Opinion: Lit Fest Madness

The Controversy Surrounding the 2023 Adelaide Writers Week

The 2023 Adelaide Writers Week has been a lot in the news lately, but not for good reasons. The event has been criticised at two authors appearing at the event, which has seen some authors pull out and some sponsors question their dedication.

It’s a dark shadow being cast on an otherwise incredible festival. This has called some into question about the ideas of freedom of speech and the perceived threat of Russian propaganda. The controversy has also had calls for the new director, Louise Adler, to resign.

With all this, what caused this fallout to happen? Is this all madness, or are the reasons valid? And certainly, what could implications be if some changes are made to the line-up? Come discover the unfolding controversy behind the 2023 Adelaide Writers Week.

Note: Things may change as well regarding the event after my posting of this article too as this is all still unfolding at the time of writing.

CW: War and controversial topics like antisemitism will be mentioned in this piece. Reader discretion is advised.

The Sparks That Started the Fire

The sparks that started this fire around the 2023 Adelaide Writers Week came from one of the authors appearing at the festival: Palestinian American author Susan Abulhawa. Author of Against the Loveless World and Mornings in Jenin, Abulhawa has also made a name for herself for her views on Israel and the current War in Ukraine. Using Twitter as her platform, Abulhawa has made comments on Volodymyr Zelensky, accusing him of trying to drag the world into World War Three. She has also described him as “more dangerous” than the Russian President and has tweeted previously to “denazify Ukraine”.

These tweets and her views have labelled her an ‘antisemitic’ and ‘Pro-Russian’ by multiple media outlets and organisations. Adelaide Writers Week in turn have been criticised for providing her a platform, which has caused further uproar. Media outlets and other authors have called it promoting antisemitism and allowing Russian propaganda to penetrate Australian minds.

Images: The front covers of Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World and Mohammed El-Kurd’s RIFQA, the two authors at the centre of the controversy around the 2023 Adelaide Writers Week. Source links found below.

The sparks only kept coming with the tweets from another writer scheduled to appear at the event: Palestinian author and poet Mohammed El-Kurd. Like Abulhawa, El-Kurd, who lives in East Jerusalem, has been accused of antisemitism, particularly for his views on Israel. His comments on social media and writings are what have been the main points of controversy. Again, media outlets have criticised Adelaide Writers Week for giving him a platform.

Of all of these controversies, the main one that turned this into a bushfire was Louise Adler’s actions. She stood behind these authors, calling it freedom of speech to allow them to appear at the festival. Randa Abdel-Fattah, another author scheduled to appear at the festival, has defended them too. This defending of them has only made the fire burn harder, raising calls for Adler to resign, if she doesn’t cancel the appearances of Abulhawa and El-Kurd.

Madness or Valid?

Putting all this into consideration, is this madness or all valid surrounding Adelaide Writers Week?

Schwartz Media owner Morry Schwartz, owner of Black Inc and The Saturday Paper, has joined the call for Alder to resign. This comes after law firm MinterEllison pulled their sponsorship of the festival. Black Inc publishing has 15 authors under its umbrella scheduled to appear at the festival. Three Ukrainian authors scheduled to appear at the festival too have withdrawn. These came not long after Adler’s defence against Abulhawa. Adding further salt to the wound is South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas boycotting the authors, saying he won’t attend to hear them speak.

All these controversies have gone into overdrive across the Australian media. Of these, the News Corp media channels have been the most critical. News Corp, which owns The Australian, Sky News and The Advertiser (a sponsor of the festival) have been critical about this decision. The controversy has caused The Advertiser to question their sponsorship of the festival. This has descended into madness on their side too, with Sky News commentator Sharri Markson bringing the ABC into the argument too. Markson has criticised the public funded broadcaster journalists appearing for not making comments, all totally baseless and just another poor attempt at attacking the ABC.

After everything presented, this is mixed between madness and valid. For the valid reasons first. I personally don’t agree with Abulhawa’s opinions and think they’re ill-thought out, but I see the angle she’s coming from. She’s describing the other side of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, something we’re not used to hearing in the western world. As for El-Kurd, I haven’t got enough knowledge on him and his reasons to form an opinion. Yet, from what I’ve read and discovered about the conflict between Palestine and Israel, I get where he’s coming from too. We’re hearing two sides of a conflict, something that is always going to offend one group. It’s no different to hearing about atrocities the Allies committed in World War Two.

As for the madness, this is really a major mess, made worse by the media. Sky News and The Australian have stoked the fire as the festival is going against their views. Bringing the ABC into it is also completely pointless. For those who don’t know, News Corp Australia tries to find any reason to attack the ABC, no matter how unrelated it is. Their stories also speak of Russian propaganda, which again is completely unfounded. Just because an author is critical of the Ukraine side of the Russian-Ukrainian War doesn’t mean its Russian propaganda. In war, there is no black and white, only grey. I’ve read numerous books and watched enough war documentaries over the years to know this is true. War makes humans grey and makes us do things we’d normally not do.

What May Happen If Things Change

There are two ways Adelaide Writers Week may go considering these controversies. If Adler stands her ground and the authors appear, it might see more sponsors and other authors withdraw. This may come from the publishers themselves, thanks to comments by Schwartz Media. It may make selections thinner, if Schwartz Media follow through with this.

On the other hand, if the cries of cancel are heard, authors, I predict, would withdraw in droves. Of these, Randa Abdel-Fattah would possibly be one of them. To lose her from the event would be a downer, considering her storytelling is incredible and I’m interested in hearing her speak. Cancelling the authors would raise various questions too about “cancel culture”. This would push further debates, descending into total madness in the Australian literary scene.

Going either way for this year’s Adelaide Writers Week is certainly going to offend someone. Yet, that’s just what every book published does; it always offends someone.

Will This Change My View on The Festival?

All this controversy around this year’s Adelaide Writers Week doesn’t change my view on it. The only thing that might stop me attending this year is finances and for me starting work full-time at the same time it’s running. I have been waiting for Writers Week for months and am not going to let controversy stop me from enjoying it.

Some of the books me and my Fiancé picked up from the 2022 Adelaide Writers Week. This event has introduced me to so many fantastic authors over the years, hence why this recent controversy will not influence my opinions on the festival.

As for controversy, I am someone who runs towards it. I am someone who wants to find out why something is controversial. It also makes me more interested into reading the books of Susan Abulhawa and Mohammed El-Kurd. If anything, this controversy has put them high on my radar to read their books. Controversy is also why I’ve previously read books like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s the only way I can form an opinion on them and understand what it is about them that upset so many people.

And through all this madness, there is one thing, I feel, that has been forgotten. The theme of this year’s Adelaide Writers Week is ‘Truth Be Told’. This year’s festival is one where a lot of truths will come out. Truth is sometimes not an easy thing to swallow and can challenge beliefs, be them personal or collective. With truth comes controversy, be it good or bad. The truth will also always offend someone because of it challenging them. People can either face up to it or choose to ignore it and cry bloody murder.

For those interested in finding out more about the 2023 Adelaide Writers Week, check out the link to their website below.


Image Sources



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