Elizabeth's guide to surviving literary festivals


Literary festival programme is released. Get very excited. Go through programme highlighting events I want to attend. Realise is nearly entire programme. Try and shortlist.


Realise some shortlisted events clash. Gnash teeth. Attempt to perform impossible calculus of scheduling: desire to see famous people, desire to support book industry colleagues, desire to learn something new, desire to follow a friend’s recommendation, desire to hear an author speak who lives in a country I’ve never been to, desire to lie at the feet of an author whose work I love.


Argue about money. Argue with self, with bank balance, with own budget as a self-employed person, with The World in which we expect writing for the web to be free and in which consequently reviewers are not paid. Gratefully accept commission from BooksellersNZ to review festival in exchange for media pass (free tickets!) and maybe an honorarium paid in book tokens. Feel v lucky to have got this gig. Agree to pay own travel costs. Worry that the costs involved are among the many factors that mean that the audience for this literary festival will mostly comprise middle-aged, middle-class white women. Start to calculate years until I too join this demographic. Come up with number less than ten. Pine for lost youth, etc.


Negotiate with editor which events I will review. Immediately forget lessons learned from past experience re. how much my brain can take in per day, how many hours sleep I need in order to function, etc. Wildly over-promise. Editor kindly sets reasonable schedule. Compromise is reached.


Festival begins! Carefully pack bag with as little as possible in order to leave room for books. Wrongly think will not rue lack of snacks. Turn up bright and early with computer (previously was notebook and pen, but have upgraded, huzzah!). Inevitable tussle with wifi. Expound angrily and at length about how reliable, free wifi is a 21st-century human right. Shake fist at “the Cloud” (which I envisage as being stuck to the ceiling of whichever room I’m in & occasionally twinkling). Universe ignores me. Wifi continues elusive. First coffee of day.


Bathe soul in glorious festival of literature and ideas. Become extremely over-stimulated. Realness of art intensifies. Imagination goes into hyperdrive. Safely develop spontaneous fan crushes on international authors (Kim Thuy, Terry Castle, Atul Gawande, Miranda July, Carol Ann Duffy, Jim Al-Khalili). Awkwardly develop fan crushes on NZ-based authors who shall remain nameless. (Inevitably bump into them at other events. Try to be cool. Fail so, so hard.) Buy books. Get books signed. Spend whole time in signing queue crafting perfect conversation in head. Fail to deliver any of those lines. Swoon with fangirlish delight when Sandi Toksvig says she does the News Quiz just for me, and when Mallory Ortberg compliments my laptop case. Note to self: ask future festival organisers to supply fainting couches near signing tables.


Write reviews. Attempt to communicate swirl of impressions, ideas, thoughts, quotes and criticism in mere words. Gnash teeth at inability of own writing to convey magic of author’s presence and wisdom. Give it my best shot. Worry about responsibility as feminist critic (too feminist? not feminist enough? wrong kind of feminism?). Send to editor. Start next review (gnash, write, send, etc). Feverishly post to social media. Festival hashtag invades dreams.


Occasionally come across the odd lemon. Immediately start performing risk assessment of writing honest review. Weigh up likely impact on own professional career vs journalistic moral code vs likelihood of hurt feelings. Massively second-guess own critical response. Sometimes decide to play it safe (in which case, reproach self for lack of integrity), other times decide to poke my head above the parapet (in which case, reproach self for being mean, other person is only human, etc). Gnash teeth. Try to weather backlash as best I can.


Enjoy being part of booky crowd. Constantly bump into people I know. V difficult to get across room to eg. take loo break or purchase vital nutrition due to aforementioned bumping. Laugh at folly of trying to have proper conversations with people in festival environment. Occasionally manage to put face to name and shake hand of person I’ve been following on Twitter / working with via email / belong to same Facebook group as. Blithely promise to catch up later. Break all promises.


Lose all sense of time. Forget world outside of festival. Intense cycle of listening, recording, considering and reporting becomes new normal. Develop detailed stratagems re. where best to sit in theatre, most efficient way of getting inter-session coffee, lunch place with shortest queues that sells food can eat with one hand while live-Tweeting with other. Develop dreamy exhaustion akin to jet lag. Feel happy and alive and grateful to be in Aotearoa at this particular place and time. Heap well-deserved praise upon festival organisers. Worry they aren’t getting paid enough to keep doing it. Redo from start next time.