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Arts head: James Runcie, Southbank Centre


The head of literature and the spoken word talks criticism, commissioning and why the greatest risk is to play it safe

Hi James, can you tell us a bit about your role as head of literature and the spoken word at Southbank Centre?

We stage over five hundred literature and spoken word events every year and my job is to help decide what they are. Events range from straightforward interviews and political briefings on current events, to poetry readings with great writers, spoken word performances or literary walks.

You also head up the London Literature Festival, which runs from May to June – what does that involve?

The London Literature Festival is our annual literary highlight for the summer but we do have a year round programme too. Organising the festival itself is a bit mad but you just have to imagine what a day might be like for different types of people. Instead of planning one event on its own, you plan four or five alternatives for each time slot (especially at weekends) so people have plenty of choice. The aim is to pack each day with plenty of interest, a bit like life!

In order to develop a full programme you have to meet publishers regularly and think about what's going to interest and excite the public and provoke participation and debate. You have to amass loads of information, draw up plans, grids and charts and make key decisions about what's interesting and what's not. Some of those decisions can be quite personal but you just have to act on instinct. Then you have to learn to pace your reading, deciding what to read very fast, and what to take your time over.

You also must not follow the latest big thing. You must have time to think and come up with stuff that no one else is doing. You do need some dream time, what Keats called "diligent indolence".

Can you explain a bit about your commissioning process?

I work very closely with writers and publishers, get advance catalogues and I ask for early copies of books. I go and hear people talk and visit other festivals. I have a small and brilliant team who do the same and we meet every Wednesday for several hours to talk about what we think is interesting and who might be good.

I imagine it's a bit like running a magazine but in our case everything is live and on stage. There is no hiding place. You just have to get on and do it, take a deep breath and try stuff out. We do a lot of reading, send masses of email, and go and see people. There's not a lot of money in this so most people do it for love, good company and the opportunity to talk about what matters in life: love, death, politics, food, sex and shopping.

Our main aim is to be interesting. There's no point playing safe or being boring, or giving the public what you think they might want even if you're not keen on it yourself. You have to absolutely believe in what you are doing and take every risk. The greatest risk is to play safe. The most difficult things is to be absolutely personally engaged without taking criticism personally. I still have a long way to go on this subject.

What are the main challenges to your role, and how do you overcome them?

I think the main challenge is understanding that London is a city filled with so much to do that you have to offer something rare and special if you want people to come. You have to provide something that is not being offered elsewhere. There has to be a sense of event about everything you do, and you have to do things well.

You also have to know that there are lots of different audiences, so try and cater for them all. You can't just appeal to one or two constituencies – you have to create a welcoming atmosphere. Never sit back and grow your audience; complacency is the absolute enemy. There is always more to do.

If you had to give the arts sector an MOT, what would your verdict be? What's performing well, and what's not?

A big question, and I do have personal opinions about this outside my job, but let me confine myself to this. It's absolutely great that so many people want to work in the arts, are engaged by them, and see the arts as central to their lives. It is not so great when this is confused by wanting to be famous. It's more about creating a better society as a whole rather than fulfilling individual aspiration.

The arts bring an enormous amount of money into the economy– flights, hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping and so on – which far outweighs its subsidy and it is ridiculous that people in the arts keep having to make the case for subsidy again and again.

We still have an enormous amount to do to help people who think the arts are "not for them" or have never been given opportunities to experience what the arts have to offer. We also have to build apprenticeship schemes that do not just favour the children of the middle classes who can do limitless unpaid internships. Then there's the decline in literacy, which is a national disaster.

What's coming up at Southbank that you're most looking forward to?

I'm really looking forward to Sylvia Plath's Ariel, performed by forty women reading one poem each on the evening of Sunday 26 May. There's also the Women's Prize for Fiction, Margaret Atwood in August, James Bond night in September, National Poetry Day Live in October, a big secret commission at Christmas, and our commemoration of World War 1 in 2014.

There's so much to look forward to. But then, my job is to look forward to absolutely everything! Otherwise, what's the point? If I am not mad, passionate, engaged and enthusiastic, how can I expect anyone else to be?

The London Literature Festival begins on Monday 20 May – follow James on Twitter @james_runcie

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