Literature Festivals: Still the White Man’s Space?

Literature Festivals: Still the White Man’s Space?

After the recent successes of the third Cardiff Book Festival, Kelly Keegan asks why, with all the best intentions, the efforts of the modern book festival to be inclusive and relevant still fall short.

Cardiff Book Festival
Sali Hughes | Cardiff Book Festival

After a decade of being browbeaten by students, of whom the majority don’t have a bookcase in their home (let alone a bedroom), I have become pessimistic about literature festivals and academia.

This ominous distrust is triggered when the tone of the conversations is indulging in the academic as if the topics are universally discussed at an intimate level. It feels cloying, an attempt to be conciliatory to the weary boned liberals and downtrodden campaigners. ‘We’re all in this together’, is the message hammered home until the book signings end or it comes to payroll. The Gender Pay Gap at Cambridge University is 19.5%, whilst at Oxford, it is even higher, at 24.5%. I don’t need to label the gender getting the worse deal.

Don’t dismiss me as a harpy just yet, it might be a case of doth I protest too much, but I’m undertaking an MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. I might even pursue a PhD. I am concerned with existentialism as much as the next person with enough privilege to have the time to be. But, to my mind, change needs to be frogmarched in, not applied intermittently.

Cardiff’s recent book festival was a success because it was self-aware. Unlike the Speakeasy tent at Latitude Festival, where fun was poked at the homogeneity of the identikit white, middle-class audience, but nothing could be done to challenge it in actuality. (British music festivals are exclusionary by nature because of their exorbitant expense.)

Cardiff Book Festival had acted: the price points; the range of topics; the availability of individual event tickets; the centrality of it, and the disabled access, all made it accessible to engage with. It is difficult to find three days’ worth of entertainment for £25 anywhere in the UK, even more, unlikely that it will manage to not come off as an obviously amateur affair.

Yet, here was Sali Hughes discussing ‘Beauty Products That Changed the World’, an introduction to blogging, the chance to go to a masterclass on how to pitch to an agent, a one-man play by Cameroon-born Eric Ngalle Charles, Sunday night closing with a discussion about how to ‘know your place’  described as addressing “those of us whose families never quite felt like they belonged in a bookshop… examine class, homophobia, locality, race, Welsh working-class identities.“

So, why all the middle-aged people? Was the hotel setting to blame? (It is called “Jury’s” a foretelling of judgement?) Or, is it a wider issue, as consumers have we become stolid cynics?  Are we avoiding events where we imagine ourselves stonewalled and out of place?

People seek genuine inclusion. Regardless of CBF earnestly providing a diverse set of events, the fact remains that the literary world is a clandestine one, with a male problem. A white, middle-class, heteronormative, male problem.

There are not enough people of colour or from the working class being published. When these authors do break through, another problem arises, the way in which they are often defined by exactly what makes them ‘other’. Women do not find, even with all the engagement with the academic field of literature, being the majority consumer of books and all the talk going, that they are published or read as much as their male counterparts.

There is no acknowledgement that people from any group may have a story of equal consequence to tell. There’s an unsettling torpidity of beliefs: women are custodians for the domestic, men are curators of the universal, minorities within these two themes must always be a voice for their alien experience. Hay Festival, in all its splendour, even fell foul of the latter form of marginalisation.

Their ‘Crime’ speakers consisted of a group of 35 people, 32 of them were white. The 3 POC were defined by their ethnic identities. Shruti Kapila, being a professor of Modern Indian History, Paul Caruana Galizia, advocating for greater awareness of human rights violations in Malta, after the murder of his mother, and Chibundu Onuzo having written a novel about Nigeria. This will undoubtedly be a choice but is still problematic. White guests, featured in the same category, both talked and wrote about things out of their own immediate point of cultural or ethnic reference.

Onuzo didn’t have her own slot, she was part of a panel talking about corruption in ‘the world’s poorest countries’. Cossetted by Oliver Bullough and Matthew T. Page, both white men, neither from Nigeria, with Page having titled his book ‘Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know’. It is difficult to imagine the roles being reversed unless the Nigerian born writer had produced a comedic piece about Britain’s endearing eccentricities.

With such startling divisiveness, why bother engaging? Your very attendance must be painful. We go to these things in a prospective sense; eager to learn the ‘way in’ from industry experts and have our own agency in the process reaffirmed. If you knew, from the outset, the opposite would occur, would you still buy a ticket?

Richard Skinner | Cardiff Book Festival

At CBF, Richard Skinner, leader of ‘The Faber Academy Way’ course, was interviewed by Lleucu Siencyn, on the craft of writing a novel. Throughout the discussion, between 15 and 20 authors were mentioned, by my count, none female.

Sitting in the front row, interning Skinner’s advice onto the pages of my notebook, it hurt me. To feel positioned as invisible, an afterthought, or merely a mechanism for discussion that’s fleeting, or a subplot because of what makes you other, is diminishing your identity.

Can you contemplate intentionally paying to be reminded you are rarely viewed as a whole? Or, in the way you want to be understood? Having it obliquely enforced that you don’t have a place at the table, rather, you are occasionally brought forth from the shadows. Unless you are a masochist it isn’t going to seem like a beneficial use of your time.

Skinner’s session was five-star. He was congenial in approach, encouraging of audience participation, mindful not to talk too much, despite being the authority on the subject, and exuded that credible sort of charisma that somebody still smitten by their field, rather than the success it has afforded them, has.

It would have been easy, natural even, to smile, applaud and contribute to comfortable questioning to reinforce the companionability of the tone. But the reverence with which he and Siencyn had cited so many male authors, at the exclusion of any females, triggered an inexplicable sense of visibility and rejection.

I asked, “From the academy’s split of published authors, who finds more success: men or women?”

Skinner responded, “Far more women take the course every year. We have done lots of research into why, but I can only generalise that men don’t think they need to learn the craft of writing”.

Which prompted, “It’s just you both mentioned a wide variety of talented writers and none of them was women.”

The audience behind me blurted “Jane Austen” in dissent, like a thunderclap of damnation and I realised my folly, yes Austen had been mentioned.  An exceptional female, one hundred years dead.

It was alien to be at odds with the literary community.  I have always frequented libraries, from childhood, always read ferociously, I buy books from indie shops, have magazine subscriptions and teach English. These are normally my people.

Skinner, to his credit, looked reflective but the host moved on to another question as if Austen’s inclusion negated the issue; made it redundant that Faber Academy’s existence is owed to women’s purses; not irksome at all, that publishers are kept afloat by women who systematically buy more books than men;  unnecessary to dwell on the fact Skinner would be paid from the ticket sales of a largely female audience. After all, Austen was included.

Therein lies the issue, the reason literary events frequently have a homogeneous white middle-class audience; irrespective of themes and intentions the undercurrent remains the same. There’s insidious violence in the silencing and streamlining of voices within the literature. If that violence feels targeted at you, maybe it’s better for your mental health to turn the other cheek.


Kelly Keegan is a blogger and music event organiser based in Cardiff.

Cardiff Book Festival is an annual celebration of literature in Wales.