Review: Literary Festivals, Salons, and Words Aloud in Ellen Wiles’s Live Literature

Live Literature: The Experience and Cultural Value of Literary Performance Events from Salons to Festivals
Ellen Wiles
Palgrave Macmillan

With music, open mics, and more—live performance is slowly coming back to Chicago. From the Symphony Center and the Lyric Opera to the Uptown Poetry Slam and Schubas Tavern and so many other places, performers and audiences are returning and creating the unique magic of live performances. Chicago’s own history of live literature, including its status as the birthplace of slam poetry—may make performers and audiences (and some academics) think about the mechanics of live literary performances. Those mechanics, and the ways in which live literature events can foster community (and more), form the backbone of Ellen Wiles’s Live Literature: The Experience and Cultural Value of Literary Performance Events from Salons to Festivals, for the Palgrave Studies in Cultural Anthropology series.

Live Literature is a rather decisive book, the sort of text many of us hauled from class to class during our college or graduate school days. But, unlike so many of those dog-eared, highlighted books, this one focuses on literature as a spoken form. Wiles’s focus here is largely on literary festivals and salons rather than on spoken word or slam poetry functions, but all are forms of live literary events, and all have at least a small part to play in Live Literature.

Wiles begins Live Literature with a prologue focusing on a reading she gave in an English library. (Wiles is herself English; her work is largely built around the live literary scene in the United Kingdom.) The first chapter serves as a sort of extended introduction, letting readers know exactly where Wiles plans to take us, and how we’ll be getting there. “The Hay Festival: The Remote Welsh Field that Stages the Global Publishing Industry” is a lengthy ethnographic study of the people participating in and attending the Hay Festival, while “Polari Salon: A Literary Cabaret with an Activist Twist” does the same for the LGBTQ+ Polari Salon in London.

In “Experiential Literary Ethnography: A Creative Approach to Revealing Cultural Value,” Wiles explains some of the theories and methods behind the ethnographic studies we’ve read throughout Live Literature, giving the book a solid academic underpinning and positioning it within the larger world of literary and ethnographic studies. “Summing up the Story: Patterns, Divergences, Insights, Ideas” furthers this scholastic bent, giving Wiles reign to delve further into her research.

While Live Literature’s chapters are closely linked, each could still hold its own as a standalone text. The ethnographic focus of “The Hay Festival” and “Polari Salon” are engaging looks at the ways in which participants in live literary events engage with texts, authors (or performers, as they’re called at Polari), and each other. (They are also, by far, the longest chapters in the book.) “Experiential Literary Ethnography” offers up an abbreviated review of some of the theories and research that came before Wiles undertook the work she discusses in Live Literature. Wiles notes that “‘Experiential literary ethnography’ is a new term I’ve come up with.” Despite its relative newness, however, she locates it squarely within the realm of literary and humanities research—which likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading Live Literature.

Live Literature is a fascinating book, an exploration of the ways people interact with live literary events and a deep dive into live literature. Despite Wiles’s engaging writing and her absorbing subject, however, it isn’t the easiest read. What feels like random words and phrases are bolded or italicized throughout the text. The bolded and italicized words might be most prevalent in the ethnographic sections, but they appear throughout the book. My copy is one for review, and it’s possible that a later printing includes a glossary pertaining to the bolded and italicized words, but I couldn’t find anything about them in this edition. (Is this a printing decision? An editorial one? An authorial edict? A way of emphasizing particularly pertinent information? I have no idea.) They can be distracting while reading, and, while they’ll be most difficult for those of us who are neurodivergent, they’ll likely slow down many readers, at least at first.

It would be interesting, particularly in this time of COVID, to see further research exploring the ways in which live literary events translate (or don’t) to the digital realm. Does a chat function enable any of the audience interaction Wiles studies here? Does live-tweeting a performance lead to additional interactions, or is it still distant from the live literary events Wiles attended as part of her research? Similarly, as much as Wiles discusses issues of authenticity here, it would be interesting to see a deeper dive into the intersections of race, power, and literary festivals and salons.

Wiles writes that her “research at Hay suggests that literary authenticity is multi-layered—or, at least, that it means different things to different people” and doesn’t necessitate the printed word (133). How do interactions with authenticity change when one steps outside a space like Hay Festival, which Wiles herself describes as “pretty much all white. … and the majority appear to be middle-class” (49)? And how does slam poetry or spoken word poetry differ in its audience and its interactions from the world Wiles has studied and depicted here?

Like many scholarly monographs, Live Literature has so much to offer readers that it can be a bit much to take in all at once. It is filled with little gems and engaging writing, a fascinating portrait of a literary scene that is simultaneously ancient and new. There are also times when Live Literature feels as if it doesn’t have enough. As a fan of literary theory I would have liked a bit more information about the ways in which Wiles interacts with theories and how they shaped her research for Live Literature, though this is likely a niche complaint. But the material Wiles presents here is rich and varied, worthy of more than one reading and an excellent addition both to people who love (and perform) live literature and to literary studies more generally. It’s not often a book can be both a guide and a scholarly assessment, and Wiles’s achievement is perforce even more monumental than the book itself.

As live literature returns to Chicago (and beyond), Wiles’s Live Literature could serve more than one purpose. Parts of it—particularly Wiles’s ethnographic sections—could themselves be performed. (They’d certainly make engaging discussion pieces.) The absence of any deep study of slam poetry or spoken word poetry feels like a glaring omission in our city of slam and spoken word and Louder Than A Bomb, billed as the world’s largest youth poetry festival. Nonetheless, Wiles’s discussions of her ethnographic work, and particularly Experiential Literary Ethnography, the ethnographic concept she named and worked with in this book, could be very useful to Chicagoans interested in studying our city’s live literary scene. Perhaps someone out there could take Experiential Literary Ethnography and turn it towards the communities forged at the Green Mill, for example, or among poets at slam poetry nights or spoken word gatherings. We can hope that Wiles’s work here can create space for further study.

Live Literature: The Experience and Cultural Value of Literary Performance Events from Salons to Festivals is available at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

Caitlin Archer-Helke
Caitlin Archer-Helke
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