Literary Festivals – they're all in Britain

I love literary festivals. That’s to say, I love the idea of them. I love the thought of rubbing shoulders with my favorite writers, mixing with other bibliophiles and generally indulging my taste for reading and writing for a glorious few days without interruption. Actually, though,  I’ve never been to one, which considering what an author groupie I am, is surprising. Maybe the reason is that I live in the US and most of the English language literary festivals take place in the British Isles. (British Isles – how quaint! That’s because I’m including Ireland). You can find a comprehensive list of these festivals here and there are still plenty left to visit this year.
At least it seems that they’re all in Britain. I Googled literary festivals USA and got a couple of individual ones, but no comprehensive list. If you know of such a list, do let me know and I’ll be sure to add it to this post. There are plenty of book fairs, but I don’t think they’re the same thing, and most of them aren’t open to the public.
Britain has approximately 135 of them a year, a staggering number for such a small country. The grand-daddy of them all, the Hay Festival,  is celebrating 25 years this week, and the authors that have been lined up for it include Martin Amis, Ian Rankin, Michael Morpurgo and Hilary Mantel, among many others. The Festival is sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, and you can follow it on their live blog 
Hay-on-Wye is normally a small Welsh town of fewer than 1500 people, once famed for having 39 bookstores, mainly selling second-hand and antiquarian books. (That’s one bookshop for every 36 residents, in case you care…) The bookstores are still there, of course, doing a brisk trade all year with collectors all round the world, but when the festival is on, 80,000 people visit the town. Heaven knows where they stay…
Other British Newspapers sponsor literary festivals too. The Times supports the Cheltenham Literature Festival (October), The Sunday Times does the Oxford festival in March,
But British festivals don’t end there. There are specialized festivals: ones that feature particular writers – Graham Greene (Berkhamsted in September), Dylan Thomas (October, Swansea), Daphne du Maurier (Fowey, Cornwall, May), T.S. Eliot (Little Gidding in July). There’s one just for travel writing: Immrama – the  Lismore Festival of Travel Writing (June 7-10, Waterford Ireland) and another in Manchester just for children’s books (June/July). It goes without saying that some of these are poetry festivals.
My question is: why? Why so many? I know that more books are sold in the US, (over 3 bn! versus 230m in the UK), although almost as many are published (just under 250,000 in the UK and just over in the US). So you’d expect that there would be more festivals like this in the US to cater to those readers. Maybe it’s the distances that put people off. After all, in Britain you’re never more than about 3-4 hours away from anywhere, so these things are accessible. But that can’t be the whole story. Maybe they bring up the Brits to be writer groupies. Maybe knowing our favorite writers live just around the corner (metaphorically speaking) makes people think of them as personal friends, whom they want to visit periodically. I don’t know. But I’m thinking I might visit a festival next year. After all, so long as I don’t visit in December, there’s always a literary festival going on somewhere.

Recent Comments

  • jessicamjonas
    June 3, 2012 - 7:20 pm · Reply

    What about the National Book Festival in DC every Septemberish? Baltimore also has an annual book festival. If you Google “book festival” rather than “literary festival,” you’ll get some hits with lists of the best festivals of 2010, etc. Not as good as a comprehensive list of what’s out there, but a good starting point!

  • Tina
    June 6, 2012 - 3:20 am · Reply

    Just back from Jubilee weekend at the Book Festival at Hay-on-Wye which was wonderful but wet and cold to the point of hypothermia, and that’s the downside of bookish get-togethers on the British Isles. As you might guess, we all wore wellies and waterproofs and had a v jolly time nonetheless! However, I note that the Hay Festival and others are starting little off-shoot festivals in nice warm places like India and Dubai…

    • Gabi Coatsworth
      June 6, 2012 - 10:45 am · Reply

      Hi Tina – nice to hear from you. I must say I like the sound of the warm weather festivals. The last time I was in hay they hadn’t invented the festival…so it’s come a long way.

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