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The Monday argument: New Zealand’s literary establishment should be taken out and shot

Peter King caused an enormous and very welcome stir last week when he mounted a passionate free-market argument which attacked the Book Council, academics, librarians, the Listener, the Spinoff, Creative New Zealand, intellectuals, wine drinkers, cheese eaters, oh yes and writers – basically everyone who runs the seething little village of the literary power elite. Time for his sequel!

A few days ago I posted a Medium story about the New Zealand Book Council’s research findings. I was pretty mad.

Twitter lit up, Facebook went ballistic and various people emailed me and even texted me, mostly to say “good on ya”. It seems, as numerous people said, I had given vent to their own frustrations with the Book Council and the cosy relationships that it, and Creative New Zealand, have with a selected minority of writers to the exclusion of all others.

I wrote, in part, “New Zealand literature is a cliquey little club run by a certain group of writers for the benefit of that certain group of writers. They give each other gongs, awards and prizes; they give each other trips; and they subsidise each other’s collections of poetry. They have their own little publication (NZ Books) in which they celebrate one another or pass snide (and some believe actionable) remarks about pretenders to the club.

“By contrast I know New Zealand romance writers who sell by the bucketload, who get zero funding from Creative New Zealand, and make good money exporting New Zealand stories to the world. The romance writers aren’t alone. New Zealand has YA and science fiction writers, fantasy writers, crime writers, all sorts of writers, even writers of trashy erotica, who are part of this country’s inner life and expression. I bet none of those focus groups had any idea of that.

“But then these are writers who will never appear in NZ Books, or the Spinoff Review of Books, or the Listener or on Nine to Noon. And what does the New Zealand Book Council do for them? The body that has a mission is to champion the lifelong engagement of New Zealanders in reading, and to lead the promotion and nurturing of New Zealand writers, writing and books? Fuck all.

“The problem with the New Zealand Book Council is that it’s completely failed to keep up with the times. Why? Because the ’70s crowd hung on to power for too long as the world changed around them. And the influence was remarkable. Even as late as five years ago New Zealand publishers would sniffily decline to consider Romance, Fantasy or Science Fiction. If Hollywood acted like that it would be bankrupt. No Star Wars? No Lord of the Rings? And not surprisingly a lot of New Zealand’s sniffy old publishers have gone.”

Then, on the subject of funding, I wrote, in capital letters in case people didn’t notice: “NZ LITERATURE DOESN’T GET ENOUGH FUCKING PUBLIC MONEY.

“Consider how much Creative New Zealand gets by comparison to New Zealand On Air. In total NZ music gets $4.6 million. The  New Zealand Film Commission gets $27 million from the Crown, and TV gets $68 million.

“So why one rule for one art, and a different one for the other?

“Literature has been about wine and cheese for the patronising Minister, and a bunch of literati chickens ferociously henpecking each other for chicken feed.

“For too long our literature infrastructure has languished in the hands of librarians and academics who have shushed voices of dissent, accepted sinking lids, and desperately held onto their own status rather than build an industry. It’s failed. We need a new way of doing things.”

Time for my next story on this sorry state of affairs.

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Let me state here I have not had much to do with the NZ Book Council. I have no past bad experiences with them. I have had no experience of them at all. I had checked out their website and all I had noted was a list of largely pre-Internet writers and a lot of activity around school visits, none of which seemed much use to me. It seemed, like so many other pre-Internet agencies to be blinking in the dazzling headlights of the Internet age.

While the messages of support mounted, two interested parties responded. The author of the report, Catherine Robertson, put in a stout defence of her work, and the Council, claiming that it wanted to support genre authors. Book Council marketing manager Stephanie Soper also fronted on Facebook claiming support of genre authors. These claims were also reinforced on National Radio by Book Council chief executive, Catriona Ferguson.

nalini

I am sure these expressions of intent toward genre fiction are perfectly genuine (and actually the fifth objective of the Council). But the Book Council’s actions to date speak of a different set of priorities. For example New Zealand’s New York Times bestselling romance author Nalini Singh cannot be found on the Book Council’s writer files. She’s been writing for over a decade so it’s not that they haven’t had time to put her there.

You see what I mean? An organisation set up to promote New Zealand writing to New Zealanders doesn’t even recognise one of our international bestselling authors, and then runs research showing New Zealand readers haven’t heard of her and find what they have heard of as grim etc etc.

Now this wouldn’t matter if the Book Council was what it pretends to be: a private incorporated society of literary enthusiasts. Because it is an incorporated society and it does have members, patrons and donors. The success or otherwise of the Book Council would be nobody else’s business  — certainly not mine. It would just be a matter for it’s board and Chief Executive to sort out.

But the fact is that the Book Council would close tomorrow were it not for a $350,000 a year grant from Creative New Zealand. So while the Book Council can pretend it isn’t an agency of Government, the fact is, its board are largely there for the wine and cheese, and it’s an almost entirely taxpayer-funded agency delivering Creative New Zealand programmes.

But this also means that the Book Council’s discovery that it has largely failed to achieve its own objectives is also a testimony to the failure of governance by the agency which funds it — Creative New Zealand. Put it this way, if Creative New Zealand was funding the Book Council to carry out its own objectives then as a government funding agency it should know whether the Book Council was achieving them or not. So either it didn’t know or it didn’t care.

OK this is where I should warn you to put on the protective rubberware because we’re going to start probing deep inside the bureaucracy.

Creative New Zealand doesn’t care about the Book Council’s objectives because it treats the Book Council as an agency to deliver Creative New Zealand programmes which are driven by Creative New Zealand’s strategic objectives. In short, the New Zealand Book Council has Creative New Zealand’s hand so far up its arse it is barely able to pursue its own objectives at all.

So why does Creative New Zealand have those programmes as opposed to any other programmes? Buggered if I know. Because as it happens Creative New Zealand carried out a review in 2014 of the literature sector, and the consultation document completely failed to identify any intervention logic for its proposals. All the review basically asked for were variations on business-as-usual (BAU) delivery of its existing programmes.

Because while Creative New Zealand can tick the box for public consultation, the difference between its draft proposals pre-consultation and its final proposal was two fifths of fuck all. They already had a clear idea of what they wanted to deliver and that was BAU+genre engagement, a bit. This isn’t a review it’s an arrangement of deck chairs, or to be more blunt: bullshit.

The reason why the literature review was mostly set in concrete was that it had already been set in Creative New Zealand’s own strategic plan. It has the over-riding strategic objectives that: “our support for literature will enable: New Zealanders to participate in the arts ; high-quality New Zealand art to be developed ; New Zealanders to experience high-quality arts ; New Zealand arts to gain international success.” But the definition of “high quality” is essentially up to the Creative New Zealand literature advisor Malcolm Burgess.

Now you may recall from my original post (and of course I’m going to remind you in case you don’t) that a key contrast I drew was between the treatment of literature and the treatment of music (which gets far more money across more genres) because music is funded by New Zealand on Air.

But… but, but, but, and again but, New Zealand On Air’s mission is wildly different to Creative New Zealand’s. It is “ To champion local content that engages, stimulates and satisfies intended audiences”. It basically wants to get more New Zealand content that they like in front of New Zealanders.

So in musical terms NZ on Air is like Dave Dobbyn and Creative New Zealand is like Jack Body (everyone likes Dave Dobbyn and hardly anyone has heard of Jack Body). Switching back to literature, Catherine Robertson’s book club ladies interpreted the Creative New Zealand’s “High quality art” thing as a grim, actionless, literature with too many Pohutakawas and jandals in it.

This means the problem isn’t really the Book Council, or even Creative New Zealand – it’s that state support for literature in New Zealand is forced through the association with Creative New Zealand’s emphasis on “High quality art” to be what many New Zealanders would consider to be pretentious and arty farty.

Now, of course if you are pretentious and arty-farty that’s bloody marvellous. But if you like reading stories with zombies, sexy billionaires, or dinosaurs rampaging around the Battle of Waterloo, it kind of isn’t.

My point is we have the state supported literature we have because of an administrative convenience not because some Minister said “we really need more arty literature, eh.” It all goes back to the ’70s when the NZ Arts Council was established and someone tacked literature onto it. Even through the years of the Rogergnomes, no politician has ever really bothered about literature funding since.

So what should we do?

This may sound odd, coming from me, but I think we need a state New Zealand Books Council that gets its funding directly from the lottery grants board and leaves Creative New Zealand out of it. It should probably remain an incorporated society so that writers can govern it.

Because there isn’t that much wrong with the Book’s Council’s objectives or structure. What’s wrong with it is the connection with Creative New Zealand. Indeed if the Book Council has any connection to the rest of Government it should be via the Department of Internal Affairs in connection with the National Library.

When you think about it, the National Library and the Book Council (and Archive New Zealand, for that matter) are a far better fit together. For example instead of relying on rounding up a bunch of book club readers to give their opinion on the state of New Zealand literature you could start mining the country’s enormous reserves of library data. If you wanted to survey readers you could via library’s email connections to their customers.

The National Library’s database of ISBNs handed out in their millions to New Zealand writers is a far better base for determining who is writing and who isn’t than some ancient copy of the Oxford Companion to New Zealand literature.

Replanted into this soil I think the Book Council could finally begin to thrive. Because I think, and judging by the tsunami of “good on yer” responses I got, literature needs more of a NZ on Air approach than a Creative New Zealand approach. It needs a real review which isn’t predicated on Creative New Zealand’s strategic plan.

A real review starts from investment logic mapping. Investment Logic Mapping is a Treasury technique to “…ensure the ‘story’ about any proposed investment makes sense (the ‘logic’ part of ILM) and to test and confirm that the rationale for a proposed investment is evidence-based and sufficiently compelling to convince decision makers to commit to invest in further investigation and planning. This includes a Benefit Management Plan (BMP) which includes:

  • a description of the expected benefits
  • realisation targets and dates
  • supporting KPIs, Metrics and Measures
  • identification of the benefits owner and a description of their accountabilities
  • a benefit map, and
  • mechanisms for reporting and monitoring realisation, including post project closure.”

That’s how a real policy review gets done and one I think we need.

But if I personally were looking at a new Book Council there are two key staff positions I believe would be absolutely essential.

  1. A professional funds raiser, and business to business sales person. Every arts agency should have one of these by default to leverage state funding and make sure the organisation is commercially relevant to the industry it serves, and
  2. A programmer. The Book Council is largely now a software construction. An on staff programmer provides flexibility to adapt to new opportunities and circumstances. Having worked in a small NGO where we had our own programmer I can’t recommend the flexibility, innovation and responsiveness you get from one on staff highly enough.

There would, however, also need to be a change of attitude about a lot of things. The Book Council webfiles for example is based on the notion of gatekeeping. It’s just like the old encyclopaedias that have been eclipsed by wikipedia. Instead of a gatekept entry Book Council members would have to maintain their own entries on a wiki of NZ writers. Connected back through libraries the site could become far more dynamic and alive than it is today.

Engaging with the public would, however, become a far bigger part of Book Council activity, and the reading public from pre-teens to retirees are increasingly to be found on line. I am developing my own app for this so I’ll keep that under my hat for now but it also means Youtube (just like NZonAir), that means GoodReads (like NZ on Air is on Soundcloud), that means a completely different attitude to the whole idea of books. It basically means becoming the story engine of New Zealand.

The objectives of the story engine would be a little different to those established by the book council forty years ago when books were purely a physical artifact. It would be an agency to encourage New Zealanders to tell and record their stories: true stories; semi true stories; and bat shit crazy stories. The aims of the old book council to circulate and distribute those stories would remain, but the means whether it is written, written with sound effects, or told would not matter. The only limitation would be that the story is not performed by actors.

In my view the future of the Book Council can be great, but it must be freed, and funded to be so. That needs popular and political support.

I gave voice to a growing tide of anger and resentment, but that protest, will not, in itself, take us anywhere. I have been challenged to outline my suggestions for improvements. I have done that here. I don’t expect all my ideas to find support, but they do at least provide a rationale for improvements to the state’s engagement with the sector.

In the end, however, I am but one person, one voice. Just a guy with an enthusiasm, funding an Access radio show (WritersIsland). It should be up to all the writers of New Zealand to decide what should eventually prevail.

Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that the NZ Book Council receives half a million dollars a year in funding from Creative New Zealand. The council in fact received $350,000 in 2016. It also claimed that the Book Council provided mentorships, grants and travel opportunities. This is not the case. For a number of years the council ran the CNZ International Travel Fund for Writers but the fund is now managed by the Publishers Association of New Zealand. We regret the errors.


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