We need to talk about: Daunt Books Festival

Last month (it feels wrong to be saying last month already) I went to the first day of the Daunt Books Festival. It was a two day event, but I only had time to visit for the first few day time talks. I had a wonderful time at these talks, the whole thing was put together marvellously. Daunt Books, Marylebone is such a beautiful building.

I went to three talks, Virago Modern Classics, Bright Young Novelists and In Praise of Short Stories. Vastly different, but equally as interesting.

Virago Modern Classics:

The panel included Deborah Levy, Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell and was chaired by Lennie Goodings (publisher at Virago).

Virago are publishers of books for and about women, often publishing neglected authors. Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Daphne du Maurier are a few of the authors they publish.

Levy, Boyt and O’Farrell had each chosen their favourite Virago authors to share with us, explaining why they love them and how these authors have influenced them.

Levy chose Muriel Sparks and Angela Carter. Having studied Heroes and Villains at University I am familiar with Carter, but Sparks was completely new to me. Levy said of Sparks, ‘she inserts a sort of mild panic into her prose’. Levy describes Carter as an author who reveals desire in her novels; she referenced The Magic Toyshop, which follows protagonist Melanie as she becomes aware of her sexuality.

O’Farrell discussed authors Molly Keane and Barbara Comyns. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Comyns is one of O’Farrell’s favourite books. Apparently the protagonist carries a newt in their pocket, a fact that instantly endeared me to reading the book.

Boyt chose two authors, however, she discussed Elizabeth Taylor (the author not the actress) with such enthusiasm I didn’t catch the name of the second. Boyt stated that Tayor is often referred to as a ‘writer’s writer’ – making everything look easy, but worthwhile at the same time.

Bright Young Novelists:

The panel included Adam Foulds, Rebecca Hunt, Evie Wyld and was chaired by Edmund Gordon.

Bright Young Novelists brought attention to current young authors. In contrast to the earlier writers spoken about in Virago Modern Classics each author read from their own work. (Which means I now have to buy Wylds book as she ended on a cliffhanger!)

Gordon asked the panel – who write about differing subjects – why they chose not to write about modern London, Twitter, or Zeitgeist topics. Wyld commented that she would look at Peckham too hard and worry that she would get the place wrong. Hunt commented that she thought it only possible to write about what you are interested in, that you can’t write about something just because it is fashionable or cool. Interestingly she pointed out that if you have no serious interest in what you are writing, you cannot sustain the process of writing.

In regards to public speaking Wyld said that she did not think she would have gone ahead with writing a novel had she known how much she would have to do. But, she was glad she did, as if anything it has helped (with her confidence). Hunt’s sister coached her on how to read her novel at events.

The process of writing was briefly discussed. Wyld tries to write 1000 words a day – she doesn’t always make that number, but believes it is important to have a routine of sitting down and writing at a desk.

In Praise of Short Stories:

The panel included A. L. Kennedy, David Constantine, Helen Simpson and was chaired by K. J. Orr.

In Praise of Short Stories discussed the wonders of short stories – an overlooked area of literature.

I don’t tend to read short stories (unless anything between 150-200 pages is considered a short story). I’ve tried with Conan Doyle and Ian McEwan, but neither have elicited much pleasure in me. I am one of the few people who did not enjoy The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – or more accurately, my attempt to read them. However, it’s clear I’ve been looking in the wrong places and have now got a good idea of some writers I may enjoy.

Kennedy describe short stories as the most demanding form of writing, as they need to resonate (with few words). Simpson felt that the challenge of a short story is to get as much intensity into as few words as possible, mentioning short stories are often criticised for being too short. Constantine approaches each of his stories sentence by sentence, he stated he still has no idea how to write one – there is no formula – he finds this liberating.

“If you live long enough your past starts to become mythic.” – Constantine on writing about his past.

The panel went on to discuss what a short story was.

They all agreed short stories must have a sense of place, but details like names or descriptions are irrelevant details – what you really need to know if what they feel. Constantine comments that in every short story something should be at stake, endings do not need to be clear. Kennedy comments that the beauty of short stories is that they have been left relatively alone, people don’t know what to do with them.

To conclude the panel was asked if they had on any advice for people who want to read short stories, but feel wary of them. Simpson advised reading in one sitting to get the most out of the story – short stories are not something you can dip in and out of as with a novel. It was also noted not to get into a short story with the expectation of closure, Constantine commented that short stories are “where you are going? Where are you going now we’ve met?” Closure is nonsense.


Unsurprisingly I bought three books while there (how can you resist the temptation of a bookshop!) but stupidly none by any of the authors mentioned or present. My acquisitions: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Luckily, with all the notes I took I have all the authors written down so will have no trouble knowing which to buy next.

16 thoughts on “We need to talk about: Daunt Books Festival

  1. Wonderful post, Alice! Sounds like a fantastic experience with plenty of intellectual discussions and a casual atmosphere, unlike some festivals that merely focus on the social side of things.
    I’m surprised you have not read Muriel Sparks, and look forward to the discussions with you when you do. I also love what you quoted David Constantine.


    1. Thanks, Melody! 🙂 It was definitely the right balance of social and interesting – I got a lot out of it.

      I have one of her books on the way, so I’ll try and make her my next review 🙂


    1. I know right, imagine trying to resist all those books as well. I’ve paused reading it now, but from what I’ve read so far I like it. I loved Purple Hibiscus so I can’t imagine not liking this.


  2. I have never been to the flagship Daunt Bookshop! It looks wonderful, and the talks you went to sounded excellent – good panels on each. Lucky you.


  3. Sounds like it was a good event, and with a good variety. I like that you were able to listen to a few talks, they must have packed quite a bit into the time.


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