Launching a Virtual Literary Festival During Lockdown

Posted filed under Experience.

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Like all of us, March 2020 was a slow decline into horror at the news of Covid-19. While the British government dithered about what to do, I cancelled some events I’d been booked to hold in promotion of my novel The Blame Game. Quite frankly, I was afraid to travel (from Glasgow to various parts of England), given the news reports about the virus, but I was disappointed to have to scupper these long-held plans – what a pity, I thought, that I couldn’t organise a virtual event in place of a physical one.

 On 13th March I tweeted something to this effect – it seemed likely that locking down the country was going to be necessary (though the British government would dither for another 10 days about it) and I posted that it would be a good idea to have a literature festival that was entirely online. The tweet had a big response, so big, in fact, that I felt I’d need to put my money, or at least my expertise, where my mouth was. Having convened the Distance Learning MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow since 2015, I have experience in running virtual events, and in using the technology. In short, I knew both the pros and the cons of virtual events pretty intimately, and so I felt relatively confident about doing some online author events for people who were stuck at home to access. Paper Nations, a well-known Creative Writing incubator, got in touch with me and asked to partner on the festival, which I decided to call the Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival. I created a google doc and cascaded it to writers who’d expressed interest, to which they added their proposed event with a date and time. I was astounded at how quickly and enthusiastically people responded to my call. In addition to over 100 writers quickly filling up the google doc (forcing me to extend the length of the festival to 16 days), an organisation called the Professional Writing Academy got in touch, offering a range of fabulous writing workshops for free.

 Within 11 days, the Google doc had exploded with workshops, talks, open-mic nights, panel discussions, and showcase events. Word spread quickly to publicists, who were eager to find new routes by which to publicise new books and replace cancelled events. I had to scramble to find slots for authors; I knew all too well how disappointing it was to have to cancel a tour. I also wanted to ensure that minority voices were heard; I love attending book festivals, but all too often I have felt frustrated by their lack of diversity. I’m also deeply aware of how festivals can exclude people with caring duties, with disabilities, and with work commitments. I’m very aware of people who feel out of place at literary festivals, and who simply can’t afford to attend.

The Stay-At-Home! festival was programmed on zero budget. I made it clear to everyone who expressed interest that, while I believe fervently writers should always be paid for their work, this was a pro bono festival; everyone involved, with the exception of 7 Writers in Residence who were paid a small honorarium by Paper Nations, contributed for free. By programming this festival, I was able to platform a diverse range of authors. I wanted to ensure that minority writers were heard, and that writers at all stages of their careers could be involved. One of my MLitt students at the University of Glasgow offered to host an open-mic session; the available slots filled up within hours. Similarly, writing workshops attracted crowds of 500+ – an outstanding feat, and an impossible one in physical form. I was witnessing the birth of something truly unprecedented – the potential of virtual live literature in all its awkward, brilliant glory.

There were many learning curves. One was the phenomenon of Zoom-bombing. Naively, I thought that sharing the Zoom link to an event on social media was danger-free. As it happens, there are individuals out there who get their kicks from troll-bombing such events with the intent to either shout racist slurs across the microphone, or use the screen-share facility to splash porn across the screen of unsuspecting attendees. This is horrifying to experience, and I learned fast how to stamp it out. But even when I had a handle on muting attendees and preventing screen-sharing, trolls would use the chat box and, on one sickening occasion, their own video screen to share inappropriate content.  

It is saying something, however, that feedback from our attendees – of which there were 14,689 from all over the world – rarely mentioned the events that had been subjected to trolling. Instead, feedback focused on the sense of community that had been created by the festival, and it is this which I’m most proud of. Something was created on 27th March 2020, at the very beginning of lockdown and when we were all staring into the surreality of a global pandemic, that has triggered a host of other virtual events. Whereas Edinburgh Book Festival initially announced that it was cancelling the 2020 festival, it has done a U-turn on this decision, with a highly successful virtual festival in its place. Several of the authors who led events at the Stay-At-Home! Festival went on to run their own festivals – for example, Dr Pragya Agarwal (author of Sway) led a festival on South Asian Writing, Virginia Moffatt ran a New Authors festival, and I was pleased to consult on a number of others. 

The Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival was a wonderful experiment. I had the rare privilege of bringing together a range of authors and audiences from all over the world to talk about literature in a moment when we were all facing the terrifying prospect of quarantine and a deadly virus stalking our streets. Lockdown also permitted me a rare privilege of experimenting without too much fear of failure – as one of the very first digital festivals, I was venturing out on to new territory. We were all confined indoors, and therefore my audiences engaged with authors – and each other – from their interior spaces. And yet, I found a richness in encountering high profile authors in their office, kitchen, or spare bedroom. Stay-At-Home! Festival facilitated a levelled audience experience. During the project I was keen to encourage authors to embrace the intimacy, immediacy and even the informality fostered by an online platform like Zoom, and I believe this worked well to draw down certain barriers. Going forward, I don’t think we should be too quick to eradicate this from virtual events. It’s one of the many strengths of virtual live literature.

I have no doubt that the landscape of live literature has forever been changed by Covid, and possibly for the better. I would bristle slightly when I’d hear people say ‘unfortunately we have to hold this event online’ – bristle, because for many people, online was the only way by which they could be included. During the feedback plenaries that I held after the festival, many of the SAH festival’s attendees commented that they found the accessibility of the festival ‘gold standard’. Some posted pictures of themselves with babies on their laps while they engaged in events. If we continue to put thought and experimentation behind our efforts to make literature more inclusive, virtual live literature can boldly take us places that we never knew possible.

CJ Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in 23 languages. Based in Glasgow, she is Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where she researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing, creative writing for mental health, and ways to engage audiences with literature. Her new novel, The Nesting, is published by HarperCollins in October 2020.

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