''A little less conversation, a little more action please.'' You are not likely to hear this phrase from punters at book festivals. For these festivals offer you the chance to say more than just a few gratuitously laudatory words to your favourite author. Even if he doesn't fall under the favourite category, you love the fact he is there. You bask in his glory, and spotlight. Then you queue to have your book autographed by him. Or her. The celebrity writer is a largely advertised figure today.
Book publicists send copies of published novels to festival directors as vigorously as Beyonce's publicist would a CD to the Rolling Stone magazine. Authors have become more powerful than the characters they create. They stand before the curtains of their product and talk and talk, than sit happily behind them in order to let you, the reader, get on with their story. Marvelling at the author's skills at public speaking seems to be the primary objective of a book festival.
I am not complaining. I have organised more than a couple of these kind of jamborees. But I am not fond of the term 'book/literary festivals' though. They are misleading at best. The so called 'book festivals' are mainly about ideas, current affairs, politics and conversations, hardly much about literature. At UK 'bookfests' you can hear John Prescott talking about his weight. Yasmin Alibhai Brown goes on commenting on race. And Cherie Blair about her husband's political life.
In Asia, Jaipur hosts leading international names before an exotic backdrop of palatial décor. Salman Rushdie's appearance at the then newborn festival two years ago gave it star status. Now iconic figures namely Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje are following Rushdie's footsteps by accepting invitations from the Jaipur team. Galle in Sri Lanka began putting on their annual literary fest in UNESCO world heritage site of Galle Fort in 2007. They boast on their website of the fact that it had been hailed as ''the number one literary festival in the world''.
How do you secure that status in this business? Better champagne and grander authors? Or an irresistibly soothing destination? My festival sponsors would continuously ask me how many big names had confirmed participation. It was evident that the fame effect held more gravitas than the quality of programming and literary minds speaking at the event. In order to secure sponsorship, we felt obliged to throw stylish parties and dinners so that the the sponsor would feel their support was being publicly acknowledged. Branding, marketing and swish hotel rooms took precedence over book readings.
I suggest we call these festivals what they really are: hobnobfest.