books readings julie bindel
(Image: Unsplash/Jessica Ruscello)

Poor Mark Rubbo. The owner of the Readings chain of bookshops has been at the centre of Melbourne’s cultural life for 50 years. But this week he’s found himself stuck in the middle of an ideological war.

On one side is genderqueer young adult fiction author Alison Evans. On the other is 58-year-old English feminist writer Julie Bindel. Both have been invited to speak at Readings, which hosts author events most nights of the week. Bindel spoke at an event in 2018 while Evans, along with transgender author Juno Dawson, is scheduled to host an event in a few weeks time, on February 25.

Evans, an award-winning Melbourne author who writes queer sci-fi for young adults, tweeted on Monday: “I agreed to do this event providing Readings publicly apologise for hosting Julie Bindel. Where is this apology?”

The next day, the bookshop put a statement on its website: “Readings prides itself on ensuring everyone in our community feels safe, respected and considered. We apologise for any hurt caused by highlighting the work of an author whose current stance is to divide our community.

“To that end, Readings regrets programming Julie Bindel in 2018 and thank our community for opening the dialogue with us.

“Readings is committed to considering the work of all authors to ensure our future program of events, reviews and discussions remain relevant and diverse.”

It is believed that Rubbo did not write the apology but, as the owner and managing director of Readings, did give final approval.

As soon as it was released, all hell broke loose. The story, thanks to Bindel’s high profile, has gone global. Stories appeared in The Times and the UK Spectator as well as The Age. Bindel and her supporters accused Readings of anti-intellectual censorship. The company’s head office has received hundreds of critical emails, many of which threatened to never again to darken the doorstep of a Readings bookshop. Twitter did what it usually does and erupted into a firestorm of threats and outrage.

Rubbo is said to have been devastated by the reaction and, according to Bindel’s publisher Spinifex Press, apologised after they approached him. The publisher wrote on its Facebook page that the bookseller had “sent us a written statement to this effect, referencing Julie’s tireless efforts championing the rights of women and girls. He wrote that as a bookseller for nearly 50 years, he strongly believes that bookshops should be a home to all ideas and is saddened at the tendency to self-censor. He told us he would be posting a second statement.”

Rubbo has now found himself at the centre of a conversation which is dividing communities, mainly on generational lines. “Gender-critical” feminists, which include Julie Bindel, believe that discrimination against women and girls is based on their biological sex. As such, this group argues, they are entitled to sex-based rights and protections such as segregated refuges, rape crisis centres, prisons and specialist healthcare.

People on the other side of this argument believe that anyone can “self-identify” as a woman and literally become a woman. Hence the social media catchphrases #sexnotgender and #transwomenarewomen. Bindel and Evans (with Dawson) are on opposite sides of this divide.

The Readings managing director, who has been working tirelessly to keep his 120 staff at seven bookstores employed during the Melbourne lockdown, this week spoke to The Times, saying he had regrets.

“Bookshops should be homes to all ideas,” he said. “Julie Bindel has done amazing work for the women’s movement particularly in the area of violence against women. Her views on transgender people are particularly controversial and have caused distress in that community. The fact that we programmed an event with Juno Dawson brought it back to the surface. Our post was an ill-considered attempt to acknowledge the distress that our event with Julie Bindel may have caused even though it occurred some time ago. I regret the apology.”

All retailers are mindful of the consumer boycotts triggered by last year’s statement from Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who said that while she supported transgender rights, she was a gender-critical feminist. UK-based chain The Body Shop, which sell soap and skincare, criticised her on Facebook — in a somewhat light-hearted way — and the backlash was instant with the subsequent boycott of the shops by certain groups who disagreed with the store’s statement.

While soap and books are not similar, they are both predominantly bought by women, who are not averse to using their purchasing power to express disapproval.

Bindel is a long-time campaigner for women’s rights, with a particular focus on protecting sex workers from abuse and has written several books on the topic. At the 2018 Readings event, Bindel wasn’t even there to discuss transgender rights; she was talking about her book The Pimping of Prostitution.

The other person at the event was Victorian Women’s Trust executive director Mary Crooks, who was asking questions of Bindel.

Crooks said this week that she didn’t believe in “de-platforming”.

“In my view if we’re not careful we will find that the capacity for considered safe, respectful and enlightened debate is being eroded before our eyes,” she said.

“The key is to understand people’s position and ideas, not stomp all over them.”

Julie Bindel is publishing another book this year, due to come out in July.
Mark Rubbo told me this morning that when it came out, he would stare down any pressure to boycott the book.

“There is no way we will not stock it.”