Brisbane writers' festival under fire after Germaine Greer and Bob Carr 'disinvited'
Melbourne University Press publisher Louise Adler said dropping the controversial feminist and the outspoken former New South Wales premier from the September program “seems counter to the ethos of freedom of speech”.
The festival claimed it was merely trying to ensure a balance within the program in one case, and responding to the decisions of a partner organisation in another.
The spat has raised questions about the politics of festival programming, highlighting the conflicting desires of authors who want to talk about and sell their books, the independent artistic priorities of literary festivals, and their desire to cater to the expectations of their audiences.
Carr told Guardian Australia he was “surprised” by the festival’s response to his new political memoir, Run for Your Life.
“I thought writers’ festivals embraced controversy,” he said, adding he understood his book didn’t “accord with [the festival’s] values” particularly because it argued for lower immigration, discussed the recent “China panic” in the Australian media and “my encounters with the pro-Israel lobby”.
The festival issued a statement on Wednesday, saying: “Brisbane writers’ festival does not shy away from controversy or challenging ideas, but as all festival organisers know, it’s invariably difficult to choose between the many authors currently promoting books and the need to provide engaging choices for our audience along a curatorial theme. In trying to achieve that balance, we decided in early June not to proceed with including Bob Carr on this year’s program and MUP were advised at that time.”
The Brisbane writers’ festival acting chief executive, Ann McLean, told the Australian there were concerns Carr would not keep discussion to the topic he had been programmed to discuss.
Referring to Greer, the festival’s statement said: “Germaine had not been invited to take part in this year’s program – we’d been asked by a local bookstore to assist with the marketing of an event planned by them for within the dates of the festival. However, when the bookstore decided not to proceed we decided not to host the event alone as it was being held offsite away from the festival hub and (more importantly) it did not fit within the rest of the program.”
Greer, who is lauded for her early feminist writing but has fallen out of favour with the left in recent years, in part for her inflammatory comments about trans women and her recent comments on rape, told the Australian: “The Brisbane writers’ festival is very hard work. So, to be uninvited to what is possibly the dreariest literary festival in the world, with zero hospitality and no fun at all, is a great relief.”
Australian writers’ festivals have come under fire a number of times in recent years for programming choices. In 2016, Brisbane writers’ festival generated international backlash after a keynote speech from We Need to Talk About Kevin author Lionel Shriver, in which Shriver argued that identity politics stifled fiction, and said she hoped the concept of cultural appropriation was “a passing fad”.
In 2015, Mark Latham set Twitter feeds on fire after an appearance at Melbourne writers’ festival in which he verbally attacked his interviewer, ABC’s Jonathan Green. He called Green an “ABC wanker”, engaged in heated exchanges with members of the audience and let off strings of expletives, prompting audience walkouts and complaints. Melbourne writers’ festival later said it was “disappointed” with Latham’s appearance and it was “not the respectful conversation we value”.
It’s also not the first time a well-known writer has been disinvited from a major festival. Last year, Richard Flanagan aired his disappointment at an invitation to the Perth writers’ festival being rescinded due to a bookshop hosting “a competing event” with the Man Booker prize winner.
Melbourne University Press have now organised an independent event in Brisbane with Greer and Carr on 7 September.