Two more authors banned from Brisbane Writers Festival

July 31, 2018 • 9:15 am

Two years ago there was a big kerfuffle at the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) when writer Lionel Shriver gave a talk asserting the right of all authors to write about “marginalized”—or any—groups, which is a violation of many who cry “cultural appropriation” at that stuff. As I wrote at the time,

Not long ago Yasmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese/Australian/Muslim writer, described in the Guardian how offended she became when author Lionel Shriver, speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival, defended the right of authors to write fiction about “marginalized” characters (i.e., people of color and others seen as oppressed). Abdel-Magied, who came off as someone unable to tolerate even the mildest contradictions of her views, stalked out of Shriver’s talk in tears, virtually accusing the speaker of perpetuating racism by appropriating other cultures in her writing.

Not long after, Shriver published her full talk online, also in the Guardian,  and it turned out to be passionate, eloquent, and thoughtful, but not at all offensive—except to the overly tender ears of someone like Abdel-Magied. Read it for yourself. But I had no idea that, as Shriver describes in a new New York Times piece, “Will the Left survive the Millennials?“, that the ostracism of Shriver extended farther than the kvetching of Abdel-Magied. It did.

The Festival authorities publicly disavowed Shriver’s speech and quickly organized a counter-conference to rebut Shriver’s assertions. That of course is fine, but was done only for Shriver’s talk, and was done post facto, as a sort of official announcement of Shriver’s demonization.  It shows that the BWF is simply caving in to those who claim that writers must not culturally appropriate.

Since then Shriver has been further demonized, and has asserted even more strongly her and others’ right to write about what they want. But now, in a further effort to censor authors, the BWF has disinvited two more writers: Germaine Greer and Bob Carr, the former premier of New South Wales.  As the Guardian reported on July 25, the issues were Carr’s views on immigration and other political issues, which apparently did not align with the BWF’s control-Leftism, and, presumably, Greer’s views on transexual women, whom she doesn’t accept as fully “woman-ish” as she does biological women. For that Greer has repeatedly been called a transphobe, and has been deplatformed several times.

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,” [Carr] 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.”

Those are just disingenuous weasel words, and, in fact, lies. The Guardian‘s report continues:

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.”

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.”

The Guardian then published a critique of the BWF’s actions written by Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a Booker Prize winner. Click on the screenshot to read his essay:

First, Flanagan discusses the withdrawal of novelist Junot Diaz from the Sydney Writers’ festival after social media allegations that he forcibly kissed a woman “some years before” as well as that he bullied and displayed demeaning behavior towards other women. Because of these accusations on social media, MIT, where Diaz works, investigated his behavior and found no grounds to punish him. The same held true for The Boston Review, who also refrained from punishment. But the social media demonization was so loud that Diaz withdrew from both Sydney and an Australian tour. You may differ on the rightness of that, but if two investigations found him in the clear, at least the Sydney Writers’ Festival shouldn’t have issued a mealymouthed statement criticized by Flanagan:

None of this proves Diaz is a good person. But nor does it prove he is a bad one. There were allegations, and there remain allegations. Diaz may be a monster, or he may not. But the allegations remain, and they remain allegations.

So on what grounds was the Sydney Writers’ festival justified in passing judgment on a writer about things the truth of which was not established?

The festival, in its statement announcing his departure, referred to Diaz’s essay The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma published a few months earlier in which Diaz revealed that he had been raped as a child.

“In his recent New Yorker essay, Mr Diaz wrote, ‘Eventually the past finds you’. As for so many in positions of power, the moment to reckon with the consequences of past behaviour has arrived.

“Sydney Writers’ festival is a platform for the sharing of powerful stories: urgent, necessary and sometimes difficult. Such conversations have never been more timely.

“We remain committed to ensuring they occur in a supportive and safe environment for our authors and audiences alike.”

We may ask what on earth was supportive and safe for Diaz in those words? Who had the power at that moment – the writer, who had publicly confessed to being raped as a child only a few months before, or the festival?

The Wheeler Centre, meanwhile, emailed ticket holders to announce that Diaz had also cancelled a scheduled appearance in Melbourne with similarly self-serving cant:

“We always take seriously our responsibility to ensure that our platform and our spaces are safe for our guests and audiences alike,” its statement said. “The Wheeler Centre is inspired by the bravery of those sharing their stories and is committed to an accountable and responsive literary community for everyone.”

None of this is to argue for or against Junot Diaz. But is it to be the case that Australian writers’ festivals will abandon any writer once social media turns against them? And what if the mob have it wrong?

The judgments against Greer and Carr are more clearly misguided, and completely inimical to the freedom of discussion that should attend a literary festival. Flanagan is particularly acerbic in his criticism of the BWF’s disinvitation of these two. I’ll give some quotes, which I agree with completely. Note first, though, that Flanagan himself says that he “[doesn’t] overly care for the recent thoughts of either, and I am confident they would feel the same about me.” I am with Flanagan on this, too. But he adds, “And surely that is the point—that other people’s thoughts are worth listening to.”


If the BWF is a writers’ festival concerned not to get publicity they are unique on this earth. And perhaps they are, because McLean, in a moment of clarifying folly, says that Bob Carr’s invitation was being withdrawn in consideration for the brand alignment of several sponsors we are securing for the festival”.

Does this mean money chooses which writers you hear – and don’t hear – at the BWF? Exactly when did the Brisbane Writers festival become the Brisbane Corporate festival? And since when did writing in Australia answer to corporate dictate?

There are questions that should be answered by the BWF. Why were Carr and Greer blackballed? And by whom? When did the BWF stop seeing its role as supporting writers ahead of corporations? Is Greer being dropped because her views on rape are not those of the prevailing orthodoxy? Is Carr being dropped because of his views on Israel or population?

This is not an article I wanted to write. But as forums for public debate and discussion vanish throughout the country, in a week when Nine has announced the takeover of Fairfax, the importance of community events like writers’ festivals only grows in importance. They should not answer either to the mob or to corporations. They should be there for writers and writing, and all that these represent: tolerance, debate, difference.

Ponder all that we now know about how social media is manipulated by power, both national and corporate. Why, with that knowledge, would a writers’ festival ban writers because of fear of a social media backlash?

Beneath their determined, if dreary, attempts at funkiness and fashion, beyond the latest New Yorker sensation imported for our provincial enlightenment, past the wearying social media feeds with their ersatz excitement, writers’ festivals now run the risk of running with dogma, with orthodoxy, with the mob – with fear, in other words – and with money. It’s the new Victorian age wearing a hipster beard.

Indeed: I see this in my local bookstore: 57th Street Books, once a great bookstore but now largely dedicated, at least in the books they push, to Control-Leftist dogma. I of course agree largely with their position on the political spectrum, but why do they refuse to call attention to other points of view? I’ve never seen a book by a conservative advertised in their window; everything is devoted to literature by purportedly oppressed minorities. The Kingdom of Words is rapidly being balkanized. And the balkanization is largely due to social media, which functions at once to create tribalism and to demonize those whose points of view differ from yours.

I see no point in rewriting Flanagan’s eloquent words in my own style, so I’ll finish with a few other bits from his essay:

Of course, not all writers’ festivals are like this. But the large ones are increasingly becoming that way. If they were to rename themselves “Festival of Safe Ideas”, or “Celebration of Conventional Thinking”, or “Festival Approved by Twitter Bots” I wouldn’t mind. But having dropped two writers because, it would seem, of what they have written, for Brisbane to call itself a writers’ festival smacks of false advertising.

The individual examples of Shriver, Diaz, Carr and Greer, all point to a larger, more disturbing trend. Writers’ festivals, like other aspects of the literary establishment such as prizes, have in recent years become less and less about books and more and more about using their considerable institutional power to enforce the new orthodoxies, to prosecute social and political agendas through reward and punishment.

. . .McLean is quoted in the Australian as saying the BWF was “fully prepared to embrace controversy”.

What nonsense. The BWF embraces conformity, and two who threaten that conformity it punishes by banning. In doing so, it’s an enforcer, not an enabler; a punisher, and not a promoter.

. . . now, more than ever, we need places and forums where we can listen, reflect and discuss different perspectives and ideas that are not our own. This is not to suggest promoting propagandists and provocateurs to an equal footing with serious writers – but it is to argue that writing worthy of the name is not always comforting or reassuring, but that it does matter. The alternative is a Trumpian world of mindless Milo Yiannopoulos provocations on one side, and conformist clap trap on the other, both serving only to deliver power to those who would destroy us.

As this kind of banning and deplatforming spreads, nearly always promulgated by the Left, I find myself no longer surprised at the kind of censorhip and demonization practiced against those whose ideas are deemed ideologically impure. This is what religions like Islam and Catholicism do; it should not be the practice of writers and literary festivals.

40 thoughts on “Two more authors banned from Brisbane Writers Festival

  1. A note; a paragraph has been repeated in the your article.

    A comment; is there a difference in readership between the right and left? IOW, do more lefties read than righties? If not, it would seem bad business to cater exclusively to one or the other. I know there are xtian and Marxist-socialist bookstores, but they never make money. Not that many other do either, still, I haven’t noticed much in the way of political bias in the local non-chain bookstores near me, both the new and used book version.

  2. The BWF is eating its own seed corn — it’s the Easter Islanders chopping down the last tree — a sure recipe for extinction. Fiction, and creative nonfiction, cannot thrive under such political constraints.

    1. In a larger sense this is what’s happening to the left as a social movement. Eating our own, ignoring our roots, reverting to authoritarian form. It will be generations before the lost ground is made up.

  3. I once saw an interview with the choreographer Moses Pendleton. He was asked about his work annoying some people. “Pissing people off is good” he said. I like his attitude.

    1. Nothin’ wrong with that as long as the party doing the pissing can take it when the tables are turned. To paraphrase Mr. Truman, if you can’t stand the piss, stay outta the bathroom.

      (Uh-oh, all of a sudden I am goin’ on about water sports like a common Trump at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. 🙂 )

  4. “Festival of Writers Who Agree with Us.” They’d only really need one guest then, wouldn’t they?

  5. “This is what religions like Islam and Catholicism do.” It is indeed, but writers’ festivals and universities are secular institutions, so the better analogy is: this is what the societies of the late-lamented “Socialist bloc” used to do.

    For about the last generation, we have been witnessing a very curious phenomenon: after the collapse of the Berlin wall and all it represented, the kulturpolitik of East Germany somehow migrated into the cultural organizations and academies of the Western world. How this came about is a fascinating question. Could it be that the dismantling of the German Stasi, the renaming of the Soviet KGB, and so on, all freed the Western Left to indulge in tendencies formerly held in check by the object lesson of existing Communist societies?

    The post-Soviet migration to the West of Communist memes is strikingly complete. It includes the insistence on the racism of the West, a faithful heir of the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee and its Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. And the incessant harping on Western colonialism, even more contrived now, 60 years after the West gave up its last colonies, than it was then. The faux-feminism is reminiscent of the USSR’s 3-kopek stamp, which showed a male worker and a kolkhoz woman jointly holding aloft their iconic hammer and sickle. And, finally, the virulent denunciations of Israel and Zionism, as frenzied now on the Western pop-Left as they were in the 1950s USSR and 1960s Poland.

    1. My goodness, the Commies are everywhere. Who knew? I guess Joe McCarthy was right. His only problem was that he was ahead of his time. What we need is a good fascist in the White House to crush the Red Menace. Oh, wait, we already have that. So, fear not. Help is on the way. Fortunately, our Leader has taken the first steps. Before long the invidious free press and its coddling of the brainwashed regressive youth will be banned. No fake news will be allowed. Another good thing is that religion will be once again honored after years of abuse by those leftist secularists, so says our attorney general. Yes, let’s get those kids back in church. That will knock the leftist bullshit out of them. I feel better already. Good times are just around the corner.

      1. And that’s the rub.

        There are good points in the original analogy, but it’s not what actually happened.

        There is, unbelievably, support for regimes like North Korea on the far left currently. Those idiots are in denial about all the bad aspects of those regimes, but that’s not new either.

        During the heyday of the USSR, there were always people who extolled that system and ignored, denied, or were in denial, regarding the nasty aspects of that regime.

        Nowadays in Russia the ruling party and the Communist Party are both very closely aligning themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. They advertise themselves as the last bastions of both Christian morality and white supremacy. It’s why the Christian far right in the US i.e. Trump’s base, are not worried about Russia. Putin/Russia funds far right Christian religious symposia regularly, which are heavily attended by US far right Christians, who also feature heavily as speakers.

        1. Indeed! The so-called tankies on the British far left actually say “People’s Korea” instead of North Korea, without any irony at all.


              “A hardline Stalinist. A tankie is a member of a communist group or a “fellow traveller” (sympathiser) who believes fully in the political system of the Soviet Union and defends/defended the actions of the Soviet Union and other accredited states (China, Serbia, etc.) to the hilt, even in cases where other communists criticise their policies or actions. For instance, such a person favours overseas interventions by Soviet-style states, defends these regimes when they engage in human rights violations, and wishes to establish a similar system in other countries such as Britain and America.”

              “The term derives from the fact that the divisions within the communist movement first arose when the Soviet Union sent tanks into communist Hungary in 1956, to crush an attempt to establish an alternative version of communism which was not embraced by the Russians. Most communists outside the eastern bloc opposed this action and criticised the Soviet Union. The “tankies” were those who said “send the tanks in”.”

        2. “It’s why the Christian far right in the US i.e. Trump’s base, are not worried about Russia.”

          I rather think that this is because they don’t see beyond their noses, and Russia is at a greater distance.

          1. That’s part of it, but not the whole story. Russia is position itself as the saviour of White Morals and White Christianity. Putin sponsors big conventions of far right Christians where the speakers are names you can recognize from the US far right.

            See this long article from Right Wing Watch:

            A quote from near the beginning:
            “The examples of far-right Americans praising the Kremlin are as myriad as they are obvious. For Richard Spencer, the coiner of the term “Alt-Right” and a leader of the emerging white nationalist faction it represents, Russia is both the “sole” and “most powerful white power in the world.” Matthew Heimbach, head of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party—and someone who, like Spencer, desires the creation of a whites-only nation-state within the U.S.—believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is the “leader of the free world,” one who has helped morph Russia into an “axis for nationalists.” Harold Covington, the white supremacist head of the secessionist Northwest Front, recently described Russia as the “last great White empire.” And former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke has said he believes Russia holds the “key to white survival.””

      2. Thank you, Historian. Sarcasm much appreciated. (And I’m not being sarcastic when I say that 🙂


    2. There was a book titled “Treason of the Intellectuals” that outlines how this process worked. It’s not surprising that it happened, really. Look at the pre-WWII support for the Nazi party, for example. The Communist/Socialist systems have a built-in bribe for the intellectuals: these systems ostensibly will put them in positions of power, as philosopher-kings. The fact that they always degrade into thugs dictating what the intellectuals are allowed to do is downplayed.

      That said, I do think that comparing these events with religious institutions that do the same thing is warranted. The secular/religious nature of the institution doesn’t seem to be a major factor here. What those major factors are is worth investigating.

      1. You see The Death of Stalin with Buscemi’s turn as Nikita Khrushchev? It closes with the arrest and execution of Lavrentiy Beria — so, hey, HAPPY ENDING!

        1. I did see it! While I enjoyed it, I must admit to some disappointment. The ideas and dialogue simply didn’t have the same spark of wit and brilliance behind them that made In the Loop one of my favorite movies and The Thick of It one of my favorite shows.

  6. “To extend the base of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke has proposed the strategy of the long march through the institutions: working against the established institutions while working within them, but not simply by ‘boring from within’, rather by ‘doing the job’, learning (how to program and read computers, how to teach at all levels of education, how to use the mass media, how to organize production, how to recognize and eschew planned obsolescence, how to design, et cetera), and at the same time preserving one’s own consciousness in working with others.” ~Marcuse

    At any one point the long march through the institutions seems innocuous to onlookers. But, like evoloution, small changes carried out over a long time result in big changes. Big changes that are now far more visible.

  7. Excellent post Jerry. It’s frustrating to me that so many on the left, whose values are largely my own, don’t also recognize the core value of freedom of speech. That, imo, is what this boils down to.

    Some modern day liberals are behaving just like many conservatives did when they were the ones in charge. Back then people were being banned for things like being openly gay, or communist, or supporting the availability of contraception to all and a woman’s right to choose.

    Quite apart from anything else, we can’t develop our own arguments against those we disagree with unless we hear what they have to say.

    1. And in a sort of historical reversal, just as hippies followed the communist scare I expect a resurgence in right-wing thought. It’s already happening in the US of course, but the more ‘control’ the ctrl-left imposes, the more the middle will be driven into the arms of the righter wing as they become the defenders of more open fora. Not fully or equally open fora, but they only need to be more open than the ctrl-left to make a good public argument that they are the defenders of western open society while the lefties attack it.

    2. I agree this is an excellent post, but only till the last paragraphs. Why it singles out just Muslins and Catholicism is beyond me. All religions, including Jewish, are part of the culture of trashing the opposed view. However, in my opinion, Catholicism is currently the most open to accepting different views, as Pope Francesco does, it’s not even as regressive as several Protestant cults and sects.

      1. “All religions, including Jewish, are part of the culture of trashing the opposed view.”

        Not just religions. I’ve seen it happen in scientific conferences, among sci-fi and fantasy fans, even among jewelry makers. Some people try to be the Voice of Authority and crush anyone who disagrees. A reasonably healthy group can handle a few such people–they’re inevitable, after all, so humans are good at working around them–but they can quickly start to dominate.

        1. Yep, it certainly happened with ‘fan’ groups, fuelled by (and readily observable in) Internet fan communities (mailing lists and websites – and surely now in Twitter / Facebook, though I haven’t looked into those). You would get proponents of a particular interpretation, or fans of a particular character, forming a clique with one or two vociferous personalities leading them or speaking for them, and demonising adherents of the opposing view. More timid personalities would be afraid to comment. Some minor thing a character did in a certain episode would be siezed on and accorded immense significance. It reminded me of the schisms in the Xtian religion over the centuries. I suppose the only difference was, it happened much faster but no-one was actually burned at the stake.


  8. I was initially very unsympathetic to Germaine Greer’s views on rape until I read more about her own experience of being raped and her ways of coping with it. (I still think she’s entirely wrong.)

    Greer wrote a book on Shakespeare in 1986 (for OXford University’s “Past Masters” series). I am curious as to whether her book deals with Shakespeare’s narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece” one of the most powerful condemnations of rape by a man I know of.

    Here in full is Wikipedia’s discussion of Greer’s own rape experience

    “During an interview in the 1980s, Greer told Clyde Packer that she had been raped while she was a student at the University of Melbourne.[87] Two weeks after her March 1995 Guardian column about rape provoked controversy, she recalled again about her own experience, which took place in January 1958, when she was 19.[22] A rugby player she had met at a barbecue dragged her into a car, punched her several times in the head, forced her to repeat what he wanted her to say, then raped her. Afterwards, he walked back to the party as though nothing had happened. Her male flatmates found her at home hours later, bruised, swollen and semi-conscious. She believed that reporting it would be pointless; she had danced with him at the party, had left with him voluntarily, and he was a pillar of the community. The flatmates brought the man to the flat days later and warned him in front of her that they would break his legs if they saw him at any of the places they frequented.[22]

    She argued, in two columns, that it was not the rapist’s penis that had hurt her, but his fists and “vicious mind”,[22] and the loss of control, invasion of self, and “being made to speak the rapist’s script”.[88] “To insist”, she wrote, “that outrage by penis is worse than outrage by any other means is to glorify and magnify that tag of flesh beyond reason.” She suggested that perhaps women should “out” their rapists rather than take a chance with a legal system that does not work for them.[22] Her views were strongly criticized by Women Against Rape, which at the time was campaigning for more prosecutions.[89]”

  9. I watched the video and the comments by Germaine Greer were not “inflammatory comments about trans women”. We already have trans women defeating women in the highest level of track competition. Demonizing her for arguably reasonable statements is another example of the extreme left idiocy that may get Trump reelected. Trans people deserve equal right, but let’s not be stupid. Let’s say I’m a 22 year old fairly good runner do I deserve to compete in world junior track competitions, because I feel like I’m 16?

  10. Important to note that the regressive left have never really found Greer’s mitigation of FGM because of “cultural” reasons, worth getting angry about.

    They are, of course, fuming about her views on transpeople.

    This is because the regressive left are not that concerned about tackling FGM? Why? Well, we all know why. It would upset the wrong people.

  11. I’ll just mention Richard Flanagan and Germaine Greer are among my favourite writers and I’ve always found Junot Diaz interesting. It seems insane to have this discussion at all.

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