The Oxford Literary Festival once again proved last week that it is fighting fit. But one college punches well above its weight — running a full day of events devoted to its alumnae, fellows and associates.
By Rosanna Forte (St Hilda’s, 2011)
With the distractions of Christ Church’s looming towers, the palatial façades of Queen’s and so forth, it’s easy to forget about St Hilda’s, tucked away behind Magdalen Bridge on the banks of the Cherwell. But St Hilda’s was by no means on the periphery of the 2015 Oxford Literary Festival. This was the sixth year the college has hosted a day at the festival devoted entirely to its own alumnae, fellows and associates, and it is currently the only Oxford college to do so. Each of the five events held last Saturday was hosted by St Hilda’s own Nicolette Jones or Claire Armitstead, and featured authors Elizabeth Edmondson, Juliet McKenna, Nadifa Mohamed, Wendy Meddour and Adèle Geras; fellows Selina Todd and Lyndall Gordon; and historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes.
A bed of roses or a bed of nails? That’s the question posed by McKenna and Edmondson (pictured left to right), who between them have published some 45 books, regarding the difficulties faced by authors dealing with the modern publishing industry. Following the development of the ebook and online publishing — part of ‘the biggest revolution since Gutenberg’ — there is more competition than ever; the market is inundated with new arrivals. In 2012 more than 3,500 books were published every day in the US alone.
Contrary to popular belief, writing a book doesn’t involve settling down Dylan Thomas–style in the idyllic confines of a writing shed and dashing out a masterpiece in one go. There are drafts and second drafts and third drafts. Unless you’re J K Rowling you’re unlikely to have a swarm of publicity officers making sure your book cover is staring every Tube commuter in the face, Edmondson and McKenna warned. These days it is no mean feat to ensure that your new tour de force outlives the six-week shelf-life of the average book.
The picture is not so different for children’s authors, as Adèle Geras, Nicolette Jones and Wendy Meddour (pictured below, left to right) later revealed. If the unstable income and the time pressures of managing your own publicity do not deter you, there is also a certain stigma attached to children’s writing. ‘You get the impression that if you’re a children’s writer, people think you’re a bit thick,’ said Meddour, ‘If everyone else is given a glass of wine you feel like you’re going to get a squash.’
Until the publication in 2003 of her first adult novel, Facing the Light, Geras was repeatedly asked when she was going to write a ‘real’ book. (Meddour’s ‘real’ book, the one she herself called her ‘serious novel’, met its untimely end after a fateful encounter between her laptop and a bottle of shampoo.)
Geras, despite beginning to her writing career inauspiciously by entering and — to her great surprise — losing a writing competition in The Times, has gone on to publish more than 95 books. Meddour’s Wendy Quill books (illustrated by her 11-year-old daughter Mina May, one of the youngest professional illustrators in the world) have already been translated into nine languages. Notwithstanding the current challenges, Geras, Meddour and Jones are all confident about the future. When children spend so much time in front of a screen, Jones said, a book they can hold and snuggle up with is very appealing.
‘What is an idea?’ was the final theme of the day. It sounded like the stuff of wacky Oxbridge interview questions, like ‘Define the boundaries of postmodernism’ or ‘Would you rather be a seedless or a non-seedless grapefruit?’ But award-winning historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes (pictured below, with Nicolette Jones at left) passed the test with flying colours.
Ideas, and the words we use to articulate them, are what make us human, she told the packed auditorium. But it isn’t our capacity for lofty contemplation which sets us apart. Other apes are capable of abstract thought and in some cases, such as that of Ayumu, the female chimpanzee in Japan, they can outsmart the best of us, or a computer. The difference is that we humans are able to share our ideas and take pleasure in sharing them.
And this was ultimately what the St Hilda’s Day was all about — the sharing of knowledge and ideas with a good amount of fun and laughter thrown in too. Did you know that it is physically possible to die laughing? Or that rats can laugh? Or that the word ‘smile’ shares its root with the Italian word for ‘ice cream’?
Did you know that the word ‘wisdom’ in Greek was feminine, and that in many ancient cultures wisdom was seen as a female trait? It was easy to see why, following the remarkable display of expertise by the alumnae of what was until recently the last women’s college in Oxford. Christ Church might have its looming spires, but St Hilda’s certainly proved that, in the literary world, it is far from the quiet little college on the river.
Rosanna Forte is in her fourth year at St Hilda’s, reading German and Italian
Previous Oxford Literary Festivals:
Photographs from the festival © Bronwyn Travers, reproduced by kind permission. Books image by John Garth.