File(s) under permanent embargo

Reason: Under embargo until January 2020. After this date a copy can be supplied under Section 51 (2) of the Australian Copyright Act 1968 by submitting a document delivery request through your library, or by emailing

Audience in the Spotlight: Investigating Literary Festival Engagement

posted on 15.12.2016, 04:42 by Millicent Anne Weber
Literary festivals have proliferated in recent decades. Despite this, existing research into these festivals’ influence on and situation within contemporary literary culture is both scarce and limited. Extant academic work on literary festivals has been wanting for a variety of reasons: it is solely historically engaged (Starke, 2000; Bain, 2007); reliant upon unproductive theoretical models based on false oppositions between cultural and commercial consumption (Lurie, 2004); lacking empirical substantiation (Giorgi, 2011); focused solely on organisers’ perspectives without considering the real-world experiences of festival audiences (Stewart, 2009; 2011); or employs unduly restrictive methodological parameters (Driscoll, 2015; Johanson & Freeman, 2012; Ommundsen, 2009). Consequently, such research has been unable to address important questions about the political, cultural, social and commercial significance of literary festivals. What do these festivals offer and what do they mean to the people who attend them? How are they situated within local and digital literary ecologies? What impact might they have in these spaces, and what ethical questions does this raise for organisers, and public- and private-sector sponsors?
 The complexity of these questions, and their significance to important players within the hierarchical and heavily contested literary field, mean that they demand rigorous, scholarly investigation beyond the scope of policy-based impact studies or market research. This thesis aims to fill the current scholarly lacuna regarding literary festivals through using qualitative, case-study research conducted at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Port Eliot Festival (UK), the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Emerging Writers’ Festival (also Melbourne-based) and the Clunes Booktown Festival (Victoria). Audience interviews conducted onsite at each festival are complemented by a large-scale online survey of literary festival audiences and further supplemented by interviews with festival organisers at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Emerging Writers’ Festival and Clunes Booktown Festival. The result is a uniquely multimodal approach to understanding contemporary literary festivals, one able to account for both fine-grained individual audience-members’ responses as well as to sketch the big-picture landscape in which festivals necessarily operate.
  In answering the research questions posed above, this thesis builds upon the work of scholars in the diverse domains of book history, media and communications, theatre and performance studies and cultural policy studies, and also integrates sociological understandings of the literary field (Bourdieu, 1996). This thesis argues that literary festivals are descriptive of, and politically engaged with, local social projects and inequalities, and that they are commercialised, competitive spaces. But, at the same time, such festivals offer much-valued and vitally-sustaining identity-confirmation to their audiences. They facilitate affective belonging and access to cultural and social capital, and provide a means of participating in a leisure activity that is enjoyable and fun, whether or not it is commercially and politically mediated. This thesis does not emphasise the importance of these different roles to detract from the political or commercial functions that literary festivals fulfil. Rather, it demonstrates that the relationship subsisting between cultural, social, commercial and political interests is not a binary opposition, but rather a more complexly contested network which is both academically engaging and of enduring practical importance


Principal supervisor

Simone Murray

Additional supervisor 1

Robin Gerster

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Literary and Cultural Studies

Campus location



Faculty of Arts