Book festivals are funny old things, aren't they? I'm not sure how I feel about the first International Festival Of The Novel, held over the past five days here in Lyon. It was an interesting but rather sober affair, with the authors not really given much of a chance to talk about their books.
Luckily, however, a big part of why we go is to see our favourite authors in person. I don't think I've ever met a famous novelist who was more down to earth than A.S Byatt (above). She was jolly and generous, more than willing to chat with members of the public (myself included) after the formal part of the session was over. She happily posed for this photo as well ... considering it had been my third attempt at getting a shot that wasn't out of focus.
But I go to these things for more than just a signature in a book. The problem with this festival, which had "reality and the novel" as its main theme, was that it was too reliant on prepared speeches. There were numerous round-tables, which included four invited authors and two hosts (literary critics), with debate on an aspect of the main theme. Each author read out a prepared piece of text on the subject; these were dense, thesis-type speeches that often went on far too long. The odd question was then posed by the hosts, some invited literature students and members of the audience, but there was only two hours for the whole thing so nothing was ever adequately examined or properly answered by all of the authors. Apart from the odd reference here and there, the authors didn't really discuss their own work in any great detail.
One of the authors who did light things up though was André Brink (above), the South African novelist. He spoke about the experience of writing his books, which include the fabulous novels A Dry White Season and The Other Side of Silence, during the apartheid era. He answered many questions in perfect French, which surprised me, until I learned that he'd spent some time in France many years ago. Byatt also spoke in superb French, which went down well with the largely French audience.
The other interesting author for me was Russell Banks (above), whose work I don't know very well. He did a public reading early on in the festival from his novel The Darling, which is set mostly in Liberia, and then answered questions on how he went about writing it. I liked it when he said that the author's job is not to speak in a novel but to listen.
I did a bit of book buying while I was there, so obviously some chord was struck. I was pleased to get signatures inside Banks' Cloudsplitter, Brinks' Praying Mantis and The Virgin In The Garden and Still Life by Byatt. It was also great to see John Banville, who won the Booker prize in 2005 with The Sea. He was much shorter than I expected and also came across as a lot friendlier and more humble than how he's painted in the press.
Another positive side to the festival was the chance to discover authors from many different countries. Wei-Wei (above), for example, is a Chinese writer who writes novels in French. She is popular in France, having published three novels. She lives in England but has not yet broken into the English market. I did half-jokingly offer to have a crack at translating one of her novels into English. We'll see.
It was great to have an international book festival take place so close to home; I just wish there had been more informal discussion and less lecturing from prepared notes. I also think it's impossible in two hours to expect four authors and two hosts, who also often had a lot to say, to share the same stage. Next time I think I'd prefer to spend an evening with one author and one interviewer.