Abandon Normal Instruments: A Call for Change in New Zealand Literary Arts

  • by Kirsten McDougall


    In 2015 the public face of the literary arts in Aotearoa is in a sad state, a worn discarded toy that many people have forgotten how to play with. Publishers here and internationally have been caught like a possum in headlights by the dramatic changes to the industry and society at large. Those responsible for the guardianship of the literary arts in Aotearoa have failed to respond adequately to the pressures they are under and they are stagnating. It is time for writers and arts advocates to abandon their normal instruments, their usual ways of working. It is time to show real leadership and move the scene to a position of renewal. We need to articulate the value of literature to our society and clearly demonstrate the various ways it enriches our existence.

    Literature is a part of, and comments on, our cultural, social, political, spiritual and historical spheres. It entertains us and offers us hedonistic pleasures. It is ennobling and edifying as well as delightfully immoral, and sometimes both at once. It points to truth as well as questions the idea of truthfulness. Research shows that reading literature builds empathy, enabling the reader to climb inside the heads of characters of different philosophies, genders and cultures, and to imagine the world from their point of view. Creative writing—be it fiction, non-fiction or poetry—is a unique way to communicate ideas in a form that is a direct and personal experience for a reader. It allows us to ruminate on the nature of identity and life in infinitely various ways. Literature encompasses the whole of human experience inside elastic forms that the writers in various ways conform to and subvert. It is no one thing at any one time.

    To argue the value of literary arts using a consumer model is a dead-end street. The best literature doesn’t get written to boost tourism numbers or increase GDP, even though these are welcome side-effects. The values of literature as stated above are far more important and exciting. Moreover, the ‘market’ as we used to know it is in trouble.

    It is no new analogy to describe musicians and writers as canaries in the mineshaft of the digital era. First record companies and then publishers saw their resources eroded by the frictionless transmission of physical and digital copies, both authorized and unauthorized. The expectations of consumers that entertainment can be free or at least as cheap as we can possibly get it, and that it is our right as a consumer to be able to download the latest song, film or book whenever we wish has put enormous pressures on traditional entertainment industries, retailers, and of course, the artists producing the work.

    It seems certain from this angle that the publishing industry as we knew it in the twentieth century is dead. Brian Eno compares the bubble of time in music history when records made artists and recording companies a fortune to a period in the 19th century where whale blubber was sold for great profit. When the fuel source changed from whale blubber to gas, a whole industry died. Some writers and their publishers will continue to make good money from books that hit their stride for the variety of unpredictable reasons that some books do, but the golden years of book sales are gone. On the upside, the diversity of books now being published has increased. Literature is no longer the stomping ground of white, educated men, but of people from many different cultures, personal orientations and economic backgrounds.

    Due to a combination of societal and market changes, the ways in which literature has traditionally been celebrated and supported in our country by a mixture of private and state funding initiatives, have taken a pummeling. Here’s a brief survey of losses. In the past eighteen months the sponsorship of two major awards—the New Zealand Book Awards, formerly sponsored by New Zealand Post, and the BNZ Literary Awards, which was funded by the bank for the past 55 years, has been dropped. A recent email from Booksellers NZ announced that NZ Book Month has been postponed indefinitely due to lack of funding. Last month came the announcement that Te Papa Press was ‘under review’, with the proposal that publishing ceases for a period of 4–5 years. The trust which administers the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, in which a writer travels to Menton, France for a year’s writing residency, run since 1970, has announced that it is joining forces with the Arts Foundation in an attempt to secure permanent ongoing funding to preserve the Fellowship. The Fellowship is still being offered, but with a reduced stipend. Words on Wheels, a valuable writers’ tour that went to regions starved for literature events, has fallen by the wayside. Add to this, the shrinking space in mainstream media channels for reviews and features on New Zealand writers as editors come under pressure from their giant media owners to feature what is relevant, what is ‘new’.

    The agencies involved in the support of our literature such as the literature wing of Creative New Zealand, Publishers Association of NZ, Booksellers NZ, NZ Society of Authors, NZ Book Council and the newly formed Book Awards Trust, must feel fatigued by all of this. The literary culture that they have been a part of for years is now in a destabilized position. From the losses stated above an outsider might make a fair assumption that our society does not value its literature. It seems fair to warn that a culture that does not dynamically protect its literary culture puts that culture at risk.

    As a society, as writers and readers we need to constructively question our agencies and the initiatives they run and ask if they are supporting our literature in a way that is relevant today. Some of the questions to pose are: What are the most efficient ways to support writers to write their best work? Who are the best people and what are the best ways to provide guardianship of our literary culture? What does a national book prize that best celebrates our writing look like? What are the best ways to communicate the value of the literature being produced in NZ right now? What do we want our literature’s place to be in our country and amongst the literatures of the world? These are not easy questions to ask or answer—but we need to start seriously considering these points to avoid further attrition of our literary culture.

    People still read and regard the ideas generated by writers and books as important and vital. Writers festivals such as the Auckland Writers Festival and WORD Christchurch Festival in 2014 were impressive, with both festivals reporting significant rises in attendance. A Lit Crawl, held in Wellington last year attracted large crowds and a much younger audience than typically seen at the larger mainstream and more expensive festivals. Events like this are vital to keep renewing literary experiences and audiences. People go to writers’ festivals for creative and intellectual nourishment. Festivals such as these are among the few highlights in the literary year at the moment, a place where readers and writers gather to talk and celebrate literature.

    At this point suggestions are useful. In terms of generating discussion for ways in which we might create new initiatives for literature, I like the possibilities that might arise from cross-pollination between practitioners from different art forms. Regular salons could be held that focus on specific issues in the arts. Some salons could be solely focused on issues in the literary arts, with others focused on the wider arts landscape. Both versions should include experienced practitioners from other disciplines, and even interested business people—what, for instance, can a writer learn from a band that promotes and tours their work? What fruitful discussions can music managers have with literary organisations? What can a scriptwriter learn from a painter? What are the pressures artists share and those that differentiate them? Cross-pollination of ideas is useful for artists and arts advocates. Such discussions should not be limited to what an artist is creating right now, but be ambitious and include political and social ideals, that in turn feed the artists’ content. Information collected from salon forums could then be shared online with other salons—and these salons can happen throughout the country. They need not be the domain of main centres or any one organization, but belong to those with the energy and passion to create them.

    Another suggestion is for a complete overhaul to the way in which our book awards are organised and run. One of the big complaints from writers has been the lack of a national book awards this year. An interesting case study and an alternative to what we have had is the new NZ film awards, ‘the Moas’. After the NZ film awards split from the TV awards in 2012, Ant Timpson and Hugh Sundae organised the Moas as a way to celebrate the achievements of NZ filmmakers in lieu of nothing else happening. Last year, they ran the awards from a combination of ticket entry, sponsorship and Film Commission funding, you can read more about it here.

    The idea of a book awards as an inclusive celebration, an annual party for writers from all walks of literature in Aotearoa, not just for prize finalists, is appealing. Just as the APRA awards and ‘the Moas’ do, a judging panel could be made up of international judges—a way in which to initiate awareness of our literature among international readers, as well as avoiding the issue of difficulty in finding suitable judges in a small pool. The book awards don’t need to belong to booksellers or publishers. Indeed, their most natural home is with readers and literary advocates—those people who will articulate and celebrate literary values first and foremost. Let the sales in bookshops follow from a well-planned promotion and an exciting party event that people want to go to and be seen at.

    There will be other ideas that writers and arts advocates have. They should voice them. Now is not the time for defensive responses or inertia. Without a thriving national literature that is celebrated and supported, we become a barren nation. With the resources available to us, and with a proud, strong voice, we need to communicate the vital, absolute necessity of our literature to those who can support it with money and answering pride.




    Kirsten McDougall’s novel-in-stories, The Invisible Rider, was published in 2012. She works as a publicist for Victoria University Press and as a private literary manager.


    NB: The title of this editorial, ‘abandon normal instruments’, comes from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card deck.


What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

  • viciousimagery

    May 11, 2015

    Great post, full of food for thought.

    I’m an expat Kiwi, resident in the UK where there seems to be a different book award announced every week. As a consequence, I’m not convinced they necessarily move the dial much – if at all. Local TV hosts Richard & Judy have a book club with far greater impact than even the Man Booker in terms of attention, sales and – crucially – fostering discussion and engagement with the books involved.

    As a part-time lecturer on a Creative Writing MA over here, I wonder about the place of education when talking about NZ literary arts. Schools [and libraries] have a massive role to play in encouraging engagement with reading and writing.

    I’ve no doubt your call to arms is absolutely essential, but might there be some value is looking at the complete life cycle of NZ writers and readers too?

  • Breton Dukes

    May 12, 2015

    All New Zealand writers forgo royalties for the next five years. All royalties go back into buying their books. These books are bled into schools, universities, homes. Free books for those who might not normally be exposed. What’s to lose?

    • Elizabeth Knox

      May 18, 2015

      A slight problem being that the self employed writer living on royalties might lose their house to their bank.

  • Nicola Legat

    May 12, 2015

    Dear Kirsten

    Just a note that the NZ Book Awards have most definitely not been dropped. They will resume next year as part of the Auckland Writers Festival, with an exciting, engaging and relevant new format — and putting writers where the readers are. I think we have telegraphed this fairly widely.

    Best regards

    Nicola Legat
    NZ Book Awards Trust

    • invisiblerider

      May 12, 2015

      Thanks for your response, Nicola. I didn’t know they were going to be a part of the AWF. I look forward to hearing about the new format.

  • Catriona Ferguson

    May 12, 2015

    Excellent thought-provoking piece that will create more discussion about what is happening for readers and writers in New Zealand. As the article points out the NZ Book Council’s Words on Wheels touring programme did indeed fall by the wayside for a number of years. Happily though it was brought back to life in April this year. A new partnership with the Festival of Colour in Wanaka meant that we were able to run events which reached more readers and writers – we wholeheartedly agree that its important to build on what we do have and find new ways of operating to get important activities off the ground.

  • invisiblerider

    May 12, 2015

    Hi there viciousimagery, thanks for reading and your comment.

    I’m not sure I’ve understood what you are asking in regards to ‘the complete life cycle of NZ writers and readers’—is this a question about how literature is being taught and discussed in schools? If so—yes that’s a good question to ask and certainly plays into a wider picture of how a society experiences its literary culture. Initiatives such as fellowships, writers’ events and prizes are a part of the same experience. I am immensely grateful for those teachers who helped guide me in my reading and learning at school and university, they are important people. I also see the positive effect such teachers are having on my own children’s reading and understanding of the world.

    I’m very much aware through news stories and my own experiences at our local school, that the delivery of excellent programmes in schools and libraries are under the same enormous resource pressures that many sectors are, and this is a concern.

    I go back to the literature values stated at the beginning of my editorial—as a society we need to state the importance of these values, and we need to demand that any decisions are made with these values as guidelines—we need to sing them, agitate with them and vote with them. In NZ right now, it is very hard to know exactly what guides many of the decisions being made—any vision, if it is there at all, is hard to perceive.

  • Alexander Douglas Wright

    May 13, 2015

    Hi Kirsten,

    I agree.

    In 2011 I wrote some leaflets, including one titled ‘Reading and Writing.’
    I’ve made a two minute video of them which you might enjoy.
    It’s pinned to the top of the wellingtonwoodworks face book page:

    I hope this resonates with you. I’d be keen to talk more. At the moment I’m particularly interested in what I regard as ‘systemic’ questions and the potential for charitable organisations and co-operative business activities to meet societal needs.

    All the best + hope to hear back from you.


    • invisiblerider

      May 13, 2015

      Hi Alexander

      Thanks for reading. I’m keen to hear what you mean by “‘systemic’ questions and the potential for charitable organisations and co-operative business activities to meet societal needs”. That sounds interesting, but I don’t know what it means! You could explain more here perhaps?

      Best wishes,

  • Hera Lindsay Bird

    May 13, 2015

    Hi Kirsten

    Thanks for a great essay, and a thought provoking read. After reading this, and the questions you raised, I shared this article in a group & raised some questions of my own, and Ellie suggested I bring them here for a more public discussion.

    I have mixed feelings about the erosion of some of the recent literary awards & institutions in this country. On one hand, I agree that the public funding of literary institutions is essential, because when the market drives production, there are so any necessary & diverse voices that cease to be financially viable, and vanish off the face of the planet. On the other hand, many of our literary prizes and institutions do a poor job of supporting these voices anyway. Our literary awards, prize winners, laureateships, prime ministers awards, cultural air time is so often taken up with white institutional poets, and it’s hardly surprising that NZ’s literary culture is failing to thrive without the constant intake & recognition of new, diverse voices.

    It seems to me like NZ literature is at a crossroads here, and while I think it’s important for funding to exist to support people working outside of the cultural mainstream, I don’t want our literary institutions to just return to the status quo.

    As I said to Ellie, I don’t know what the right path forward is, and I don’t have any answers. How do you create change in a troubled system you’re complicit in? How do you go on building a career and doing the work you love in a culture that’s not safe for everyone?

    The initial questions I asked were:

    What part of these institutions should we be worried about preserving?
    Are the financial aspects of the literary prize circuit doing more harm than good?
    How can we better encourage & support more diverse voices?
    Do diverse voices even need encouragement, or are they thriving, and just need white NZ literary culture as it stands to eat itself?
    Even if we got all the awards up & running again, what, if anything would change?
    What are some practical things we can actually do to make our literary culture a more habitable place for everyone?
    How important are financial incentives and monetary rewards?
    Should we all just settle down, and read more comic books?
    Am I turning into Ayn Rand?
    What other, essential questions we are failing to ask ourselves?

    Thanks for the wonderful read, all the best

    • invisiblerider

      May 13, 2015

      Hi Hera

      Thanks for reading, it’s great to hear your ideas which have got me thinking further, which is exactly what I want to be motivated to do.

      I absolutely agree that one of our jobs is to question the work of our institutions, and think that this is one of the important things that good art does, act as a questioner, provoker, reflector (and many other things besides) of where we’re at. Certainly, the literature I’m most interested in reading does this (from Piketty to Peanuts).

      Complacency is not a friend of interesting art–and if an institution/organisation says they are there to support and promote excellence or diversity or groundbreaking work (and we can talk for many hours about what any of these terms encompass), then they can’t be complacent in how they go about it. Nor should we as artists be complacent in our relationships with them (be it as someone who is outside an institution or someone who is within it).

      As Groucho Marx said ‘I refuse to belong to any club that will have me as a member.’ Is it that it’s too difficult then, for an artist to belong to an institution, simply because they will wish to constantly question and poke that institution? Do you make change from inside or outside the institution?

      More questions, there’s always more!

      I too wonder if some of the prizes and fellowships etc that are under pressure are ones that should continue in their current guise and perhaps now is a good time to look at changing such frameworks. It’s certainly presents a good time to create new ideas that might attract the vital energy that seems to be missing from the scene.

      ‘How do you create change in a troubled system you’re complicit in?’ I wonder this myself, everyday, in many different situations. This question is the biggest question for me right now. I don’t have an answer but I read and read and listen to people and I hope to get somewhere. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything solid, and I hope you’ll do the same.

      In the meantime, please write on, poet.


  • Eleanor Catton

    May 13, 2015

    I highly recommend CAPITALIST REALISM by Mark Fisher (which Alex Mitcalfe Wilson read as recipient of this grant, incidentally) and WHAT MONEY CAN’T BUY: THE MORAL LIMITS OF MARKETS by Michael J. Sandel, both of which discuss the encroachment of market thinking into every aspect of contemporary life– conscious and subconscious, “mainstream” and “alternative”, public and private.

  • Sarah Jane Barnett

    May 14, 2015

    Hi Kirsten,

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful opinion piece. I’ve also been disheartened with some of what’s happened over the last year with New Zealand literature. That said, as you point out the literary festivals are going strong as well as the addition of new festivals (LitCrawl) that attract a younger and more diverse audience.

    Here are some of my mostly unformed thoughts.

    When I worked in the museum sector I found Museums Aotearoa – a centralized ‘independent peak professional organisation for museums and those who work in, or have an interest in, museums’ – useful in terms of bringing the sector together. From my knowledge, we don’t have anything like this (do we? have I missed it?). I wonder if we would benefit from a ‘Literature Aotearoa’; an organisation that brings together the diverse groups that are involved with the creation and promotion of literature in this country (NZSA, Book Council, CNZ, publishers, festival organisations, Booksellers NZ, NZPS, creative writing teachers, writers etc.). This sort of organisation could do many things – a yearly conference, be something to hang the NZ Book Awards off (I like your idea of it being open invitation and inclusive), and to be a centralised point for the dissemination of information about and the promotion of NZ literature. What I’m saying is, I wonder if we can be more strategic as a sector?

    On the other hand, the production of literature is becoming more democratic and decentralised. I’m hearing new voices. There are many (many!) small groups and organisations involved in the production, promotion, and consumption of literature from independent publishers (for example Hue & Cry Press, or Seraph Press), zines, blogs (such as NZ Poetry Shelf), podcasts (such as Pip Adam’s, Better Off Read), Facebook groups (Sorrow Power Horses), and online journals (Sweet Mammalian). In terms of cross pollination between disciplines, recently I’ve been involved in creating a text based art installation with Berlin based artist, Ruth Buchanan. At the moment I can barely keep up with what’s happening in Wellington, let alone the country! Many of these projects are making use of digital tools – even this website is an example of how New Zealand literature is being decentralised and deinstitutionalised. In this way, I don’t think literature is in trouble – just how New Zealand literature has been in the past. I wonder if seeing the big awards dying off is part of a natural evolution of New Zealand literature?

    The question for me is how do we both encourage this evolution while also providing an inclusive sector-wide support network?

    In terms of the market, and the value of literature, I feel it’s most valued the most when looking back – a nation has defining texts that are part of its national identity (for example, An Angel At My Table by Janet Frame, Man Alone by John Mulgan, or The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt to name something recent). While these texts are created by a single writer, the ideas are often informed by the relationships that person has with other writers. In that way, it’s narrow-minded to only support the best and the brightest literary stars (and I say this as someone who has received, relatively, a lot of financial support, for which I’m very grateful). I believe it is a diverse literary scene that produces culture-changing and challenging literature.

    I also believe that, no matter what, writers will continue to write, and that those voices will always be important.


    • invisiblerider

      May 19, 2015

      Hi Sarah

      Since I wrote this editorial I’ve started to think that writers who think themselves as being ‘outside’ the ‘centre of literature’ – and I put those words in quotes because I feel that they’re dubious catch-all phrases and need a lot of thinking about to really understand, and for writers to really explain what they mean by that. I’m a published writer and I work for a publishing house with a strong reputation, but I do not see myself as an ‘insider’. I see lots of vigorous different literary groups doing some really interesting projects. Yes, things like PM awards go to those writers who have been around for an age – but I doubt I’ll ever hear Jack Lasenby (who got one last year) tell us he feels like an insider. Perhaps by nature, writers feel themselves to be outsiders. It’s a form that’s created alone after all, not a team sport.

      Regarding diversity of voices: A friend recently commented to me that all the writers she grew up with in the syllabus were outsiders. Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Keri Hulme. I found that really interesting. I think we do have diverse literature and online publishing plus the journals you mention continue to make this stronger.

      What I do think needs to be addressed is the idea of how we make literature valued in our wider culture. Attending the AWF15 this past weekend made me realise how we still look to the two powerhouses of publishing – London and New York – to tell us we’re good. I learned that it is almost impossible for an Australian publisher to buy rights for ANZ if they’re competing against a UK publisher – who will see themselves as having first dibs on what is known as ‘Commonwealth’ rights. We’re still a colony of old Blighty in that respect. The odds of a NZer getting published (or distributed) in Aust, really only increase once they have a UK publisher, and to get a UK publisher you need an agent. Hands-up how many NZ writers have agents? I bet it’s under ten. I’d say that if you do get an agent and UK publisher your potential NZ publisher will then lose out on rights here – b.c they’ll go to whomever owns Commonwealth rights.

      I say all this because I think it feeds into a weird cultural cringe we still have around our writing. I don’t see this in music so much. Of course, it’s possible that some writers don’t give a damn about being published or even care to think about the international scene (for almost all NZ poets all of the above is completely irrelevant anyway) – and that’s fine – but for myself, as someone who wants an audience as a writer and as someone who works in publishing who is very keen to learn more about what is a very convoluted system – then I think understanding how it works is important. I think Rosabel Tan’s piece on this site is valuable to think about how literary culture is valued – the paucity of good criticism being the gist of her piece.

      So there’s the rights issues, criticism and the prizes/fellowships – which need shake up. But it’s more than that. It’s how we talk about our literature to our children and our parents and our friends, it’s how it’s taught in schools and universities. It’s how it’s purchased in the few remaining bookstores we have or shared in libraries and venues via zines and readings. I like the idea of creating space to talk about literature and to argue some of the points that have been raised – I really like your idea of ‘Literature Aotearoa’ by the way.

      Finally, I came across this today – in Argentina [http://www.mhpbooks.com/argentina-holds-foreign-books-at-customs/] they pass laws to protect their bookstores and literature and ‘a law was passed stating that one book must be exported for every one imported’ (this in a link off the main article). Which must have free market thinkers in a rage. Interesting to read how different cultures cope with cultural imperialism.