Week in Review

Atwood, Swarbrick and an expensive waste of everyone’s time

Chlöe Swarbrick was more interested in herself at the Civic last night than engaging with her guest Margaret Atwood, writes Paula Morris.

“Writers are a cheap date,” Margaret Atwood joked early in last night's event at the Civic, though she was anything but. She talked with pride about being one of the founders of the Toronto writers’ festival, but rather than come to New Zealand for one of our book festivals, Atwood opted for the large fee offered by an independent producer – the UK-based Fane Productions – and three one-off events in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.

Large fees and independent promoters mean high ticket prices for fans. In Auckland the "cheap seats" – at $70 – quickly sold out; the top price was $180. My stalls ticket (bought by a friend who couldn’t use it) cost $131. If the evening with Atwood had been offered by the Auckland Writers Festival as an out-of-season event, as they’ve done recently with Arundhati Roy, Nigella Lawson and Lee Child, the top ticket price would have been $37.50, with a student price of $20. Within the festival itself the price would have been the same, even for big names like Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and Haruki Murakami.

The event would also have sold out. Faced with too many empty seats in one of Auckland’s most expensive venues, the promoters dropped the price of remaining tickets to $69, then $59, a blow for avid fans who’d bought their tickets earlier. Twenty-five free tickets were reserved for "under-25s", and through the University of Auckland I helped distribute these – the offer taken up mainly by young women who are keen Atwood readers. (I hope the event didn’t put them off future events with writers.) The Civic seats around 2400, and Atwood’s interviewer, Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, announced there were "almost 2000 people" present, but a glance around the circle suggested this was wishful thinking.

In Christchurch, where a WORD out-of-season event last year for Zadie Smith cost $25 (plus Ticketek’s lavish booking fee of $8.50) per ticket, the prices for Atwood were the same as in Auckland – and Sydney. Sales were so sluggish that the promoters had to downsize from the 2000-seater auditorium to the 700-seat James Hay Theatre. As in Auckland and Wellington, all tickets were reduced to $59 in the final week. “Selling fast” read the online ad for the event. Well, no.

So, lashings of money – and expense – all round. But what about the show? Fane billed this as a “premiere literary event spanning the breadth of Atwood’s remarkable career, her diverse range of works and why, in the Booker Award winning The Testaments, she has returned to her seminal story, 34 years later”. The irony of applying the word “seminal” to Atwood’s work aside, this description was false advertising.

Part of the issue was Chlöe Swarbrick, who seemed more interested in talking about politics and herself than in interviewing Atwood about her “diverse range of works”. I was not convinced that Swarbrick had read any of Atwood’s books, or even recognised the titles. Another audience member tweeted: “References by Atwood to Robber Bride, Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Edible Woman were all brushed aside. Comments by Atwood about the independent (and unintended) life of texts could have been tied into Oryx and Crake. All opportunities lost.”

Instead we got an inane question about how Atwood is “able to write people so well” and an inane discussion about protestors who dress as handmaids. I still have no idea how The Testaments works as a sequel, or what happens in it, or why Atwood decided to revisit the characters.

Swarbrick told us they’d be back after an interval to answer reader questions tweeted to #askAtwood. At 9:15pm I wrote: “Still waiting for a question about an actual book.” Atwood was asked her biggest regret: “Not learning to touch type.” Swarbrick didn’t know what that meant. “How do you feel about your books being taught in schools?” Atwood didn’t care. “Do you wear pyjamas while you write?” No. "Would you like to come to dinner?” LOLs all round. One of the tweets asked about the “Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Where did that question come from? Someone who works at Hulu? In New Zealand, The Handmaid’s Tale screens on Lightbox.

I submitted a question about Alias Grace, a novel many Atwood readers love, the TV adaptation screening now on Netflix in New Zealand. It was not asked, perhaps because it was about a book rather than Atwood’s Hopes for the Future, or an anecdote about riding an e-scooter in Wellington, or a question about inspiration – for god’s sake!

After the event, Swarbrick tweeted: “My briefing was to discuss her broader approach to life, writing and thematics, primarily as related to the recent launch of The Testaments in wrapping up Handmaids.” I don’t know what “thematics” means, any more than Atwood understood what RNZ was when Swarbrick MP-splained the controversy over Concert FM. “Royal New Zealand …?” Atwood asked, and the audience around me shuffled and groaned.

“Every woman in Auckland has turned out for Margaret Atwood,” someone tweeted, but what they meant was Pākehā women of a certain age who could afford inflated ticket prices. If Atwood was prickly with Kim Hill in Wellington, she was patronising with Swarbrick in Auckland, mentioning life pre “the internet” in italicised sing-song. She made various claims about indigenous people in Canada that would not withstand scrutiny from a more informed interviewer, especially one who knew the controversy around Atwood’s support of Joseph Boyden and Steven Galloway. Nothing was asked about her Booker Prize share with Bernadine Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker.

I’m familiar with the speaker’s circuit of paying big-name writers high appearance fees. When I worked at Tulane University, we spent several hundred thousand dollars bringing in Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion and Billy Collins, among others. We held the events in our biggest auditoriums on campus, and all tickets were free. Morrison filled the 1800-seat venue, and the audience included hundreds of young people and local families. Billy Collins cost my rich US university a lot of money, but he’s appeared at the Writers Festival in Wellington for the standard fee paid to all writers, local and international.

Our writers’ festivals in New Zealand are our “premiere literary events” where the conversations are wide-ranging and informed, prices are reasonable, and authors sign books for hours after their events. (Murakami needed to get to bed straight away, so he signed 200 books in advance.) As well as international stars, we get to hear from the international obscure-but-fascinating. Writers’ festivals are the major platform for New Zealand writers, from award-winners to debut novelists to slam poets. I know where I’ll be spending my money – after I pay my friend back $131 for one of the most frustrating writers events I’ve ever attended.

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