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Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 3

Part 1 of this diary is available here, with part 2 here.

Friday 16th

10.00 am: Today is deliberately light on events for me; but now it gets even lighter, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is unfortunately now unable to attend. I was looking forward to his talk, but now I’ll have to find something else to go to instead.

6.00 pm: Last night, I pretty much abandoned the private game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ I’d been playing. And now I walk past Anthony Horowitz, today’s Guest Director; I could have had a full scorecard!

7.00 pm: Here’s the ‘something else’ I chose to attend – ‘Castaway’s Choice’, in which a panel are asked which book they’d take to a desert island (the name of a certain radio programme is apparently not allowed to be mentioned). Apparently Geoffrey Howe chose The Good Hotel Guide in a previous year, but we get three fiction choices here. Booker nominee Adam Foulds chooses Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (a book I’d never heard of before, but it sounds interesting. Writer and Times Literary Editor Erica Wagner chooses Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. And PR agent Mark Borkowski’s choice is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never read any of those (I know, I  know…), but it’s an entertaining and interesting session all the same. (Particularly amusing is the moment when Borkowski tries to find the last page of The Catcher in the Rye on his e-book reader, so he can read a passage, only to give up in frustration and pull out his good old paper copy – there’s life in the printed word yet!).

8.45 pm: Rich Hall is interviewed, and reads from his new story collection. I was sitting at the wrong side of the theatre to get a really good view, but it didn’t matter. Hall was excellent, by turns both funny and insightful; and his book sounds like a good read, too.

Saturday 17th

3.00 pm: A late start, as another of my planned events has been cancelled, and my first choice of replacement was full. I go along first to the Highland Park marquee, where a number of Canongate authors are reading from their work – and free shots of whisky are being offered. The author at this session is a new novelist called Trevor Byrne, who reads from Ghosts and Lightning; I’m so impressed that I go to the book tent and buy a copy. [I’m reading it now, and if it finishes as well as it starts, you can expect a very positive write-up on this very blog before too long.]

5.00 pm: What can I say about the great Steve Redgrave? Perhaps simply that he’s an engaging interviewee with a fascinating story. But I have to leave before the end to make it to my next event…

6.10 pm: More comedy, as today’s Guest Director, Mark Watson, interviews Armando Iannucci. But it’s like no other interview I’ve seen at the Festival, as they open to questions from the audience at 6.15, and get through about three questions in the next 45 minutes, each answer leading into wonderful digressions. I saw Watson in stand-up this January; he was hilarious then, and he’s hilarious now. I’ve never really followed Iannucci’s work, and am not really into political satire, but he wins me over at this session. Definitely one of the two funniest and best comedy events I attended at the whole Festival [the other is my final event tomorrow].

8.45 pm: Now, for a change, an author known for writing literature – and, moreover, the only event where I’ve already read the book under discussion. Iain Banks is as animated and engaging as ever; but I do start to wonder if Transition is really the kind of novel that lends itself to an interview of this nature, as some of the discussion feels a bit dry. And one questioner from the audience casually gives away the ending of The Wasp Factory, which I do not appreciate.

Sunday 18th

10.00 am: The Guest Director for this final day of the Festival is Jonathan Coe, at whose first event my day begins. The brochure says, ‘[Coe] introduces a varied programme of his own writing, including [a short story] reworked as a performance piece for voice and piano’. Sounds interesting to me. But, when Coe takes the stage, he announces that there’s a change to the programme. What we get is one single reading (by a female actor) of extracts from one of Coe’s novels, with a live piano accompaniment. This is okay, but I can’t help feeling disappointed, as the original idea sounded better; and I’m not sure how much the ‘soundtrack’ really added. Still, it was enough to make me interested in reading one of Coe’s books.

11.30 am: Back to the Canongate tent for a reading by Mari Strachan, another début author. Again, I’m really intrigued by this, and end up buying a copy of The Earth Hums in B Flat [though I’ve yet to start reading it].

2.00 pm: Another of Jonathan Coe’s events, this time a discussion on the place for ‘serious’/’literary’ fiction at the present time. I’m interested to see who will attend this session – the audience is (sadly) quite small; most of them are older than me, though (happily) I’m not the youngest; and I can’t help but wonder how many of the audience are just here as readers, and have no connection with publishing or writing. Anyway, the panel consists of Pete Ayrton (from the publisher Serpent’s Tail), Suzi Feay (former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday); and James Heneage (founder of Ottakar’s). Coe suggests at the end that the debate has been largely ‘optimistic’, though I’m not sure I’d agree with him. I’m particularly struck by how much the survival of ‘serious’ fiction seems to be dependent on other factors; it’s not whether there will be a demand for that kind of fiction (there will but, as ever, it will be a minority interest), but whether the industry will be able to support it, given that the money for it will probably have to come from elsewhere.

4.00 pm: A talk by former ambassador Christopher Meyer on his history of British diplomacy. I booked this event at the last minute, on a whim, but I’m very glad I did. Meyer is a wonderful speaker, his passion and enthusiasm for his subject really shining through.

6.00 pm: My original choice of event for this slot (Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis) was fully booked, but this one is just fine instead. The joint interview with novelists Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka is a joy, the best fiction event of the Festival for me. I’ve never read Gale at all, and only one book of Lewycka’s (A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, which I quite enjoyed), so I’m not quite sure what to expect. But both are highly engaging (though Lewycka sounds exactly like an old French tutor of mine, which takes a little getting used to), especially when they spark off each other. Some participants in events at the Festival have been too ‘chummy’ for the good of the discussion, but here it’s an asset (I’ve no idea whether Lewycka and Gale are friends in real life, but they have that kind of natural rapport here). And my TBR pile grows larger still…

8.00 pm: Last event of the Festival – the great Barry Cryer, someone who’s been around all my life, yet I’ve never really appreciated the sheer range of his work. He’s brilliant here, with anecdotes from a lifetime in comedy, and some very funny jokes. At the very end of the session, the interviewer realises they haven’t even mentioned Cryer’s new book – but what does it matter after such a wonderful hour?

 ***

And that was my Festival. All in all, a highly enjoyable ten days. I’m glad I went, and would certainly go back. Then again, there are all those other literary festivals out there, just waiting to be explored. As ever, so many possibilities, and not enough time to choose them all…

Personal reflections on books and gender

This post has been inspired by an entry in Juliet McKenna‘s LiveJournal asking whether publishing is sexist. It may turn out to be more a series of fragments than a properly coherent argument, and I doubt that I’ll offer any original insights; but I’ve never written about this topic before, so we’ll see how it goes.

To start with my own experiences as a reader: yes, most of the books I have read in my lifetime have been by men, and most of the books I have reveiwed have been by men. Yes, I was surprised by the ending of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler when we read it at school; and no, I didn’t read ‘books for girls’. But then, I didn’t read many ‘books for boys’ either — the closest I got were all the adventure gamebooks I read (the vast majority of which were written by men; and which had, I would surmise, a largely male readership). Mostly, though, I just read books — the gender of the author was genuinely never a concern to me. As an adult, I notice an author’s gender more; and, if I see that I’ve read a few books in a row by male authors, I do often think, perhaps it’s time I read a female author or two. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good way of looking at it; I think there’s something to be said for the free-spirited way I read as a child, picking up anything and everything with no regard for any criteria other than that it sounded good.

There has been quite a pause between my writing the last paragraph and this one, as I’ve confronted the fact that I probably do have a real gender bias in my choice of reading matter. It’s quite hypothetical, but it’s there. I would never reject a book on the basis of its author’s gender (gender might affect the order in which I read a group of books, but that’s different); I would reject it on the basis of whether I thought I’d like it. Now, I don’t tend to read books that have been explicitly written for a particular gender, of any sort — chick-lit, lad-lit, whatever, they generally don’t appeal to me (though I’m sure I could find exceptions if I looked); but if I had to choose one (and I’m talking about the really hackneyed, stereotyped stuff here), I’d go for a book written for my own gender. Hopefully there’s enough out there to read that I’ll never have to resort to making such a choice, but there it is.

So, I can understand (as I previously thought I couldn’t) how readers might prefer authors of one gender over another.  But I think the issue is also tied up with other factors. One of the commenters on Juliet’s post, Maura McHugh, says that, in the fantastic genres, we still have some people viewing some kinds of fiction  as more ‘suitable’ for women to write than others (i.e. fantasy rather than hard SF or horror), and cites as an example ‘paranormal romance’ being excluded from definitions of horror. Now, I think she conflates two different issues here. Yes, some people do think that women can’t or shouldn’t write particular kinds of fiction (in my view, all such opinions are wrong). The thing is, though, I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal romance’ as ‘horror’. But I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal detections’ (which are often written by men as well as women) as horror, either. And I would exclude these kinds of fiction not because of their authors’ gender, or because I think they’re intrinsically inferior (which, by the way, I don’t); but for the same reason I wouldn’t call Count Duckula horror — because I think (broadly speaking — of course there’s some overlap) they try to do different things and work in different ways.

Finally, to answer Juliet’s question: is publishing sexist? I have nothing to do with the industry, so I can do no more than speculate. I don’t think it is, not conciously anyway; but I do think there is a bias towards male writers — yet the majority of readers are female. Perhaps it is not so much one gender being favoured deliberately over another as the industry seeking to maintain a preconceived pattern of gender. A few years ago, Mark Morris wrote Fiddleback (known as The Lonely Places in the US), a psychological thriller with a female lead. It was published under a gender-neutral name to make it more appealing to women. That doesn’t excuse any biases against female writers, but it does demonstrate that ‘gender expectations’ can work both ways. Perhaps it’s that the publishing industry likes it when one set of books appeals to one gender, and another set of books appeals to another gender, and doesn’t like to rock that particular boat.

Over to you — yes, for once I’m going to explicitly invite comments (which are always welcome in any case). Do you prefer to read authors of one gender over another? What’s your take on the whole issue?

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