Carr, Greer and the BWF

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In the case of Greer, her appearance was apparently to be a shared affair with a bookshop, but that bookshop had withdrawn its offer to co-host and co-fund, and hence the decision was made by BWF to limit a potential cost blow out by “uninviting” Greer too.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.

4 thoughts

  1. I got a call from Ann the other day after I energetically complained to BWF staff that Ben Smee (The Guardian) had ditched the Q&A portion of a writer’s ‘conversation’ with Quentin Beresford and Lyndsay Thompson (David Ritter pulled out sick). I had prepared for issues with the Q&A by calling the BWF office a few days before and checking with BWF staff that they had sufficient roving mics ready. My reasonable expectation – something the BWF staff member who took my compliant shared – was that Ben Smee would make some indication to the audience or to a BWF staff member if he felt that there may not be time for a Q&A. This didn’t happen. As the only person who has written a critical review of Beresford’s and Ritter’s books I recognised that both books spring from the same narrative construction funded by philanthropist Graeme Wood who has also played a crucial role in establishing The Guardian in Australia. When I pointed this out to Ann she asked me if there was a book or author with a position that could have brought some balance to the discussion, I told her that any book or academic work would be a few years off. Marcia Langton who had been a late inclusion in the BWF program would have been an excellent foil against the Graeme Wood narrative construction. Langton is highly critical of the StopAdani coalition narrative as it relates to native title issues in the Galilee Basin coal complex area. I tweeted her after my call with Ann and she tweeted back “Sorry I missed this”. Ann seems like a warm and intelligent person. What I took away from our conversation is that the The Guardian are fiercely aggressive in leveraging position and making themselves political actors in the programming space of the BWF. This is why I was glad when Ann told me she had emailed Ben Smee to ask him why he didn’t hold a Q&A. It was a rare (for me) phone call with a genuine and forthcoming person.

  2. Steve- you make no mention of the treatment of Lionel Shriver.. which was a disgrace. Also, the very idea that people go to writing festivals to hear prescriptive talking points is ridiculous

    1. Hi Ashling. Thanks for reading my article. I can give you an answer to that if you’re interested…from the inside. Unlike during the Carr/Greer issue, I was a Board member of the BWF during the Shriver saga so let me answer your first assertion that the treatment of Lionel Shriver “was a disgrace”.

      If you remember the events of 2016, Yassmin Abdel-Magied (even though she admitted she didn’t stay to hear the full speech) sparked a wave of social media outrage at the content of Lionel Shriver’s Opening Address. Under pressure from mainstream media and the interest that was breaking the Internet by this stage, the BWF announced that Shriver’s views were her views, that she didn’t speak to her brief and that by popular demand, they would follow up Shriver’s address with what they called a “right of reply” (which was conducted as an open forum at the Festival, led by Yasmin Abdel-Magied, Rajith Savandasa and others) offering an opportunity for Shriver’s address to be discussed. This was then interpreted as throwing the artist under a bus because this implied the Festival was distancing itself from her comments and isolating her.

      Adding fuel to that fire, two boozed-up writers, also speaking at the Festival took it upon themselves to berate Shriver in the green room at the event, which is not cool and though it’s basically a pub back there with consenting intellectuals agreeing and disagreeing with each other, it was reported that the Festival was not providing enough support for Shriver as if she was some sort of outcast, shipped in under high security and shipped out again for her own safety, which is ridiculous. (The BWF CEO checked in on Shriver after this green room shouting match by the way, just to make sure she was OK, and Shriver brushed it off and was appreciative of the concern.)

      So that is why, knowing what I know, I don’t agree that the treatment of Shriver was a disgrace. As I hope you can see, these events are reported without analysis or investigation, are carried forward in social media and then before you know it, all you see is the paraphrased version which looks bad, but simply isn’t true. Richard Flanagan points out that the BWF failed to defend Shriver’s right to say what she did, but that’s not a fair interpretation. The BWF did.

      In the invitation to the “right of reply” event, the BWF pointed out that the BWF strives “to create a forum for artists and audience members to hold important and sometimes difficult conversations”. Shriver (the artist) had her time on the floor, she had her forum but those who disagreed with her (the audience) hadn’t had their time (except in the less ideal environment of social media) and so the follow up forum was held. Why? To promote both sides of the argument.

      This was a two way forum, with people from each camp expressing their views. It wouldn’t have worked if it was just a one way thing.

      Disappointingly for someone who writes for The Guardian, Richard Flanagan seems content to accept only part of the story without further analysis, quoting (for credibility) an old New York Times article, written by a journalist who wasn’t there and didn’t speak to anyone who was. But let’s not be that loose, Ashling. Can we break this down?

      First let me answer the second point you make about prescriptive talking points.

      In 2016, Lionel Shriver was indeed given a brief as background for her to use during her Opening Address. Keep in mind that this is different to other events at the Festival; The Opening Address is seen as the tone-setter for the entire thing so a brief is always provided so that the Festival has some direction to make it different to last years event, however these briefs are always abstract enough to be talked around, they’re not prescriptive.

      The brief given to Shriver was the Festival theme of “connection and belonging”. On discussion with Shriver, prior to her address, this was tweaked, at her request, to include her own talking points, which were expanded to: “and how belonging to one group shouldn’t preclude us from exploring another”.

      These then were the words that appeared on the promotional material that went out as part of the invitation to the event: “International author Lionel Shriver will share her reflections on why we identify with each other in communities, and how belonging to one group shouldn’t preclude us from exploring another”.

      This was provided ahead of the event (on the 25th August – the event was on 8 September) in consultation with the author. This is also what she spoke about and what caused all the controversy because Shriver chose to deliver it wearing a sombrero as provocation for her argument about how cultural appropriation should be allowed in literature.

      So in answer to your second assertion that festivals provide “prescriptive talking points” I would agree that would be ridiculous, but I will point out that the BWF doesn’t provide them. It provides an abstract theme and some direction to keep the festival focussed but then the artists interpret that as they will.

      The theme for this year is “What the world needs now…”. That is also not prescriptive. It is very open to interpretation. If I can indulge you, I’ll make two further points that I think should be made.

      The first is that I believe the BWF’s treatment of Lionel Shriver actually promoted the idea that artists have freedom to speak, especially if you think that the BWF did cut her loose when they heard what she had to say. They allowed her to own her words.

      Throughout this latest controversy, there has also been the assertion that Festivals are just events put on to sell books so why do we even care? That’s also not true.

      Festivals live or die on their attendance. People don’t attend Festivals to buy books (book sales at the event are tiny). They attend Festivals to hear from authors so they can flesh out their impression of the minds behind the books they have already read. That’s why a theme is provided that may not align with a particular author’s thesis, because it’s interesting for audiences to hear what the brilliant minds behind those books they love also have to say about other subjects.

      A book is a one-way conversation between the author and a reader. It ends at the last page. A Festival is a two-way conversation, delivering just as many questions as answers and that’s their role.

      In Carr’s case, rightly or wrongly, there was a belief that he wouldn’t provide much more discussion than the subject of his book. I don’t know why the Festival felt that way. Maybe he has form. Since he was “uninvited” he certainly seems delighted to leverage his newfound “Banned in Brisbane” (his words) status.

      But if audiences don’t come to writers festivals just to buy books, you can bet your bottom dollar that publishers send their authors there to attend so that they sell more books. And that’s the point of my article, to propose a different argument to the one being shared, which is that freedom of speech is not under attack, but that maybe this whole thing is just a mischievous construct of a publisher who sees an excellent opportunity for marketing.

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