Controversial Author Speaks At West Virginia Book Festival, Prompting Protest

Oct 7, 2019

This story was updated on Tuesday, Oct. 8, to include more recent information on the estimated cost of the 2019 West Virginia Book Festival, and what organizers estimate they spent on speakers.

A long-anticipated speech from a controversial author at the West Virginia Book Festival this weekend left some participants wanting to find ways to make the event more inclusive. 

Writer Orson Scott Card addressed an audience of book festival patrons on Saturday, Oct. 5. Monika Jaensson, president of the Kanawha County Public Library Board of Directors, said Card was invited to discuss science fiction novels he’s written, like his popular book Ender’s Game

It’s Card’s essays and actions regarding gay rights that have attracted backlash. Up until 2013, Card was a member of the National Organization for Marriage, which is publicly opposed to the recognition of same-sex marriage.

“We don’t select or screen our authors based on their political or religious views,” Jaensson said. “Many of our people who attend every year and our patrons have suggested he would be a wonderful author to bring in. He has an incredible body of work. His fictional work is really special and it’s something that we wanted to celebrate today.”

Chase Henderson, who co-organized a small protest of about 10 people outside the convention center on Saturday, said he believes the library board should’ve considered Card’s well-documented views before inviting him to speak.

“It’s not like they [the festival] have his books and we’re upset about that,” Henderson said. “It is that the book festival has specifically invited this man ...to what’s supposed to be an all-inclusive, public event. They’re denying that they have a responsibility to Charleston’s community and Charleston’s LGBT community.”

Co-organizer Penny Maple said she would like to see the LGBT+ community recognized in future planning efforts. 

“It’s not just that he's inappropriate, but there are so many more people that they could’ve chosen to give a platform and a voice to, as an author,” Maple said.

Chase Henderson and Penny Maple protest outside the West Virginia Book Festival, opposing the event’s selection of Orson Scott Card as a speaker.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Jaensson said she thinks the board might revisit how it selects authors in the future, “[to] ensure that we continue to bring in top quality authors into our valley.” 

Additionally, Jaensson said, the book festival is about “showcas[ing] West Virginia and West Virginia authors on a more national platform.”

There were about 60 tables for registered vendors at the festival on Saturday, according to information from the festival, many of which were occupied by local and regional authors displaying their work. 

That includes St. Albans author Shelly Jarvis, who has written and published four science fiction novels. Jarvis said this was her second year as a vendor at the book festival, but she’s been in attendance as a patron since the public library revived the event in 2014. 

When Jarvis paid what she said was $125 in March to reserve a vendor’s table, it wasn’t with the intention of making an immediate profit. Instead, Jarvis did it to get her work out there, something she added she’s grateful the festival provides an opportunity for.

“I want to be well known for my books, I want them to be read,” Jarvis said. “I’m not interested in being famous from them, but I have stories that I want to tell and worlds that I want to get out to people.”

Shelly Jarvis is a science fiction writer based in St. Albans, West Virginia. She was a vendor at the West Virginia Book Festival.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The book festival didn’t announce its lineup of speakers until months after the vendor applications and table fees were due. Jarvis said she disagreed with the decision to host Card, but her table fee was nonrefundable and she had invested too much to back out. 

“You also have to consider we pay for parking, we pay for the cost of our books, we pay for anything we set up, promotional items and things like that,” she said. 

Festival organizers estimate they spent $143,694 total on the 2019 event. According to Sarah Mitchell, the main library public service manager, that consists of roughly $62,000 in public funds  and nearly $82,000 in private funds.

Card's estimated $15,000 speech fee was paid entirely with private funds, Mitchell reported. She added organizers spent around $77,800 on speakers total, all of which but $1,000 came from private funds. 

Jarvis said she read Ender’s Game when it first came out years ago. Not having noticed anything overtly hurtful about the book itself, she said she enjoyed it. 

“But it’s not about censoring his work,” she said. “It’s about saying that hatred has no place here. It doesn't matter if his books are fantastic. … Hate speech is not the same as having the right to free speech.”

Going forward, Jarvis said the book festival will have to do more than simply vet its authors to facilitate a more inclusive event.

“This is the fifth year in a row where the science fiction fantasy headliner has been a straight white man. … They’re all fantastic men in science fiction and fantasy, and most of them are allies, but where are the women? And the people of color? And all the representation that we need to have a well-rounded community?”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting was unable to reach Card and representatives for him prior to its deadline. 

In the interest of full disclosure, West Virginia Public Broadcasting is a sponsor for the book festival. 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.