Garrison Keillor off the roster at Burlington Book Festival


Former “A Prairie Home Companion” host and writer Garrison Keillor is no longer on the roster of speakers at this month’s Burlington Book Festival.

Keillor, who faces multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser.

Festival organizers had faced online criticism for including Keillor, and until Monday, had defended the decision.

Festival executive director Rick Kisonak did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday, but confirmed the cancellation of Keillor’s talk in an interview Monday evening with Seven Days, where he works as a film reviewer.

Also on Monday evening, Keillor responded to the concerns in a Facebook post made on this story.

“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,” he wrote.

Keillor was fired from Minnesota Public Radio last year following allegations that he had inappropriately touched female show guests — allegations he has denied. Later in 2017, the Washington Post dropped Keillor’s syndicated column.

In his post on this story, Keillor said he lost his job over “a mutual email flirtation with a freelance writer.”

Keillor’s inclusion in the Burlington Book Festival had spurred concern and criticism from some quarters. On Facebook, Steve Cormier termed the organizers’ decision “tone deaf.”

“For someone who says they’ve followed Keillor for years, you’ve apparently missed how he’s treated women close to him,” Cormier wrote.

Organizer: Keillor not like Cosby, Weinstein

Kisonak, the festival’s founding director, in a Facebook post Sunday defended the decision to invite Keillor. The former radio show host and writer has made incalculable contributions to literature, he said, urging critics to separate the author’s documented “inappropriate” behavior from that which could be described as “predatory.”

“It has come as a considerable shock that some have been so quick and careless in conflating his recent history with that of people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein,” Kisonak said.

He went on: “I have never invited a sexual predator to the Burlington Book Festival and never would. I don’t condone the inappropriate treatment of women. Never for a minute was it my intention to be insensitive to survivors of sexual mistreatment or abuse.

“Other than responsibly generating revenue for my nonprofit organization, my only interests were in providing Garrison Keillor’s fans with the opportunity to see him while, at the same time, hopefully opening the channel for a conversation with the potential to illuminate, investigate and possibly even heal.”

Keillor had agreed to travel to Burlington and host a fundraising event at his own expense, Kisonak said.

Keillor gives account of how he lost Minnesota Public Radio job

Keillor turned “A Prairie Home Companion” into a public radio staple for decades, sharing whimsical stories, songs and humor. Keillor’s dispatches from a mythical “Lake Wobegon” populated with hard-working Lutherans were particularly beloved, helping lead Keillor to great success in the book publishing world as well.

Keillor retired from “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2016. The following year, reports emerged of allegations of misconduct with women who had been on the show.

Keillor subsequently lost his job at Minnesota Public Radio in November 2017.  His employer cited instances of “inappropriate behavior.”

In his post on this story, Keillor gave an account of what happened:

“I was fired by Minnesota Public Radio for a mutual email flirtation with a freelance writer,” he wrote. “She wrote suggestive emails to me, I wrote back. She stopped, I stopped.

“She worked for the show right through my retirement in June, 2016, and then, a year and a half later, a male employee threatened MPR with bad publicity if they didn’t pay him $250,000. She joined him in a suit, demanding $750,000.

“Neither of them was paid anything, but MPR trashed Writers’ Almanac, my daily show, and put my name out there as a predator for emails that, while embarrassing and rather juvenile, were no more so than hers to me.”

More: Garrison Keillor on MPR firing: ‘How to respond to so many untruths in a short space?’

His post ended with the line about being willing to stay home if his presence at Burlington Book Festival troubles people.

“I wish the Festival well,” Keillor concluded.

A female poet’s perspective on Keillor and ‘appropriate punishment’

Poet Mary Jo Bang, a professor in the English department of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is a featured speaker at the Burlington Book Festival. Reached Monday, she said the issue of Keillor’s invitation would be served poorly by sound-bite dialogue.

“The problem of trying people for sexual harassment, or for any crime, in the court of public opinion is that there can be no certain knowledge of the extent of the offenses, nor any consensus on the appropriate punishment,” she wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press. “Which isn’t to say we should ignore what knowledge we can gain — but I do worry if extreme and permanent ostracism is the chosen punishment for every man, regardless of the extent of his failure to show respect for women.

“There has to be a scale,” Bang continued. “Garrison Keillor shouldn’t be promoted to the Supreme Court, nor should Brett Kavanaugh, but can Garrison Keillor do a kind deed and on his own dime come to the Vermont Book Festival to try to raise funds for the non-profit foundation that organizes it?

“I think he can, although I myself would not go see him,” Bang wrote. “And that’s where one can make their disdain felt — if one feels that, even without all the facts, more punishment, in addition to his losing his job, should be meted out.”

Book Festival sponsor says controversy is unusual

The Vermont Humanities Council, one of the festival sponsors, awarded a grant of $2,000 to the organization in May — before the roster of authors had been announced, council spokesman Ryan Newswanger said.

Controversies over artists and events funded by the council are rare, Newswanger said.

The owner of Eyes of the World, another sponsor of the festival, was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.

This year’s festival runs Oct. 12 – 14, at various venues around Burlington.

On Tuesday morning, tickets to “A Few Words with Garrison Keillor” at the Burlington Book Festival were listed as available at Seven Days Tickets for $45 – $75.

Contact Joel Banner Baird at 802-660-1843 or joelbaird@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @VTgoingUp.

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