Thursday, 18 September 2014
2014 has been an unprecedentedly lively year in my neck of Yorkshire. The Tour de France and its spin-off celebrations, the York Literature Festival and the success of local publishers such as Stairwell Books and Valley Press have really helped put this part of the UK on the literary map. My colleagues in the Sounds Lyrical Project have been celebrating their first Arts Council grant with the launch of a brand new concert series fusing spoken word with original music. My neighbours at Harrogate’s Poems, Prose and Pints have just celebrated their fifth anniversary with the launch of a cracking anthology featuring work from regulars at their monthly open mic alongside nationally known writers. Performance poet Henry Raby has triumphantly brought poetry to the Yorkshire masses at the Galtres Festival and is launching a programme of poetry slams bringing national superstars of the spoken word scene to York. And my own little contribution, The Speakers’ Corner, has started up again in a lovely new venue, delighting regulars and visitors alike with the work of some excellent guest features.
So why is it that I’m beginning to doubt the saying You can never have too much of a good thing?
Here’s the problem. If all of this were going on in London, nobody would ever want for an audience. But York is not London. We have more than our fair share of great writers and performers – but sad to say, we still don’t have large audiences. And the problem with having a literary calendar where events are happening every night (as was true a couple of weeks ago) is that most people are simply physically unable to get to every event. Put too many events on, and you begin to split your audience.
I’ve noticed this a lot, of late. There might be tons of events, but at many of these events you can count the audience on your fingers. It’s also noticeable that at a lot of these events, the audience consists entirely of other writers. And that bothers me. It suggests that literary York is beginning to turn into some sort of highbrow ghetto. Are we forgetting how important it is to engage with the wider community? Are we failing in our efforts – or are we just not bothering?
Something else which is a cause for concern is that I’ve noticed the language of rivalry starting to creep in. It makes my heart sink to hear participants and audience members talk about such-and-such an event as “the best” literary event in York. It’s even more worrying when event organisers do it. It smacks of a suggestion that other events are somehow inferior. The message that goes out is “Don’t go there – come here instead.” But a literary scene should thrive on being “better together” (to use a well-known phrase of the moment). It won’t thrive on rivalry and one-upmanship.
But there’s something even worse than one-upmanship – and that is wilful ignorance of what else is happening. This became obvious to me a few months back, on a night where not one, but TWO, poetry events were happening in York in two different venues simultaneously. In the first (let’s call it Event One), the most critically lauded poet in the UK at the moment was giving a reading of work from his multiple award winning collection. In the other (which I’ll call Event Two), an Arts Council-funded event organiser brought together ten of the region’s most well respected poets in a high-profile showcase of their work.
The problem this created is obvious. Most of the audience who were at Event Two (and most of the performers) would really have liked to be at Event One. But a poet can’t be in two places at once. The audience was divided. And NEITHER event got as big an audience as the performers deserved.
Double booking really gets my goat. I can understand it happening in London, or Glasgow. But there’s simply no reason for it to happen in a place the size of York. Our literary community is a small demographic in comparison with, say, the audience at the Theatre Royal or at York City football ground. It really isn’t difficult for information to be shared, diaries synchronised, and events timetabled in a way that doesn’t split the audience.
Having multiple events take place on multiple nights in a row can be almost as bad as double booking. York’s literary community lead busy lives. Many of the most committed members are older, or have health difficulties which make it physically impossible to come to events on consecutive nights, no matter how much they might wish to do so. Others have family commitments which mean that even getting out of the house once a week is a luxury. Choices have to be made: do I go to Event X or Event Y? And audiences are divided as a result.
So why does this keep happening?
The problem doesn’t lie with the performers. It’s the people who promote the events, nine times out of ten, who don’t bother co-ordinating what they are doing. It’s the promoters who often don’t see a NEED to co-ordinate. Their event is the best and most important thing happening, and why shouldn’t everybody drop everything and come to their event, regardless of what else is going on?
I’ve been a literary promoter myself, ever since I joined the organising team for Speakers’ Corner back in 2007. And one of the first decisions I made was that Speakers’ Corner shouldn’t be an event which only promoted itself. We proudly support up-and-coming local talent. Through newsletters, social media and word of mouth we do more than our fair share of promotion for other people’s events. I like to think that this has helped boost audience numbers, and foster the lively literary spirit which is so much in evidence in York today.
But there really are limits. And when our efforts get thrown back in our face out of rivalry, or thoughtlessness, or sheer bloody arrogance, then you can’t really blame us for stopping every now and again and asking “What’s the point?”
Perhaps the answer is for some of us to stop running events altogether. Let the law of the jungle govern the literary calendar, so that the strong survive while the smaller, and those who make less noise, disappear. Speakers’ Corner did have a sabbatical in 2013, while I worked on my poetry collection and my co-organisers concentrated on their own projects. There was an immediate clamour of “It’s not fair”, “Why did you shut down?”, and “When are you coming back?” So clearly we met a need that wasn’t catered for by the upsurge of newer events.
But there is only so long you can keep working at a thankless task. If audiences are doomed to dwindle, then perhaps some of us really need to stop organising grassroots literary events. Give the bigger boys what they already seem to feel they deserve. See if they sink, or swim.
But I don’t really want to be part of a literary scene like that. It flies in the face of the very experience of community and mutual support that drew me in in the first place.