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.