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So you have an opinion on Writers Festivals? Bring it on

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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

3 responses to “So you have an opinion on Writers Festivals? Bring it on

  1. Well I don’t want to appear a smart arse but your Bendigo Writers Festival sounds like it’s going to be predictable, safe and boring as batshit. I must say that as an audience attendee at the SWF from 2006-2013 inclusive and attending a few similar events in recent years, writers festivals have major problems. I’m not sure if it is just the way they are run. It could also be the formatting, the performance of the guests themselves, the topics for discussion, the books on show, the theme of the year’s presentation. I noticed the SWF going down the gurgler when too many preachy themes of feminism or politicians, like Carr, indulging themselves, started making their overbearing presence felt. I firmly believe writers festivals have lost their way and have now become a marketing tool for wanker politicians, again like Carr, small scale publishers like MUP to make a quid and press the flesh and long established writers, mostly academics or loud and mealy mouthed consultants and advocates for various causes, not the least of which is their own, to spout yet more of their predictable dribble.
    I think festival organisers can do better. I don’t think they want to. The see a chance to make dollars for themselves and those with a commercial interest. They want to play it safe for fear of offending their audience. “It’s a family show” is what we use to say in the 1970s but is this really appropriate for a writer’s festival? Aren’t they supposed to provide arenas for controversy and contest? Rather than the next door-stopper by Bob Carr, Peter Fitzsimons, George Megalogenis and Jane bloody Caro. The Australian publishers who I think are a bunch of total wankers, want their pound of flesh, stick with what is safe and they wonder why no one wants to buy the shitty books on sale and why writer’s festivals are becoming obsolete. It’s a self-enclosed market – and a self-enclosed logic. It’s less about freedom and more about economics and the author should acknowledge this. But it is an ultimately self-defeating strategy. I saw the same (often) dreary authors year after year and a few unknowns who disappeared as soon as they came and I wondered even more why they were introduced in the first place. I mean who would pay $30+ for a small pile of puke? Without greater interest from publishers in controversy and new blood nothing will change for the better and we will see the same miserable old bastards year in and year out churning out you know what.
    Jon Faine is right and I am upset as a Sydney-sider that he resides in Melbourne why we have a range of “dahlings” here totally lacking in integrity and honesty and pluck to challenge these pusillanimous primadonnas masquerading as authors. Why would you want to know what Carr says or thinks? I mean he came to one of these festivals and spoke about his shitty collection of dairy notes he put into book form and because he had power, most of which he abused, he can find a dingbat publisher. How easy is that? The path from politician to author is complete? Why study English and History when all you need is an overblown ego, a loud voice, a sense of entitlement and a weak Opposition? “Ugly old me’ was the truest word that he ever uttered but for all that he was still a shit Premier of NSW and I challenge the author to ask him especially from me at one of his self-congratulatory talks he will do at Bendigo (my bet is he knows NZ and HK more than central Victoria – we certainly never saw much of him in western Sydney) why he did so little for the people of NSW, selling off public assets, putting in toll roads and underspending on mental health an railways? I bet its London to a brick that this author won’t go down that path. She’ll just grovel like the weak thing that she is. At least management boards and shareholder conventions are up front with the nastiness and evil they want to inflict. Writer’s festivals? Go fuck yourselves.

  2. The sad thing about writers festivals is that they’re funded the way a commercial enterprise is funded, linked indelibly to growth. The bigger the audience, the bigger the matching investment. The Government funding works this way. The corporate sponsorship works this way (they’re really chasing audience and reach). Only the philanthropy money comes without this demand, although even philanthropists like to know their money isn’t going to a shrinking art.
    So when people complain about writers festivals aiming for the mainstream audiences and being afraid to be dangerous, they are being naive and purist.
    That’s what annoys me most about this whole attack on the Brisbane Writers Festival. Carr and Greer turned a simple commercial rejection into a conspiracy theory about freedom of speech, but aimed it at the BWF instead of at the funding model. Then Gareth Evans joined the pile on, defending his MUP colleagues’ inalienable right to have their say, ahead of whoever else had been chosen to appear at the BWF. Forget about them, they’re “dreary” as Greer then went on to say. Then Richard Flanagan (also, as you point out, from the formidable hit squad of Melbourne University and friends of Adler) writes his opus (regurgitated from whatever he could find on Google to support his thesis) on the disappearing soap box of challenging opinion, aiming criticism directly at the intestinal fortitude of the Brisbane Writers Festival organisers to host it and not at the real cause for concern – the funding model.
    Rosemary, you’ve taken a cheery approach to your article, but you’ve got a festival to run and I wish you luck in your positive endeavour to make the most of a bad situation.
    But let’s not be naive about the issues here. MUP needs to sell books so they are prepared to make marketing mischief by stirring the pot. Governments need to see their policies flourish so they only give funding to festivals that attract the masses. Sponsors like to see their dollars get maximum bang for buck and avoid controversy. And philanthropists with no agenda beyond the love of good writing and a passion for new ideas are too few and far between. Meanwhile, poor old BWF carries on trying to keep everybody happy and this week, they ended up pleasing no one.
    I for one hope they can rise above the Twitterati and put on yet another great festival this year because despite the MUP mischief being peddled unquestioned, it’s one of the more worthy events on the Brisbane calendar (which has as its crowning glory as the State of Origin).

  3. Article – and first response – both absolutely riveting. I hope Justin has written something – he’d be a brilliant person for interview at a Writers Festival. Honestly. And I loved both sides of the complex Bob Carr as presented here – I used to think more the preening expert on US history than knowledgeable to anywhere near that extent on this nation’s past – and I couldn’t abide his lack of support for public education and teachers – but then I find myself more-or-less on the wavelength he has taken on the NaZionist Netanyahu Israeli ugliness towards its Arab citizens – its occupation of Palestine (unfolding on the high seas even as I write – boarding and tasering and arresting international aid operations for Gaza – beyond Israeli waters). I’ve just read Behrouz Boochani’s lyrical and moving treatment of five years+ in the Manus Prison published a few days ago – No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison – marvellous introduction from Richard Flanagan. Get him and Behrouz at once to your Festival, Rosemary – even if you have to fly a rescue mission helicopter to Manus to extract Behrouz. You could sell world rights to the broadcast and recoup all costs for the rescue. Maybe use the same helicopter to extract Dutton then and deliver him to the Courts in The Hague – where he could face the consequences for the murders/deaths which have occurred under his aegis! What a scoop – and, by the way – have you noted the first death of a child taken from parents at the Mexican/US border – returned just immediately prior to its death – neglect as was forecast. More books and controversy… This is an amazing time.
    Beyond the blatantly political – I’ve been attending Writers Festivals since about 1984 when the Sydney Town Hall had almost as many writers on the stage (six or seven including Moderator) as sat in the audience – under 40! Betty Roland, Nance Donkin, Trevor Shearston – some of the names I recall. A couple of years (last and this) at the brilliant Adelaide Writers Festival – free! (Though I heard murmurs of plans to start charging – bad move!) Sydney lost me a few years ago – too much money to attend all those I wanted to listen to – state premiers who can give billions to stadiums – how about a few million each year to properly fund cerebral festivals – obviating the need to charge – with bigger venues available for hosting the “names”? Just some thoughts. Thanks, Rosemary.

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