Festivals and censorship

Literary festivals and festivals of ideas are, almost by definition, curated, since directors necessarily choose between the potential speakers available to them to draw up their final program. If you attend a festival, you’re meant to notice the selection of guests, in the same way that art fanciers at an exhibition appreciate the careful juxtaposition of particular works. It’s thus entirely legitimate to criticise event organisers for programming certain speakers and not others. Indeed, it’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re meant to critically assess a festival: you’re meant to notice the curatorial decisions underlying the schedule and express your approval or disapproval.

That’s why the now almost constant cry of ‘censorship’ in relation to festivals’ programming choices invariably misses the point. All festival directors ‘censor’ – if we want to use that term – since they can’t help but eschew some guests in favour of others. But it’s not a violation of freedom of speech if a particular person gets overlooked. Most of us do, after all, manage to live out our lives without ever delivering a keynote speech at writers’ festivals.

Of course, in order to make a sensible critique of festival programming, you need some appreciation of what the particular event seeks to achieve. The problem in Australia – the reason why so many recent articles talk at cross purposes to each other – is that no consensus exists as to what the point might be of the literary festivals springing up all over the country.

Are they to sell books? Are they to encourage reading? Are they to promote authors? If so, which ones? Should they give the reading public what it wants, in the form of the biggest selling writers? Or should they do the opposite, by deliberately publicising authors who aren’t known? Should a festival be judged by the number of punters who attend or by the importance of the debates that take place at it or by the literary quality of the books that it introduces?

Arguments might be made for any or all of those philosophies. Indeed, different festivals might, quite legitimately, seek to achieve different ends, with, say, the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Sydney Writers’ Festival inviting us to assess their programs on an entirely distinct basis. There’s no reason why every event should be the same – and it would be foolish to criticise a festival seeking to promote Australian literary novels on the same basis that one judged a festival dedicated to the widest possible notion of ‘writing’.

At the moment, the lack of clarity as to rationale causes particular problems in respect of arguments about politics. Most festivals claim to be apolitical – which means, in practice, that they embrace a particular version of liberalism, normalised into an apolitical ‘common sense’. For instance, almost every literary event accepts, at some level, the need for diversity in representation – a position that wouldn’t be taken by conservative forums.

Yet the literary commitment to representation is not generally understood as a political stance (that is, as one of many possible responses to racism) so much as just accepted as ‘the way we do things now’.

A reluctance to foreground overt politics explains the unnecessary kerfuffle over the Brisbane Writers Festival’s decision to shed Bob Carr and Germaine Greer from this year’s program.

Again, festival directors have a perfect right not to program speakers incompatible with their particular vision. But the announcement about Carr and Greer never explained what that vision was. Was Carr scratched because of his views on population, his relationship with China or his attitude to Palestine? Quite obviously, the meaning of the decision depends entirely on the answer. Similarly, you can imagine a festival making a commitment to trans rights, one that entailed not programming transphobic speakers.

But for that decision to be effective, it would need to be public, something that the organisers explained to the populace. Surreptitiously dropping Germaine Greer on the basis of her attitudes (if, indeed, that’s what happened) isn’t at all the same.

It should also be acknowledged that festivals don’t exist in a vacuum. The events associated with the bigger cities, in particular, rest on sizeable organisations, necessarily dependent on corporate sponsors, backing from publishers and government funds. That doesn’t mean they can’t do interesting and progressive things; it certainly doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t debate their programs. But it does mean that festivals aren’t manifestations of some transparent public sphere in the way that’s sometimes assumed.

The recent mini-scandal about Steve Bannon’s inclusion – and then exclusion – from the New Yorker Festival brings these issues into focus.

Fairly obviously, the New Yorker was under no obligation to give a spot to Bannon. The outrage that led to the magazine dropping Bannon did not constitute censorship but rather a perfectly legitimate political response to a terrible programming decision. The pushback by journalists concerned about the ostensible construction of leftwing silos or bubbles mostly misses the point. News organisations should report on the far right; that reporting will necessarily entail quizzing odious figures.

But an onstage interview at an ideas festival represents something quite different than reporting. It’s a performance, not an investigation, a chance for Bannon – an overt white nationalist – to bask in the imprimatur of an iconic liberal magazine. Insofar as a silo separates New York liberalism from identitarian racism, that’s something to be welcomed – and a festival program breaking it down couldn’t be anything other than reactionary.

At the same time, it’s not to conclude that the intensity of the debate reflects, on both sides, a massive overestimation of the power of the media.

The suggestion by Malcolm Gladwell (and many, many others) that Bannon would be ‘done in’ by a skilled interviewer entirely overstates the significance of media ‘gotcha’ moments. Breitbart, an outfit once described as ‘the platform of the alt right’, didn’t build its influence by presenting seamless arguments; no-one really thinks Bannon’s fans would abandon him if he were caught out by a tricky question.

At the same time, while it’s entirely correct to protest Bannon’s inclusion in the festival, we also need a sense of proportion about what’s at stake. The festival’s a for-profit project hosted by a huge media entity. The liberal brand identity of the magazine makes it susceptible to public pressure (as we’ve seen) – but only up to a certain point. The New Yorker Festival will never become a buttress of radical anti-racism.

To put it another way, while getting Bannon kicked off stage in New York’s all to the good, we’re not going to defeat the alt right simply by policing the boundaries of literary events. Those of us who work in the media have a quite unwarranted tendency to put ourselves at the centre of events. But the real struggle against the forces that Bannon represents will not take place in the media spotlight – and debates about festivals matter much less than the construction of real social movements.


Image: wiredforlego / flickr


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Reports on at least 4 writers festivals here in the past week – people can’t be doing too much carnivalesque writing if they’re spending so much time at literary festivals of the non-Bakhtin kind.

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