This is a terrific letter — open, honest, generous, thoughtful and it is the mark of the kind of writer Laurence is, the kind of woman she is. I was at her session, and yes, I felt uncomfortable at the point she got heckled. For the audience, for the other panelists and for Laurence herself. To be honest, I was sitting in the front row, and because I could almost reach out and touch the speakers, at times I almost started joining in! Truely, I had to stop myself and say, no I am NOT on this panel! That is a measure of the vitality of the conversation. Yes, there might be ways to improve as chair (I always feel this no matter what I do!) but this session sparked all kinds of thoughts in my head. All credit to the chair. I was also utterly impressed with Laurence’s level of engagement with the work. When someone takes time out to read your books and to think about your books it is incredibly moving (not all chairs do this!).
I think there are many ways to be a chair. We are all different as this glorious festival demonstrated. You had the nerves and infectious enthusiasm, that utter passion for poetry from John Campbell, and the ensuing poetry conversation with Carol Ann Duffy. A special occasion indeed. You had the measured way of Jim Mora that welcomed the general reader as much as the writer when he spoke with Tim Winton. Equally special. You had the sparkling reach of Noelle McCarthy in conversation with Helen Macdonald. Gold! All different, all producing different kinds of vital conversations. These are all professional talkers so does it make a difference when the chair is a writer?
I like the fact Laurence asks for help here. Perhaps the festivals could build a short list of experienced chairs willing to briefly mentor (answer the questions of) fledgling chairs. In a reply to my festival post Laurence poses some of the questions she might ask.
What about the heckler? I agree with the points below wholeheartedly, but I have been guilty of this to the point I ended up on the front page of the Sunday Star Times and was hounded by reporters. At the now infamous session that Kim Hill chaired where she was rude to the international panelists, and talked at length without allowing them to speak, I yelled at her from the back “We have come here to hear three fabulous writers speak, not three fabulous writers under attack.’ Etched in brain. The audience stood and clapped in unison. I felt like I was going to faint. You had to be in the room to understand what happened. Perhaps I am responsible for this new species of festival hecklers. I am the hugest fan of Kim’s radio show, her interviews are the best but I felt a line was being crossed. I guess Kim has never forgiven me. I was rude. Alice Sebold hugged me. There is always a price when you speak out publicly, even as a heckler.
It all comes back to that word that Eleanor Catton floats: kindness. We need kindness. We need critical debate. But we don’t need to knock the stuffing out of people. Read the article I posted before this one on reviewing books.
If I could, I would reach and give Laurence a hug. Thanks heavens someone did. I admire your courage enormously.
You raised the issue of chairing in your blog and I’d like to reply. At the weekend I chaired a session ‘Art of the Novel’. Despite having been a writer on upwards of 50 panels, it was my first time as a chair for a group of novelists and the combination of my inexperience, nerves, and over-enthusiasm (and probably over-thinking) proved to be a a disaster. Twenty minutes into the session an audience member started heckling me. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but it was soon communicated that I was talking too much and interrupting.
As the Auckland festival becomes larger I can see problems concerning chairing increasing. Audience members clearly have little tolerance for poor chairs so dissatisfaction will increase.
There are some fantastic, skilled chairs out there (Fiona Farrell, Paula Green, Kate de Goldi, Jolisa Gracewood, Emily Perkins to name a few I have had the pleasure of meeting) and I was wondering if there might be value in including a back-stage, 40 minute chairing session at the start or end of each festival day for people like me who have not chaired a panel, or for people who feel a little rusty. I know we are sent notes on chairing (which I re-read, believe me) but it would have been fantastic for my nerves if I had been able to ask an experienced chair a couple of questions concerning problems I had. For example: reading the panelists works raised some complex ideas that I wished to discuss. How could I have communicated those questions, maintaining the complexity of the idea without the question becoming confused, and needing additional clarification or follow-up questions that interrupted the writer? I am sure, that with your experience, you would have ideas on how to tackle those problems.
So, would any of you be prepared to offer help in this way?
I don’t think heckling is the answer to shaking up a poor session. I think it creates a flee or fight response in the chair, makes the audience apprehensive (is it a one-off heckle, is the audience member nuts and will continue heckling, what impression is this making on the panelists), and the panelists uncomfortable (because they are usually nice, sympathetic people).
After my panel – when I had already got the message – a woman came up to me, grabbed my arm and snapped, “learn to button your lips.” It was a shit remark, coming at the end of a bad session, and surplus to requirements. Thank God for the kindness of Stephanie Johnson, Jill Rawnsley and Charlotte Henry.