Future Stories and Literary Strikes

The issue started as couthy wee ‘Edinburgh stooshie’, a storm in a teacup, not really a story at all. Greta Thunberg pulled out of the Edinburgh Book Festival after The Ferret’s revelations about Baillie Gifford’s fossil fuel investments. She was quickly condemned as a ‘zealout’ by the Scotsman newspaper and the Edinburgh arts establishment circled the wagons to attack her and ridicule anyone who supported her. That would be that.

But now the story has legs and has taken wing with over 100 artists lining-up to argue that the sponsor either divest from fossil fuels or face a mass boycott at next years event. What started as a novella or a short story has turned into an epic unfolding novel as it turns out that not only do Baillie Gifford sponsor other book festivals (Hay, Wimbledon and the Borders) but other literary prizes such as the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

Culture Unstained

The problem for the Book Festival – Baillie Gifford – and indeed literary Britain – is that this reliance on one sponsor is both a strength and weakness. It may have given Baillie Gifford huge profile, but if boycott spreads that huge profile is now under threat. Yesterday we saw the likes of Saba Sams, author of Send Nudes, the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2022 (and a bunch of other prizes) pull out too. The problem here is that Sams is not like some of the other protestors an environmental / climate focused writer. Nor is she an established one. You could argue that such writers as Zadie Smith can afford to pull out of such events.

Sams wrote on Instagram:

“I’ve decided to drop out of the Edinburgh Book Festival this year after learning they are sponsored by Baillie Gifford, who have up to £5billion invested in fossil fuels. Honestly, I’ve been so confused about what to do here. I want to  act with integrity, to listen to my gut, also I want to do the festival, because it would be great. Also Fuck the Tories for the years of cuts that have pushed the arts into a corner. I get that no arts charity wants to be backed by petrol money. Also I’m in Crete right now on holiday and flew here. Also I just found out that BG sponsors almost every literary festival in the UK. Am I going to show up to none of them now? I don’t know.”

“I’m not trying to come across ambivalent here, or undecided. I just want to acknowledge that the whole thing is a minefield and the system is rigged against us. but we have to start somewhere + I want to be as engaged as I can with what my name is feeding into. I have a little audience now, my book’s doing alright, so I’ve gotta use what I’ve got to back how I feel. even if it makes no difference, I owe it to myself. it’s my small measure of freedom.”

“Solidarity here with every name on the writer’s statement released a few days ago + power to anyone else engaging in the conversation. lastly all love to @imightbesheenapatel birthday girl + genuinely the most generous, thoughtful person to share (or not share, in this case) a stage with. those of you with tickets to the event are blessed to be going to see her, truly 🫂 until next time, demand better !!!!!”

The authors decision is brave but she realises the cost, admits her own confusion but is compelled to do the right thing. This is a generational response. The day before Mikaela Loach led a walk out from her own event and received extensive coverage, including Channel 4 News. She said:

The Black Wall Street Times wrote, Loach, who is British and was born in Jamaica, added: “I don’t know if my ancestral land will still be there if I have children or if I have descendants. And the reason for this is because of investments in fossil fuels.”

“The reason for this is because of fossil fuel companies not caring about the climate crisis, whether they say they do or not. So we have to remove that finance from them, any tactic that we can, we have to stop them from being able to exist.”

Book festivals are part of a burgeoning publishing scene and reading culture, often dominated by women as both readers and writers. This is both an important cultural phenomenon and big business. That is why the likes of Loach and Sams are important. If for some book festivals reek of lanyard culture and a slightly bougie, self-satisfied-vibe, they are also potentially a space for translation, exchange of radical ideas, internationalism, unfiltered human discourse and live performance.

Story-telling we are often told is a cornerstone of culture. The stories we tell ourselves are important. The story we have been telling ourselves, or rather the story we have been told is this: we can grow everything for ever; we don’t need to change much yet; those in charge know best; climate change is a problem for the future; everything’s fine. This was the messaging coming down from on-high to anyone who supported Greta Thunberg’s boycott.

These authors are telling a different story and the result would seem to be able to go only two ways:

1) Either nothing changes and this revolt spills out into all of Baillie Gifford’s events and prizes and festivals – and escalates dramatically to next year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.

2) If, as the company argues it is divesting from fossil fuels it should demonstrate and accelerate that.

What seems clear is this issue isn’t going away. With all the talk of de-platforming and ‘cancel culture’ what is at play is the removal of the labour of presence. The commodity here is not the book its the author, and a literary strike has huge potential to cause disruption.

Future Stories

It’s ironic that Greta Thunberg’s arrival was part of a plan to save the book festival after a ‘traumatic fall in sales’. 

Now, Jenny Niven, the incoming director of the Book Festival has some quick choices to make. Niven was the founder and Director of Push the Boat Out, a festival of poetry, spoken word and language; Executive Producer of Dandelion, “an epic programme of sowing, growing and sharing across Scotland”, and was previously the Head of Literature at Creative Scotland. On her appointment she said:

I am absolutely thrilled to be appointed to lead the Edinburgh International Book Festival as its new Director. The Festival has influenced Scottish culture, and shaped the development of book festivals globally, for 40 years. There’s no greater platform to bring together the conversations that we need to have, to celebrate the role of creativity, imagination and story in understanding and reshaping the world around us, and to demonstrate that exploring the world collectively via books and ideas is one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences you can have.

The opportunity to reimagine the Festival in its exciting new home at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, and to lead the organisation at such a pivotal time for Scotland’s cultural life, is an honour. Following the inspirational lead of Nick and his predecessors, I am excited to begin working with the impressive Festival team and board, and the incredible network of partners the Festival has cultivated in Scotland and beyond, to build on the Festival’s stellar reputation and to shape its future.”

Can you imagine entering a new home in something called the Futures Institute still tied to fossil fuels?

Of course all massive wealth is likely to have ill-gotten origins. Nothing is ‘pure’. Some of this is complex, as Charlotte Higgins writes: “…take the case of the Sackler Trust, for years a massive donor to the arts in the UK. The charity was fatally tarnished by the fact that its fortune derived from Sackler family members’ ownership of Purdue Pharma, whose painkiller OxyContin has been at the centre of the US opioids-addiction crisis. (There’s a faint irony, perhaps, in the fact that the writer who unravelled how the Sacklers used culture to cleanse their reputation, Patrick Radden Keefe, won the UK’s foremost nonfiction award – the Baillie Gifford prize.)”

But we are not seeking purity, only clarity.

No-one at all denies the crisis in funding in the arts. No-one. But what is being challenged is a dependence on oil and gas money and the wider framing that the presented model is the only one possible. The problem for organisers is that what has started in Edinburgh is likely to spread across the UK as writers withdraw themselves from the spectacle of publishing.

Comments (9)

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  1. Brian McGrail says:

    A zealot is someone who would rather die than lose their cause. I’d say Greta isn’t ‘some kind of’ zealot on that definition. Anyhow, 100% of Bailie Gifford’s funds are invested in wage slaves, so people should be outraged by that fact alone. And the Sacklers didn’t make millions from selling OxyContin, but from exploiting the labour of people who were forced to make it (wage slaves). So, really just another day in the life of bourgeois society.

  2. John Wood says:

    Well said, but I would just comment that I think writers are unlikely to withdraw from the spectacle of publishing. I can see alternative book (and other) festivals popping up that don’t depend on corporate sponsorship. It’s perfectly possible and it would be a selling point for punters too.

    1. But writers are withdrawing from the spectacle of publishing? 50 at first now over 100

    2. But writers are withdrawing from the spectacle of publishing? 50 at first now over 100

    3. SleepingDog says:

      @John Wood, I think these events have been going on steadily for as long as established corporate-sponsored events:
      A quick check online suggests that the London Anarchist Bookfair started about the same time as the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in 1983 if those facts are accurate.

      1. 230816 says:

        Baillie Gifford seems to be particularly ubiquitous in the privatisation of our culture industry.

  3. mark leslie edwards says:

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