I think the Carr/Greer/BWF story is a cynical example of harnessing media spin for profit. Here is my assessment of what went on and why I think that:
According to reports, Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) last week contacted Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) to let them know they no longer required their writers, Bob Carr and Germaine Greer for the 2018 Festival. MUP would have asked why.
I assume the acting CEO of BWF, Ann McLean responded via email, marketing person to marketing person. (The Festival CEO’s role is part marketing and the Publisher’s role is too, so this is a fair characterization of the conversation although it’s speculation.)
As the media reports it, they mentioned that in Carr’s case there was a problem aligning him to the brands that they were asking for sponsorship money from for his spot in the Festival.
This is not an unusual problem in festivals, which are chronically under-funded by government. They have to rely on private and company sponsorship to conduct their range of events, which rarely break even by audience ticket sales alone, especially if they’re not likely to be wildly popular events.
When you’re running a festival, you have to make these calls, allowing popular authors to draw ticket sales, taking the pressure off the bottom line and then trying to convince sponsors to support niche writers who may struggle with sales.
In the case of Greer, her appearance was apparently to be a shared affair with a bookshop, but that bookshop had withdrawn its offer to co-host and co-fund, and hence the decision was made by BWF to limit a potential cost blow out by “uninviting” Greer too.
If you don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories you would think that’s as much as it was, a case of juggling costs.
If MUP saw no opportunity otherwise, that’s also as far as the story would have gone and it would never have made it to the media, however MUP seems to have seen an opportunity to spin this to its advantage.
Talking points for Carr (was out on the hustings on the ABC, promoting his new memoir published by MUP) became all about censorship and shying away from controversy, even though they were effectively stirring up controversy on BWF’s behalf, although that’s just an ironic aside.
Carr has since begun to market his book with a red banner across the cover that reads loudly: Banned in Brisbane. Perhaps this adds some frisson to the book. Perhaps he thinks that could give his book a sales edge.
Missing from any of the reports about Carr is the fact that he’s not just an author represented by MUP, he’s also on the Board of MUP.
Greer, who seems allergic to planned, talking points chose instead to malign the Festival’s other authors by calling BWF the “dreariest literary festival in the world”.
Then, another of MUP’s published authors who is also appearing at the Festival, Gareth Evans, added his voice to the outrage, threatening to withdraw his own attendance unless Carr and Greer were reinstated to the program.
In this article, Gareth Evans quoted precisely from email correspondence between BWF and MUP, so you can assume that he was given that by MUP. It’s unlikely that those emails would have been made public by BWF.
So, from the outside, this looks like three independent authors complaining about censorship at a writers’ festival. Look closer and it starts to look more like a tantrum thrown by a publisher (MUP) who has seen their opportunity to market a couple of titles suddenly evaporate, so they thought they should invent one.
It looks even more like that when you notice who else added their voice to the outrage. On the weekend, Richard Flanagan published an opinion piece in The Guardian about BWF, Carr and Greer and the supposed evaporation of good forums for dangerous ideas.
In that article, he didn’t disclose that he was the inaugural Boisvouvier Founding Chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University, and therefore also linked to MUP, Carr and Greer, perhaps because that may have looked like he had some kind of bias. He also neglected to say that he had been similarly dropped from the Perth writers’ festival last year in circumstances similar to Greer’s, maybe in case he appeared to have an axe to grind.
In the spirit of disclosure, I have to say that I was once on the Board of the BWF and so I could also be accused of bias, which I would accept. But I have nothing financial to gain from my comments, and they are my own comments, not those of the current Board or those of the BWF.
I do wonder though if Carr’s mar, Greer’s sneer, Evans’ threat of festivus interruptus and Flanagan’s wake for intellectual freedom are really about the censorship of their ideas or if they are part of a coordinated marketing campaign, hoping to profit from BWF’s pain. It’s pretty cynical for a writer to do that, if it is because it’s hard enough getting people to attend writers’ festivals, to pay an interest in writing, without publishers and writers themselves burning down the house.