my anxiety peak amongst a crowd of very attractive intellectuals, most of whom were already gathered in clusters around the room, excitedly chatting and laughing and sipping champagne. I panicked and began searching for the bar. The literary world, along with other arts communities, can often seem an impenetrable and daunting space for newcomers and non-writers. Ellena Savage once asked “What even is a writers festival?” This question alongside “Who are literary festivals for?” still requires consideration. There is a risk that these events can become echo chambers for the literary middlebrow when ultimately, shouldn’t their purpose be to encourage more people, from all backgrounds, to be excited about and more invested in literature and the arts in general?

In light of the global pandemic, literary festivals across the world have made the necessary transition to become digital, online experiences. This change may give us insight into how industry events within the world of literature and beyond can be reimagined in a more democratised and collaborative way post-COVID-19. Online, there is greater accessibility for people with disabilities; mobility and communication are key issues that can be often be effectively addressed in the virtual realm (i.e. closed-captioning on videos and the ability to experience digital events anywhere, unrestricted by physical spaces that are not accessible for people who require ramp access).  Not only that, the fact that people can attend events from the comfort of their own homes means that anyone who may have previously felt intimidated by the sometimes exclusive spaces that literary events tend to be held in is more likely to feel comfortable attending. These cultural institutions can sometimes seem like private clubs for the literary elite, while an online space is more accessible to most people, at least in Australia. Digital events are also by nature cheaper to run, and therefore more economic for attendees, while the virtual realm allows for both synchronous and asynchronous communication, which gives community-building a new kind of flexibility and potential. The online experience is not necessarily superior in every way, but the affordances provided to us by digital platforms, adapted to “real-life” events, could galvanise a new era of future literary festivals.

Earlier this year, whilst volunteering at one of the last major events in Melbourne before COVID-19 forced so many festivals to cancel or transfer online, I was approached by an attendee who pitched me ideas on how the program could be improved. To briefly summarise, his idea was to provide an opportunity for people from the same state to connect by gathering in groups of our respective home locations around the hall we were holding the event in. His suggestion wasn’t radical—he was effectively proposing state-based networking—but it got me thinking about the dynamic that is set up when the experience of most attendees is witnessing experts speak on a stage whilst they remain in a crowd of anonymity on the floor. In the context of literary festivals, the experience of the audience—especially of attendees who are outsiders to the industry—often becomes completely individualised with little follow-up. If the audience, members of the general public who are eager to engage with the literary world in a meaningful way, had the same value placed on them as the writers and industry experts who were presenting, perhaps stronger social connections would be made at these events. Attendees could feel more confident approaching cultural gatekeepers to collaborate in some capacity, organising amongst themselves post-festival, bringing what they’ve learnt back into their local communities and increasing awareness and engagement in the world of contemporary literature.

Listening to experts, or successful writers and publishers in the case of literary festivals, is important. People whose professional lives revolve around literature and who have a nuanced understanding of the industry should be valued, not least for the important insights they provide. But how effective are festivals at getting attendees, let alone those who want to go but feel too much like outsiders, to engage and invest long term in the literary world with the ongoing enforcement of this ubiquitous active/passive dynamic? Surely it runs counter to building a sense of community when this structure remains?

In her insightful paper, “Conceptualising audience at the literary festival”, Millicent Weber describes how “The audience […] is typically represented as a body of populist and popularizing consumers, uncritically engaging with the mass-culture produced and propagated in the festival setting.” But, of course, audience members are engaged individuals who seek out events involving authors they love for a multitude of reasons. They want to be a part of critical dialogues, be introduced to new ideas. After work at an evening event held mid-week in the city, they want to rediscover the feeling of freedom that literature provides. They want their world opened up. It’s not to say that organisers of literary festivals are solely responsible or even capable of controlling the outcomes of attendees’ experiences, but during a time when federal funding for the arts is near non-existent, perhaps it’s important to consider new approaches in order to engage wider audiences and create a heightened interest in sustaining the literary world in our country.

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