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2020 Festival: From a Speaker’s Perspective

Professor Helen Taylor was a speaker and an interviewer in Wells this year. She describes the experience:

As I struggled into a pair of sleek satin tights on a Tuesday morning, I realised I hadn’t worn a skirt or dressed smartly for over eight months. It was a wet October day and I was off to interview a writer at Wells Festival of Literature.

Festival PreparationThis Festival is well established, now in its 28th year. It began in a mix of locations, moved to a marquee on the splendid Wells Cathedral Bishop’s Palace lawn, and then in 2018, when a new 330-seater concert hall was built in the Cathedral School’s grounds, the Festival moved indoors.  In 2020, the committee bravely decided to go ahead with a hybrid festival of both live and streamed events. Cedars Hall was adapted to Covid regulations, with separate entrances and exits, socially distanced seating (80-85 places only), hand sanitisers and face masks everywhere, a pop-up bookshop with book plates instead of personal signing, and a strict instruction to writers and performers that they couldn’t meet audiences. The ‘green room’ where speakers wait was thoroughly cleaned before and after each event, and no speakers were allowed to meet or hang out together.

At the start of the year, when my book Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives came out, I was booked to appear at many literary festivals up and down the country, from The British Library to Hexham, Chipping Campden to Fowey.  I’d bought a few new clothes and booked hairdresser appointments months in advance. Why Women Read Fiction was Book of the Week on Radio 4 and widely reviewed in newspapers and journals; I was on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Radio 3’s Free Thinking, and dozens of local radio shows. It was shaping up to be my best year ever.

Well, in early March I got to Leeds and had a great time speaking at their literary festival, as well as being toured round the city by my student great-nephew.  I was just getting into a starry national tour, when the music stopped and all my festival engagements were Covid-cancelled overnight.

Much of the spring was taken up with virtual interviews and presentations on Zoom. Sitting at my computer in solitary state, wearing a fancy sweater and jogging pants, I explained to audiences I couldn’t see or meet afterwards why fiction is so important in the lives of women. I argued passionately that the gregarious nature of our reading matters so much: book clubs, library visits, literary chats at the school gates, visits to writers’ homes and to literary festivals. I tried not to sound desolate at the loss of all this.

Helen TaylorWhen invited by the Wells Festival of Literature to appear in person before both a live and virtual audience, I was amazed and delighted – though until the last minute I expected the Great Second Lockdown to sabotage the whole event.

In pre-Covid days, speaking at and chairing events in festivals was a stimulating and friendly experience. When trains seemed a safe and comfortable form of transport, you arrived at the station and were collected by a volunteer who drove you to your hotel or the festival site. You shared coffee and gossip with fellow writers and interviewers in the green room/yurt/tent, then did your number and signed books for audience members who came to talk about their lives and reading pleasures. Afterwards you ate and drank at the Festival café and bar, swapping book titles and ideas with enthusiastic readers, publishers and agents. For festivalgoers, this informal and democratic gathering was what defined the whole experience. As I recorded in my book, women in particular (the majority of festival audiences) love the human contact with writers they admire or wish to read, the brief exchange of words as they get books signed, and the serendipitous conversations with other readers and writers that occur in the tea room or book tent.

Audience at the Wells Festival of LiteratureThis year, Wells did what it could to simulate that precious festival experience.  A volunteer-led organisation, its impressive staff put me in touch with the writers I was due to interview remotely, and explained precisely how the new technology would work with the elaborate Covid procedures in place. Speakers and audiences were welcomed with warmth and gratitude for having the courage to gather in a concert hall, and the recording worked well on the whole, allowing for live and Zoomed events. My talk about women’s reading went off without a hitch, and I interviewed two writers in Liverpool and Edinburgh respectively who rose admirably to the challenge. Despite the inevitable Zoom freezes and glitches, both Pragya Agarwal and Janice Hadlow managed to engage with me and the audience as if onstage, though I must say we all missed that easy intimacy that oils the best live literary conversations.

However difficult and technically challenging the hybrid festival, this year has proved its worth. The largest festivals – Hay, Edinburgh and Cheltenham – attracted huge online audiences. While Nicola Sturgeon’s in-person interview with novelist Bernardine Evaristo at Edinburgh would have been a sell-out of hundreds, the online viewership was 5,000 on the night and 11,000+ on the catch-up service. All those festivals offered their events for no charge or a requested donation, to which audiences responded positively.  They received hundreds of thousands of hits from sixty-three countries, and Cheltenham charged a modest fee to anyone wishing to view all events until the end of December. Wells, a much smaller festival without international profile, managed digital audiences from Texas to Tokyo, and allowed free access to events until the end of November. In 2019, the Festival attracted live audiences of 6,000; this year (because of social distancing) 2,200 live and 4,000 online. The largest online following, from over twelve countries, was for Glastonbury Festival’s Michael Eavis. To date, Wells has received £9K in donations, a sum that – while more than they anticipated –won’t cover the considerable streaming costs.

Despite the financial challenges, the 2020 Wells Festival of Literature is a model for future small festivals. One of the criticisms often made of literary festivals is that they are cosily parochial – and largely white, middle-class and female. This year’s digital move has opened the door to more diverse audiences across class, ethnicity, age and nationality. Wells’ decision to live-stream attracted new audiences, and has encouraged the planning committee to consider something similar in future. The feedback they received was very positive, though the organisers themselves admit they missed the Festival buzz, and their audiences regretted the lack of popular book signings.

Welcoming the hybrid festival of the future, the Director of Hay suggested, ‘However digitally connected we are, there is still an absolute value to sitting round the fireside or the picnic rug and being face to face. The festival is the very opposite of social distancing.’ As I know from discussing festivals with women, the ‘me-time’ and opportunity for communal immersion in a safe and congenial literary space to expand the imagination can’t be replicated at home with the distractions of children, dogs and deliveries at the door.

Pop-up ShopFor all of us, being part of a larger reading community is one of life’s great pleasures, something cruelly diminished by lockdown. Although we read alone, the desire to share – in collective spaces like libraries, bookshops, book clubs, literary festivals and writers’ birthplaces – won’t be satisfied by a future of Zoom interviews, writers’ podcasts and digital literary events. If Covid can be conquered by vaccines, in Wells and elsewhere, let’s hope for meetings of minds on the ground – in school halls, marquees and libraries – to herald a gregarious reading and writing new normal.

Helen Taylor is the author of Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives (Oxford University Press). She is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Exeter, and the Director of the first two Liverpool Literary Festivals.

Copyright Helen Taylor  2020