Saturday 16 January 2016

Do the right thing

From the website of the 2016 Oxford Literary Festival, which is held in April

Enjoy an afternoon in the company of one of the nation’s best-loved children’s writers as she talks about her books and her life as a writer. 

Dame Jacqueline Wilson has sold more than 35,000,000 books worldwide. An afternoon in her company is a brisk affair and lasts for an hour, starting at 2pm in the Sheldonian Theatre. A ticket costs fifteen quid. There's more:

Please note there will be no book signing after this event but books bought from the bookstall will contain printed bookplates.

I bear the author no ill-will whatsoever, and am told that she has in the past undertaken marathon book signings but that her current state of health does not allow her to engage in such a demanding activity. I wish her well, but as one of the 500 or so authors who make up the bill for this leading literary festival, and arguably the most famous and successful, she serves to illustrate my point: that the hyper-commodification of literature - or at least of books - does nothing much to enrich our literary culture, such as it is. Why does it have to be like this? And more precisely: why do the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival have a policy of not paying any of the writers who take part? In the case of Wilson and the other affluent headliners it's hardly an issue, but what of the rest? Why has the non-payment of writers who attend literary festivals become so commonplace and (until now) remained largely unchallenged?

The Oxford-based author Phillip Pullman was in the news this week when he resigned as a patron of the festival. As President of the Society of Authors his position was untenable because  the Society is campaigning against this iniquitous treatment of hard-up writers and has written to festival organisers suggesting a reasonable arrangement. He's done the right thing, and is to be admired for taking a stand and prompting a debate. A letter signed by a significant roster of writers appeared yesterday in The Booksellercalling for a boycott of all festivals that do not pay their writers, to highlight this malign practice and to assert author's rights. You can click on the Bookseller link to add your name to the petition. I hope authors and publishers and especially readers will support any such boycott, and send a clear message to the organisers and sponsors. Pay your writers! Pay them!

The Oxford Literary Festival organiser Sally Dunsmore (who seems to be a thoroughly good egg in other respects) says in a statement on the Festival website: “We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”

So perhaps this is a good time for the sponsors and organisers to change their policy and recalibrate their priorities? Those authors 'at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following'' are likely to earn less than £11k a year at best from their writing and they are the ones who need money (unless they happen to be independently wealthy, in which case they may not be the kind of writer that this blogger cares to read). They also need the time to write, and attending a festival (whether paid or not, and however agreeable) is the opposite of writing. Dunsmore is right to insist that the Oxford Literary Festival is a large event but, on the strength of the authors booked for 2016, hardly diverse. Have a look at this year's roster of talent here.

The OLF's wealthy corporate sponsors includes the Financial Times. How would the proprietors of a mighty organ dedicated to the values of the free market feel about not paying the cleaners, caterers, marquee suppliers and security staff who make their festival possible? (Intensely relaxed, one fears.) And what about the other sponsors, including HSBC, BBC Four (the telly channel, not the radio), English Heritage (surely now rebranded as Historic England?), Blackwells (the university bookshop), The Oxford Times and the rest. Are they really devoted to further impoverishing the hard-upwriters who make up our literary culture?
Volunteer stewards aside it seems that everyone involved in this Festival gets paid, but not the people  around whom it is built and upon whom it depends - the authors. They don't get travel expenses, accommodation or even'a modest honorarium' (a fancy way of saying fifty quid). They might get to flog a few books - but to do so that have to give up at least a day that could otherwise be spent writing, which is how they earn their living.

So - how about  a straightforward arrangement to be adopted by all literary festivals: authors get travel expenses, a fee (on a scale to be agreed with the Society of Authors and other interested parties) plus whatever else the sponsors can come up with by way of incentive. Make the festivals smaller and more ambitious, with less of a celebrity emphasis. Raise the bar and lower the overheads.

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