Suddenly, for a moment, everyone’s an expert on writers festivals; how they’re run, how they should be run, and what’s at stake if they’re not thus run.
Certainly, uninviting people as well-known as Germaine Greer and Bob Carr – which is what the Brisbane Writers Festival did recently – is a puzzling and even brash thing to do, particularly when both writers are published by Melbourne University Press, where Louise Adler is at the helm.
Now there is a trio of people both adept at getting us all to sit up and pay attention, and at polarising opinions too. And we all know there’s nothing noisier than a polarised opinion.
Add Richard Flanagan making a case for writers festivals as an essential bulwark against censorship, and the trio is a quadrella – and a sure bet.
Right now, I’m angsting over a year’s worth of work behind this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival, which is on in just over a week’s time. I’ve just added Bob Carr to the lineup, because I agree with Flanagan that it’s not right to allow potential sponsor disapproval to sway festival programming.
To uninvite (or “disinvite” as the parlance appears to be) authors is not necessarily a heinous act: I’ve never had to do it, but I’ve been uninvited myself (in actual fact by a festival that had invited me to interview Richard Flanagan, who then refused to have me as interviewer, which was his right). And I’ve also had rather a lot of writers uninvite themselves – better offers come along and they apologise and back out.
And as for the suggestion that festivals ought to defend the right to say contentious things, certainly that’s the case, but I’d argue it’s not for any worthy reasons. Unless mental health and social wellbeing are worthy reasons. Which I suppose they are.
What people want at writers festivals, I think, is to hear people they admire, talk about topics they are interested in.
I was interviewed by Jon Faine on ABC Melbourne morning radio a few years back in the lead up to one of the seven festivals (seven!!! am I mad!!) I’ve programmed for Bendigo and he dismissed them as too nice. What they need is some stoush, he suggested, writers shouting at each other, a bit of verbal biff. He made it sound like a wordy version of kick-boxing or cage-wrestling.
Stupidly, and because all I wanted was for people to come and enjoy what really is, every year, an astonishingly nice event, I claimed we do controversy, we have all that and more.
I confess, I don’t like people shouting at each other, and I really don’t want people to stand up and accuse Bob Carr of whatever it is the Brisbane Writers Festival thinks sponsors might accuse him of (I’m not sure what that is).
What people want at writers festivals, I think, is to hear people they admire, talk about topics they are interested in. So I try to program enough of that to get a quorum: then, because I reckon mainstream is only what gets the most airtime and I’m convinced there are people just like me who like to discover their own interests, I add in all kinds of other writers and writing topics.
It’s terrific to hear Richard Flanagan making such heart-warming claims for community festivals. And I’m glad it made it possible for us to annexe Bob Carr to our program – because, frankly, he’s quite a human being, with a big intellect, a big ego, lots of knowledge and experience, and I reckon Bendigo audiences will be curious to hear him speak. It would be dreary if everything he or any other writer said was entirely uncontroversial because that would mean they’re maybe not really speaking their mind.
Some have criticised Richard Flanagan for suggesting festival organisers are grateful if a writer turns up on time and sober, and he’s partly right, let me tell you.
I was reminded of how intolerant we appear to have become as a society when I thoughtlessly mentioned in a café recently that I don’t eat pork because I don’t like the way animals are farmed, and was almost bullied out of the place by a proprietor who clearly disagreed with me – and wanted me to know it. (I’ve got Pam Ahern from the farmed animal rescue farm, Edgar’s Mission, on the program, I confess.)
I’m sorry for those caught in the sticky trap of controversy, which can be very nasty and disheartening. And while some people have criticised Flanagan for suggesting festival organisers are just grateful if a writer turns up on time and sober, he’s partly right, let me tell you.
For that, yes, I am grateful. But I’m more than grateful, I’m jubilant, that writers turn up, audiences turn up, and we all get on with the humane, priceless, urgent business of trying to listen to each other, and to learn from each other, and to enjoy each other’s company.
The Bendigo Writers Festival is from August 10-12