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Is WordFest muzzling a popular author to keep the Calgary Herald happy? Sure sounds like it

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Calgary author Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan is one of Alberta's most popular and best-read authors.

The Irish-born writer has been asked twice before to read from his new books at WordFest, the 16-year-old international writers' festival held in Calgary and Banff.

So why is this best-selling Calgary author being told he isn't welcome to read from his much-anticipated memoirs at the 2011 WordFest, which is scheduled to take place this year from Oct. 11 to 16?

A combination of servility by WordFest organizers and a nasty hangover from an ugly labour dispute that rocked Alberta a dozen years ago appears to be the answer.

You see, Brennan was active on the union side in the 1999-2000 lockout and strike at the Calgary Herald and deals with what happened during that important period of Alberta labour history in a key chapter of his memoirs. Add to that the fact the Calgary Herald is a "platinum" sponsor of WordFest and you have all the explanation you require.

At any rate, this was apparently enough for WordFest's timorous organizers to tell Brennan he was no longer welcome to read at the event -- conscious, as they no doubt were, that the Herald didn't exactly cover itself with glory in that long-ago labour dispute.

Naturally, that's not WordFest's story. They have told Brennan that with 70 authors reading, gee, there's just no space for him on the roster. But this is hard to swallow, given his long list of best-sellers, plus the facts they've asked him twice before, talked to him about reading again this year and only changed their minds after they'd looked at a draft of his newest book.

So, while it's a good story, as befits a literary festival, and they're likely to stick to it, insiders insist the real reason was their desire not to offend a major sponsor, even if that meant "WordFest" had to play the censor and muzzle a well-known author. Anyway, they told Brennan he could host a reception, an offer that must have been pretty easy for him to turn down.

The last time Brennan read at WordFest it was from The Good Steward, his best-selling biography of long-time Alberta premier Ernest Manning. He is the author of seven other nonfiction titles, including Romancing the Rockies, which won the inaugural Dave Greber Freelance Writers Award, and Scoundrels and Scallywags, which topped the bestsellers' lists for more than 20 weeks.

Presumably it's OK with WordFest's organizers to let any old piker read from a book about E.C. Manning, but it's just not done to let a 25-year veteran of the Calgary Herald and the dean of Alberta popular historians read about the Calgary Herald dispute. Please!

"The Herald lockout is a part of Calgary history," Brennan says. "Readers are entitled to know why more than 90 journalists walked a picket line for eight months in hopes of securing a first collective agreement with their employer."

So, is the Calgary Herald behind the effort to try to shut Brennan up?

Anything's possible, I suppose, but I strongly doubt it. The Herald would very much like to put that unfortunate part of its history behind it. The lockout and strike certainly hurt its business in Calgary, and did no good to its reputation in journalism. There's been a high turnover rate in the publisher's office ever since. Lately, though, the paper has hired some good people and seems to be trying to do better.

So my guess is the that last thing the Herald wants is a controversy fuelled by accusations it's behind an attempt to silence a respected author who has written knowledgeably about a difficult period in the paper's history that plenty of potential customers still remember with distaste.

No, this sounds more like the work of some anxious book-biz bureaucrat desperately trying to toady up to a generous sponsor. Well, by dis-inviting one of the host city's most successful authors because he dared to write about the wrong topic, he or she is going about it the wrong way!

A couple of things need to happen here. Calgary Herald publisher Guy Huntingford needs to pick up the phone and have a private chat with the board and director of WordFest and make it clear they're not doing the Herald any favours with this kind of foolishness.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we can follow the worthy example of Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood, who has led a campaign by her quarter million Twitter followers to save Toronto Public Library branches from the depredations of the philistine neo-cons now running that city.

Atwood would surely support this idea. She has been, after all, a frequent participant in WordFest events, as the organizers repeatedly boast on their website. She was also a strong supporter of the Calgary Herald strikers, walking the dreary picket line with them and speaking eloquently about the importance of their fight for union protection and better journalism.

If you're looking for someone at WordFest to whom to drop a line about this, plenty of names and email addresses can be found on WordFest's "Contact Us" page.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, you’ll soon be able to buy Brennan's memoirs, Leaving Dublin, Writing My Way From Ireland to Canada. The book is scheduled to be out in September, in plenty of time for WordFest, published in Canada by Rocky Mountain Books.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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