The Burlington Book Festival’s unforced error: Garrison Keillor

This weekend, the Burlington Book Festival ignited a bit of a firestorm when it announced that it had invited former A Prairie Home Companion and Writer’s Almanac host Garrison Keillor to the festival. Billed as “A Few Words with Garrison Keillor,” the festival trumpeted his “signature blend of humor, charisma and wisdom,” with tickets running anywhere from $45 for general admission to $75 for a meet and greet after the show. It was an idiotic, unforced error, given that Keillor had been fired from his roles after allegations of inappropriate behavior, and an MPR investigation uncovered a lengthy history of misconduct.

The announcement wasn’t exactly met with open arms: the Burlington Book Festival’s Facebook pace received a number of angry comments, and its sponsors, like Vermont Public Radio, and the Vermont Humanities Council distanced themselves from the invitation, while another, Literary North, pulled out entirely.

The festival felt compelled to issue a defensive statement regarding the invitation, one that made matters worse. Organizer Rick Kisonak opened with a lengthy list of people who had been invited to the festival before (which doesn’t relate to the outrage directed to the festival), and says that the festival has always been free, pointing to other events in the Burlington area that do charge. (Again, so?)

The purpose of bringing in Keillor, it seems, was to fundraise, and the justification was that Keillor is a well known figure will help bring in money. But in doing so, Kisonak absolutely dismisses the accusations, and by extension, the accusers who came forward in the first place. “I have never invited a sexual predator to the Burlington Book Festival and never would,” Kisonak writes, seemingly ignoring the widespread reporting done by Keillor’s own home NPR affiliate, and goes on to say that “Garrison Keillor is not a sexual predator,” saying that people have been conflating what he did with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Speaking to VPR, Kisonak noted that “No insensitivity to anyone was ever the intent.” When is it ever?

This is pretty stunning, and literally made my jaw drop when Taylor Dobbs of Seven Days asked me for some thoughts. It’s a really horrid and idiotic justification for bringing Keillor in. To be clear, there are differences between Weinstein, Cosby, and Keillor’s behavior. But Keillor still engaged in inappropriate behavior for which he was fired. Because there are worse examples out there doesn’t mean that it’s worth ignoring seemingly lesser charges.  Ultimately, the combined outcry culminated yesterday with Keillor’s disinvitation.

But the damage has been done. As I noted on Twitter, the men accused of sexual misconduct across industries largely haven’t gone away. Bill Cosby is currently sitting in prison, Harvey Weinstein is being investigated, but others, like Louis C.K., and Aziz Ansari have been probing the waters for their own comebacks. Garrison Keillor is as well, and Kisonak just played into this larger narrative: the #MeToo movement could very well turn out to be a temporary speed bump for most of the men accused of misconduct, something that they simply wait out, and get back on with their lives, while the people they left behind in their wake still have to contend with the damage.

To be clear, there will be men who will make honest efforts to better themselves, and to make amends. Certainly, times and society are changing. But Keillor has never really seemed to have taken this incident seriously, dismissing it in the press, and even in response to this disinvitation, was snarky and passive aggressive: “I agreed to come to Burlington to raise money for the Festival, but if it troubles people, then I’m glad to stay home and do my hoop-stitching.”

At the end of the day, what is most infuriating about this isn’t that Keillor was invited to the festival — although that was a particularly dumb move — but Kisonak’s dismissive defense of it, highlighting a tone-deaf line of thinking behind the event and its reception. I’ve presented at the event before, but after this, I can safely say that I’ll never present there again.

One thought on “The Burlington Book Festival’s unforced error: Garrison Keillor

  1. Like you, I have been involved with the festival in the past, in various capacities, most of them volunteer. After this, I will never participate in another festival. I had already reached that decision after hearing Kisonak’s weak excuse on the radio.

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