Sponsoring is a tricky subject. There's only so much you can organise without paying people, and corporate sponsoring can be one way to pay writers and employees at literary festivals. Or indeed to pay award-winners a sum of money, as with the Best Translated Book Award, which is underwritten by Amazon. In this case, the sponsor gets the tax benefits, the feeling of supporting international literature above and beyond their own efforts, and the positive publicity. Plus of course the negative publicity after Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson called for a boycott.
In Hamburg, people are angry about the energy giant Vattenfall's sponsoring of a local literary festival. A group of activists, writers, publishers, translators and other cultural bods came up with the idea of staging their own alternative festival. Here's part of their original statement (in my translation):
We have nothing against reading festivals. We have no desire to demonise a well organised literary festival simply because the organisers are trying to cover the costs with sponsoring. That is not the case here, though. In 2006 Vattenfall took over as sponsor of the "Hamburger Lesetage" (...). As is now unfortunately all too common in the field of sponsoring, the energy conglomerate is no longer presenting itself as a mere supporter of the literary event. Instead, the company holds the rights to the name and is allowed to call itself the "initiator, sponsor and organiser", thereby branding itself as culturally affine, as it is known nowadays. So that it does not blend into the background, since 2010 every writer is looked after by a "Vattenfall mentor" – a company employee who "introduces the author to the audience". The aim is for the company name and the cultural event to meld into a single brand – and the media are going along with it all too willingly: we can read the name "Vattenfall Lesetage" all over the place. We are supposed to link the event with the name of the company as often as possible and without even thinking. Vattenfall, Vattenfall, Vattenfall.
Said company is currently in the process of re-opening a dodgy nuclear power station and is a major player in the German nuclear power lobby.
So, the good people of Hamburg are organising readings during the same week as the corporate festival - with a number of interesting people on the bill - and encouraging people to change their electricity company at the same time. All under the name of "Lesetage selber machen - Vattenfall Tschüss sagen" (DIY Litfest - Say Bye Bye to Vattenfall). I like it.