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Twitter’s book burning mob comes for author John Marsden

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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:


7 responses to “Twitter’s book burning mob comes for author John Marsden

  1. If we can get past the obvious hyperbole of a “book burning” “mob”, John voiced his opinions on a public forum, why condemn readers for responding to those views on their own public forum? “Warpaint”, “sharpened sticks” “day’s beasts” – you sound less like someone reporting what is actually being said out there, and more like someone workshopping their own work of fiction. Your version sounds exciting but shows no real understanding of anything that is actually being said. If 100 individuals voice their own personal opinions about something on their own personal twitter pages, they don’t suddenly transform into a ravenous mob. It’s just feedback, John. Work on it.

  2. I am disappointed with John Marsden’s views about bullying, just like many other people are disappointed. His view that victims of bullying are unlikeable and therefore responsible for being bullied offends me as a teacher, a young adult author, a mother and an adult. I am also disappointed in your write up of this discussion as a mob. It is not. People are expressing their responses to his discussion points.

    1. I agree with Amra on this. I read sections of the book and several articles about it before joining the Twitter conversation (which as Amra says wasn’t a mob – not the threads that I saw, anyway). Marsden never seems to have taken on board the ways in which his very readable and well-written books play into yellow peril tropes and his remarks about racism in this latest book confirm that he lacks empathy in this regard. Of course we have things to say when he tries to whiteplain it to us.

  3. I am very surprised by this indignant response to open criticism of Marsden’s latest literary work. As a book creator of more than 35 years’ experience I open my work up for free and open discussion and criticism. We all do. That’s exactly what books are for—to disseminate ideas, encourage thought and discussion. Sometimes it gets hot in the kitchen. So what’s the problem? The author of this piece has worked as a literary critic for many years, doing precisely this — freely voicing and publishing opinions on literary works — sometimes quite contentious responses. But hey… What is different in the case of robust responses to Marsden’s latest work? Are only paid critics permitted to have an opinion now? Marsden is a grown up. He’s quite capable of looking after himself.

  4. Now let me get this right: John Marsden says to people that if a child is bullied they should consider what they have done to make themselves unlikable. But when people push back you decide that means he’s being bullied. Which in Marsden’s worldview means that maybe he should examine himself to discover what makes him unlikeable?

  5. Rosemary, this is what we in the trade call a “beat up”. I followed this discussion on twitter and what I saw was a lot of John Marsden fans, fellow writers for young readers, former victims of bullying (many of whom found Marsden’s books a comfort when they were young) and experts on bullying, expressing deep disquiet and disappointment at his claim that people are bullied because they are inherently “unlikeable”. They tended to be book writers, not book burners. I saw no “hasty hatred”: instead there was a lot of profound concern that such a influential writer and educator was retailing an idea – and then doubling down on it, to remove any chance it was a careless locution – that was simple victim blaming and that goes against every expert recommendation on dealing with bullying. Would be good to get some “informed” opinion around this issue, but sadly this article ain’t that at all.

  6. The only intelligible thing I can glean from this article is that you don’t like Twitter, but you do like John Marsden – because you once heard him speak, and he seemed lovely. Oh, and you run a literary festival – because you mention it around 500 times.

    I’d love to know: why have you spent an entire article bemoaning the quality of discourse in this country, but at the same written a puff-piece about John Masden that offers no critique whatsoever of his comments on bullying? Silencing or ignoring dissenting voices is violence too. Demeaning people for their supposed lack of eloquence on Twitter is classist – at best.

    You seem completely ill-informed on every issue you discuss in this article, except your precious writers festival.

    Why do you bemoan rising levels of violence in modern society, yet give the very disturbing views of John Marsden no analysis whatsoever?

    Can such issues only be discussed in the genteel, white baby-boomer dominated surrounds of your festival? And no, I don’t want to hear how three authors of colour spoke there last year.

    I have to say – you must have lived a very small and privileged life if you think being told on Twitter to “shut up” and “throw your book in the bin” are the worst thing that can happen to a person. (John Marsden isn’t even on Twitter by the way, but he does have access to the national media to express his views).

    You say that what has happened to Marsden on Twitter is “violence”, yet fail completely to look at his own violence enabling views. He’s running two schools, for god’s sake.

    But maybe the worst thing you have done in this article – besides dismissing the very real pain and suffering of people whose lives have been ruined forever by bullying – is that you have somehow made this all about you.

    Rosemary? Shut up.

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