News & Commentary Twitter’s book burning mob comes for author John Marsden By Rosemary Sorensen | July 26, 2019 | In Hong Kong right now, there are people standing in the subway train doors, preventing them from closing, and, when people try to push past to get on the train, the protestors are shouting that they are being attacked, claiming victimisation. We can recognise this behaviour as unreasonable; is there any way to deal with it without violence? In the past few months, as our Bendigo Writers Festival approaches, it has become clear that we are in end-game period for social discourse and it’s pretty violent. I program each festival – and this is the eighth – always trying to pick up on the zeitgeist, so there are sessions about violence dotted throughout the schedule. AC Grayling is talking about the crisis of democracy and why it’s turned violent. Julia Shaw is talking about the psychological origins of evil, and whether violence is in us all. Min Jin Lee talks about those let down by history, and the violence such forgetting inflicts on whole generations. Jess Hill, Bri Lee, Jane Caro, Chloe Hooper… so many writers grappling with how to work out a way beyond conflict, to give voice and support to those who are hurt. And then there’s John Marsden. When his book, The Art of Growing Up, came out this week, there was a huge positive reaction as people realised he’s on the Bendigo Writers Festival program, and got excited to be able to hear him speak. Haven’t these people read Lord of the Flies? Maybe not. Old book, out of print, author dead. Then, soon after, quotes from interviews were circulating, picking up on his comments about bullying. Then came the twitter reactions. Nasty stuff, shouting at him to shut up, telling people to bin his books. As Ginger Gorman, who is also on the Festival program, will tell you, this is normalised behaviour on twitter. What has surprised me in the Marsden case is that I recognised some of the names of the accusers – sensible people who are au fait with the way a pile-on generates its own violence. People who, you’d think, would say to themselves, well I certainly don’t agree with what he is saying and I certainly want to argue with him and tell him he’s wrong, but I think he has the right to speak and I will not be part of the hysteria. Haven’t these people read Lord of the Flies? Maybe not. Old book, out of print, author dead. I wouldn’t count myself a fan of Marsden’s hugely popular Tomorrow series, and all the other books he’s written for young readers. I’m an introvert reader, and when the YA boom happened, led by writers such as Marsden, I found it difficult to read them. The passionate support for YA fiction was, for the most part, admirable and seemed well-intentioned, so my grumbles were mostly private. (Someone once pushed me into the path of an oncoming tram, because she was so furious at my perceived lack of support for YA; not a bad disincentive to criticise.) I do agree we’ve got to find ways to let young people into reading, which is one of the most precious assets for a civilised community to cherish, so if YA does that, then YA is good. Then, I heard Marsden speak to a big school group in Bendigo, and it was wonderful. He didn’t talk down to them, he had a way of addressing every kid in the room, he made reading and writing sound good and smart. I also heard him talk a few years later at Bendigo Writers Festival about poetry. That, too, was a revelation. Maybe some of the sensible people who have piled on in response to what Marsden is being quoted as saying in interviews about the book will regret the intemperance of their hasty hatred. And I’ve no doubt that the more reputable media outlets will run well-argued, informed articles in response to his book. That is a good thing. It would be a pity if this were the new order, if our social discourse were only this, the frenzy of the gang in twitter warpaint. Our interviewer for Marsden’s Bendigo Writers Festival session, Cecile Shanahan, is a mother of three, an educator too, and she says the book is about a lot more than bullying (this is the ABC’s Patrick Wood on the book, which gives you a clear idea of the content). Cecile says she finds The Art of Growing Up controversial, but is keen, therefore, to ask good questions. Meanwhile, back at the twitter-feed… they’re trawling for every quote that might throw another log on the conflagration. And in the frenzy, things are said that are personal and abusive. It would be a pity if this were the new order, if our social discourse were only this, the frenzy of the gang in twitter warpaint, rushing with sharpened sticks to kill this day’s beast. Marsden’s book finishes with: “Beware the bulldozers. Their hot breath is getting hotter and closer and louder.” In Hong Kong, they are calling the mob violence a threat to “civilisation”. The hot breath of twitter – and of the media now dependent on it – are, too, a threat to civilised society. Bendigo Writers Festival runs August 9-11: bendigowritersfestival.com.au Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Rosemary Sorensen Rosemary Sorensen is director of Bendigo Writers Festival.