Questions for Cúirt after middling performance

Competition is fierce on the literary festival circuit and on the evidence of last weekend Cúirt needs to do more to set itself apart


Galway’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature will mark its 30th anniversary next year, and between now and then, all involved need to consider carefully how best to deliver that landmark event.

Any literary festival that has survived for three decades is doing something right. However, Cúirt’s current difficulty is that it no longer appears to be striving to offer the challenging and thoughtful programming that was once the hallmark of this annual festival.

There is little in the Cúirt programme to distinguish it from any other literary festival in the country. In recent years, several new and exciting literary festivals have started up in Ireland, most notably the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in Co Carlow, and the Hay Festival in Kells, Co Meath. And they are all competing for a limited – albeit engaged – audience in a small country.

In recent years, the festival has shed the Cúirt Debate, which previously anchored the festival and set an agenda. While all festivals move on, as they should, nothing of equivalent weight has replaced it. Also, there are few festivals that would not benefit from some creative programming to get the best use of its participants, and Cúirt is one: for example, why not get some of the visiting writers together for designated panel discussions?

There are several outreach and ancillary education programmes as part of the Galway festival, but these mainly serve the local community, and don’t form part of the “international festival of literature” that Cúirt proudly describes itself as.

Attention to detail
The details that Cúirt took care with in the past seem not to be visible any more. Take something as simple, yet vital, as the introductions of authors at events. In the past, these introductions, often by local writers and academics or visiting writers, were frequently miniature, 10-minute masterclasses, deftly illuminating the work of an author to waiting audiences in a way that was an invaluable enrichment to what would follow.

At the many events this reporter attended over two days of the festival, on Friday and Saturday, virtually none of those introducing the writers introduced themselves first. This matters. From an audience perspective, spending the opening minutes of a reading wondering who is the unfamiliar person on stage is unhelpfully distracting.

For instance, at an otherwise invigorating poetry reading with Robin Robertson and Harry Clifton on Saturday night, there are not one, but two unidentified people on stage at two different times to introduce the two poets. The listings in the expensive-looking programme are of little help, as there is no information within as to whom these two are.

Credit is due for getting Booker prizewinner Eleanor Catton to Galway, along with other high-profile names such as Rachel Kushner, Patrick deWitt, Eimear McBride, Craig Davidson and Fleur Adcock. Journalist Hadley Freeman is an unreplaced late cancellation.

Julian Gough’s digital do
People attend literary festivals for all sorts of reasons. A diverse room turns up for Berlin-based writer Julian Gough’s workshop, Telling Stories in a Digital World. When asked by Gough why they are there, workshop members answer variously “I’m writing a blog”; “I want to write about my travels”; I want to publish an e-book”; and remarkably, “Jesus is coming back to us in 20 years to judge the living and the dead, and I want to spread the word.”

Gough goes through the merits of new software designed for writers, saying, “it’s always good to be at the beginning of something”. Wattpad, for example, is a social network for writers “that’s exciting me more than anything since the Kindle ecosystem started”, he says, explaining that Canadian writer Margaret Atwood uses it. Other software he talks about helps people to write, or in the case of Write or Die, forces you to write: you download software that starts playing horrible noises once you stop writing, or fail to reach your pre-programmed word count.

Short stories are the focus of Canadian writer Craig Davidson and Mayo writer Colin Barrett’s Thursday lunchtime reading. Despite Davidson’s entertaining reading from a story in Rust and Bone , it’s a curiously flat event.

“Your first book is sometimes your most powerful because it’s your rawest,” says Davidson, whose title story from Rust and Bone has been made into a film with Marion Cotillard. “You write that before you read a single review. Afterwards, you become worried about things external to you – you can’t help them creeping in.”

On the question of research – dog fights, for example, feature in his work – he says that “you have to know a little bit more than the reader. I’ve yet to get an email from a dog fighter telling me I got it wrong.”

As for Barrett’s research for his west of Ireland-based stories, his laconic answer is: “I spent several years doing research in provincial nightclubs.”

One of the more interesting things Cúirt used to do was to put writers working in different forms together, for instance a poet with a fiction writer. Audiences might come specifically for one writer, and be surprised or challenged by the other. There is little of this for 2014. One exception is the pairing of British spoken-word poet Hollie McNish and Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt at the Róisín Dubh.

McNish, whose work focuses on social affairs, community, racism, and new parenthood, has become a phenomena via YouTube, where her clever and devastating poem about racism, Mathematics , has been viewed more than 1.7 million times. She gives a mesmerising performance to a packed room.

DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers , follows by reading from his third novel, a work in progress. His understated, droll delivery of a wonderful, atmospheric vignette, involving secret cheese-eating by an unhappy wife, and the reasons for the lateness of a train, is terrific.

Here, however, the chair, Celeste Augé, although enthusiastic and knowledgeable about both authors’ work, runs out of questions, and instead of opening the session to the clearly engaged floor, instead fills the time with an ad-hoc request to McNish to read another poem. It is a frustrating end to an otherwise excellent event.

Catton and Kushner
The main event of Saturday is Booker prizewinner Eleanor Catton’s reading with novelist Rachel Kushner, chaired by broadcaster and arts critic Sinéad Gleeson. Kushner, author of The Flame throwers , proves herself to be an exceptional reader of her own work.

Both Catton’s and Kushner’s work is set in the past; Catton’s in 19th-century New Zealand, and Kushner’s in 1970s New York. “Why choose those time periods?” asks Gleeson.

“All novels are set in some kind of time, whether it is two years ago or 40 years ago,” Kushner answers. “There is going to be some sensitivity to time, but the author has the tool of hindsight.”

Catton is asked about an interview she gave post-Booker, in which she noted that women writers are frequently asked what they feel, and male writers what they think, an observation that was widely reported and created much debate.

“What was more interesting was the reaction afterwards,” says Catton. “Rage is an incredibly productive generator, as is love. Outrage is not.”

Four of the five members of the Cúirt advisory panel – James Harrold, Vincent Browne, Michael Gorman and Gerard Hanberry – are outgoing. Megan Buckley, an academic, remains. The former panel members are being replaced by a festival development committee, whose members are Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley; Sinéad Gleeson; author Kevin Barry; Geoffrey Taylor, director of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto; and Chris Coughlan, a senior manager at Hewlett-Packard, and an adjunct professor at NUIG.

Together with festival producer Paraic Breathnach and director Dani Gill, whose fourth festival it was this year, all parties need to think carefully about 2015. “We are very keen for the festival next year to be looking forward, and not to be retrospective,” says Gill.

Cúirt events continue to be well-attended, but no festival can trade on the goodwill of its audience indefinitely. The hope is that its 30th year will surprise, challenge, and reward those loyal audiences anew.

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