"I have two questions, actually"

Please ban festival audiences from asking questions forever

Madeleine Chapman asks, “Has there ever been a good question asked by an audience member at a literary festival?” Her experience at the Auckland Writers Festival suggests the answer is no, uh-uh, never.

The first question I heard at the Auckland Writers Festival was a woman asking Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein why, in her opinion, there wasn’t enough reporting on campaign funding in the lead up to elections. Goldstein had spent 45 minutes discussing Janesville, her book about a small American town’s struggle with job loss in the recession. Needless to say, it was an irrelevant and bad question. Except it wasn’t just a bad question. It was a bad question nestled within a lengthy monologue. And at the end of it, long after I’d tuned out, the audience cheered. It was hell.

I sat there, having not been to a festival event in years, and wondered how audience Q&A sessions could possibly still exist. Has there ever been a good question from the audience? I’m sure everyone’s heard one or two good ones. Even a broken clock is right twice a day but that doesn’t mean you should organise your life around it.

Over the course of the weekend, I attended seven hour-long events, which means I sat through 105 minutes of audience questions. That’s 110 too many. There isn’t even a spontaneity about it because there are really only five types of audience question and they’re all bad. The Gusher (“this isn’t really a question but I’d love for everyone here to know that I love you”); The Empathiser (“This isn’t really a question but I work in an industry tangentially related to the subject of your book”); The Philosopher (“This isn’t really a question but I have this idea that I would like you to validate”); The Accuser (“This isn’t really a question but I think I’ve found your problem. Please defend yourself”); and The Memoirist (“This isn’t really a question, it’s my life story”).

I saw all of them over three days. Three days that saw 74,000 seats filled in what’s now record attendance for the great literary festival. There was the woman who asked Robert Webb if he regretted any of his earlier material but framed it in a way that accused him of being transphobic in the past. There was the woman who asked David Eagleman about teaching people to adapt to a changing world, except her question boiled down to “how do I convince all the wrong people in the world that I’m right”? And there was the woman (oh no, I’m just now noticing they’re all women. Men asked bad questions too) who, after hearing Damon Salesa speak at length about the value system of Pacific people and why it works, asked if he thought the system was wrong. He said no.

Every single question was at best, boring, and at worst, insulting to both the guest and the rest of the audience. And ending with audience questions meant that every session, instead of wrapping up nicely, shuddered to a halt with the guest having to answer some benign and often irrelevant question from a stranger.

Paula Morris, a very good chair moderator, and Karl Ove Knausgård moments before giving up the mic for bad audience questions

At the end of Diana Wichtel’s session, chair Jeremy Hansen looked to the audience for questions. There was one and it was fine. Then, seeing that no one else had approached the mic, Hansen continued with his own questions until he spotted another audience member approaching. In the end, the Q&A consisted of two questions from the audience and two from Hansen. The audience questions weren’t bad compared to other sessions I’d seen, but Hansen’s were better. Because that’s literally the chair’s job. Admittedly, not all chairs are created equal, and some asked questions that may as well have been from a hapless audience member, but that’s a different issue.

I actually had a question for Diana but three things prevented me from asking it. 1) I’d been sick and didn’t know if my voice would work, 2) I couldn’t figure out a way to frame it clearly while managing to speak for less than 10 seconds, and 3) I figured I could just ask her later.

That’s the worst thing about the audiences this weekend in particular. Every single writer did book signings immediately after their sessions. If there was a burning question that I had to know the answer to, I knew I could just ask the writer afterwards in person. So why was anyone allowed to ask their dumb not-really-questions during the limited sessions that people paid money to see?

Perhaps it’s the demographic. The writers festival crowd is old. That’s not my perception, that’s a fact. I’ve never seen so many Hush Puppies in one place. Maybe literary festivals attract the type of people who don’t fall into a Youtube rabbit hole and end up watching every single interview a writer has ever done. Because if they did, they wouldn’t have any questions.

But then again, maybe we’re all the same and just want to be seen™. When you get up and ask a question in a crowded ASB Theatre, you’re famous for fifteen seconds. By famous I mean your disembodied voice is heard, you’re not seen, and everyone immediately forgets about you unless they’re a journalist who goes on to complain publicly about your bad question. And isn’t that what we all want? This isn’t really a question, more a statement.


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