Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival
Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Oxford is revered globally – and for good reason. The architecture is stunning, from college spires to the iconic Sheldonian Theatre.

And with famous alumni from J.R.R. Tolkien and CS Lewis, to Monica Ali and Jeanette Winterson, Oxford University has a history of producing impressive writers.

Suffice to say, Oxford Literary Festival is a must-visit event in the book festival calendar for bookish audiences.

So, it was a privilege to be invited to the 2024 edition of the festival. It’s especially great to see bloggers and alternative media being treated as equals with the more established print journalism.

In any case, here are my thoughts and experiences of a bookish day in Oxford.

Think Oxford Literature Festival is just a sit-down affair, being talked at by speakers and panels? Think again.

Sure, there are a bunch of talks from writers, politicians, journalists promoting their latest book — many of which are hugely insightful. But you can also attend workshops, library tours, creative writing courses, debates, and much more!

I particularly appreciate that they’ve invited footballer turned pundit Nedum Onuoha to talk about racism in football, and life on and off the pitch.

Nedum is a really intelligent, charismatic guy, with experience up and down the UK’s football leagues, and his appearance at Oxford Literary Festival is a great way to appeal to the cross-section of football fans.

I have a theory — one I can’t quite substantiate — but a theory nonetheless, that the phrase ‘literary festival’ puts some people off, including bookish people.

Literary, especially in the context of the reductive debates around ‘literary’ fiction vs ‘genre’ fiction, carries a certain connotation. And there are a whole generation of readers who create bookish content online, whether it’s fellow bloggers, bookstagrammers, booktubers, or booktokers — but so few of them create content around literary festivals.

My own early experiences of attending book events are tinctured with anxiety around belonging. Was I literary enough? Would everyone there know each other? Was there a certain etiquette I wasn’t clued into?

All of it was unfounded — and this was true of the Oxford Literary Festival too.

If you’re interested, or even mildly curious, literary festivals are for you. You’re actually the intended audience! And as I’ve previously mentioned, it’s not all ‘literary’. There’s plenty of room for book readers of all preferences.

I spoke to the organisers of Oxford Literary Festival whilst I was there, who explained that the event is always scheduled to coincide when the students aren’t in term time.

This is likely for a number of reasons, from allowing them the space to study to logistical reasons around getting round the city.

I’m bringing this up because when I arrived, on a cool Sunday morning out of term time, I wasn’t strictly sure how busy it would be. I was pleasantly surprised that Oxford was packed full of visitors, with people spilling out of cafés.

Whether it’s Knoops, right next to Blackwells and Exeter College, or espresso bar Jericho Coffee Traders, Oxford has some seriously great options for a brew.

Online book events are great — especially if it’s an author you love but can’t make it in person (let’s face it, UK travel is expensive and Zoom is convenient).

But they’re not the real thing. Not even close. In person book events engage the senses — especially in a place like Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. The sights and sounds, from murals and paintings to echoes of footsteps on flagstone and the din of audience chatter, it’s just… real.

And post-lockdown, these things many of us took for granted just seem more valuable now.

Another perk of in-person events is direct access to the speakers you’re going to see.

Want to ask them a question? There’s invariably a microphone that goes round, and you can look your favourite writer in the whites of their eyes as you ask them something truly meaningful. That’s priceless.

Plus, after the event, speakers tend to hang around for a combination of chatter and book signings.

Unlike bookshop book signing events, where you’re ushered through a queue like it’s a production line, Oxford Literature Festival just feels more laid back, more accessible. The event organisers have done a great job with this.

If you’re reading this before 24th March, 2024 – there are still loads of events left to attend, so do check out the calendar and see what’s on at Oxford Literature Festival.

But even if you’re reading after the event has finished, it’s still worth checking out who attended this year, as it may provide some indicators on  2025’s attendees.

Is Oxford Literature Festival worth visiting? Absolutely. I’ll definitely be going again next year! 📚