Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Big Question: What's behind the rise in literary festivals, and what's their purpose?

Why are we asking this now?
The 21st Hay Literary Festival
is in full swing this week at Hay-on-Wye. Despite the awful weather, around 80,000 book lovers have streamed into the small town on the Welsh borders to see their favourite authors speak. Since 1988, the event has become an essential feature of the cultural calendar, and has spawned an entire sub-industry of the book trade; nowadays, it seems every town with a reading population is required to host some kind of annual books-based shindig.
What's behind Hay's association with books?
A tiny town in the wet Welsh hills may seem an odd venue for one of the world's most popular literary get-togethers, but Hay is home to over 30 second-hand bookshops. It began when Richard Booth, the self-crowned "King of Hay" opened the first, Richard Booth's Bookshop, in 1961.
The festival was founded in 1988 by Peter Florence and his father Norman, with the help of just six volunteers. In 1989, the Florences put Hay on the map by persuading Arthur Miller to attend. In 2001, Bill Clinton turned up to publicise his autobiography and, with his masterful grasp of the soundbite, named the festival "The Woodstock of the Mind". Since then, the event has been unmissable for authors, publishers and other assorted literary types, exploiting the cult of the author to great effect.
This year, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan are joined on the Hay line-up by writers from other areas of public life, particularly politics. Cherie Blair, John Prescott and Lord Levy are plugging memoirs, while Clinton's predecessor Jimmy Carter topped the bill.

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