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“The only negative voices are from Wellington”: How an exciting new writing initiative drew instant scorn

An essay by Paula Morris on the bad vibes and bitching which immediately greeted her launch last week of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

Last week a lot of people squashed into the Gus Fisher Gallery on Shortland Street in Auckland to hear about the launch of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. Many of them were writers. Vincent O’Sullivan and Patricia Grace were there. So were Alan Duff, Witi Ihimaera, Kevin Ireland, Owen Marshall and Albert Wendt. The two grand Fionas, Farrell and Kidman, were there. Almost all the finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – including Stephen Daisley, David Eggleton, Patrick Evans, Lynn Jenner and Tim Upperton – were there. Lots of other writers were there as well – Tusiata Avia, Diane Brown, Maggie Rainey-Smith, Nicky Pellegrino, Robert Sullivan. Karl Stead said he was going to be there, but he couldn’t make it. Steve Braunias said he couldn’t be bothered attending, and he didn’t.

Everyone ate and drank a lot. Only a few people complained when they didn’t get a pre-printed name badge, as though this were a profound personal slight. Only one or two people – industry people, not writers – lurked near the bar, rolling their eyes and muttering, and they were people who would have done this even if we’d been handing out wads of cash and free cruises to Rarotonga. Nobody left in a huff. For a literary event in New Zealand, this was pretty good going. Or so I thought.

I was the organiser, and this is some of what I said in my gripping speech:

My name is Paula Morris and, like many of you here today, I am a writer. I’ve embarked on that life of imaginative adventure, of work and play, of vast leaps and false starts, of trial and error – or trials, and errors. I steal things, and I make things up. I eavesdrop on the bus. In the street I bend over some discarded crumpets, green with mould, and try to articulate what they look and smell like. I drive past the dead branch of a river, and file away its name to use as a story title, years later. I write notes to myself on paper napkins, and walk up and down hills, trying to work out the turns of a story. The work forms, one word at a time.

This is a writer’s life, and – though sometimes we lose faith – it’s the one many of us here have as a vocation. It’s certainly not about the glory, for – as Joseph Brodsky observed of writers generally – “On any street of any city in the world at any time of night or day, there are more people who haven’t heard of you than those who have.”

And yet, on we go.

When I came back to New Zealand a year ago, I started talking to other writers here about how we could sustain ourselves – creatively, intellectually, psychically – through a writer’s life. I also talked with people invested in New Zealand books and writers about how we could make ourselves a little better known, and a little more read, in some street, in some city, in some world, at some point. Out of these conversations the Academy of New Zealand Literature was born.

At this point I was supposed to demo our flash, expensive new website, but of course it was not ready. So for the next part of my speech I had to show inspiring PowerPoint slides. You’ll just have to imagine these.

This is our kaupapa: to position and promote our contemporary literature, support our active practitioners, and to tell our stories to audiences here and elsewhere – audiences that may include readers, researchers, teachers, students, scholars, agents, publishers, editors, anthologists, translators, booksellers, arts organisations, residency boards, and festivals.

We need to start relatively small, because I still need to write and to teach, and we need to keep our focus sharp during our seed-money period. So at this point invited authors are working within these genres – fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction – and are primarily writers for adults rather than for children or young people.

Our focus is also mid-career writers, and writers who are actively publishing. Every year, I hope, the Academy will grow. But for now it’s starting with around 100 Members, and with 15 Fellows. I’d say that the Fellows were our older writers, but I don’t want to offend them.

 The slide at this point explained some of the criteria: invited Members needed to have published at least two books in one or more of our genres, with an established publisher, and their most recent book had to have been published within the last ten years. And on and on I talked.

My advisory group of writers included Vincent [O’Sullivan], Fiona [Kidman], Ellie Catton, Rachel King and Charlotte Grimshaw. I also consulted many people within the literature sector – and some of you here today, still recovering from the many meetings I demanded, and the endless emails I sent. I’ve also been working on developing overseas connections and relationships that could be useful for our writers.

I described the two sides of the ANZL – its back room and its shop front.

The back room is for writers only. We’ve begun work on gathering useful information for our community, primarily on opportunities overseas for our writers at festivals and residencies, and with academic and other networks – so we can help our writers research and write their books, make connections, have conversations, and find readers. Our big project for later this year is creating our first e-sampler that promotes writers with upcoming books directly to festival directors. All of this, by the way, requires proactive participation and initiative from writers. Together, we’ll try to make things happen.

Then I showed screen mock-ups of our shop front, the ANZL site, still – as it turned out – a week away from going live, and still glitch-ridden and irritating in every way.

The website is designed to be content-rich, a way of audiences finding various ways in to our contemporary literature, so we emphasise our many and diverse voices, our different points of view, our challenges and concerns, our languages, our stories, our words.

I talked about the features coming up – on writing in Christchurch after the earthquakes, on our national poetry scene, on contemporary crime fiction, on creative nonfiction, on the new wave of Pasifika writing, and of people writing in and about our Deep South. I talked about the Conversation / Korero feature, in which a New Zealand writer is paired with a writer overseas, and they talk at length about whatever creative, social, political or personal issues take their fancy. (The first is Alison Wong and Aimee Phan.)

I talked about the expansive Paris Review-style interviews each month with one of our Fellows, about the Sarah Laing comic strips, about the flash bio pages for each Member, and the individual “appreciation” page for each Fellow.

But some people had stopped listening before I’d even started talking. They were already carping audibly in the next room, according to the dismayed writers who overheard them. They were already sceptical or outraged, or smug in their disapproval, because They Knew It All Along.

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Bill Manhire: author of certain tweets

Before I spoke, Stuart McCutcheon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland, made a short speech. He’s the funder of the ANZL. Without him, and well over $100,000 from the VC’s Strategic Development Fund, I would not have been able to do anything. I applied for the money almost a year ago, a few months after returning to live in New Zealand and starting to teach at the University. Lots of colleagues told me I had no hope of getting it, but I did.

The day before the ANZL launch, like a Fox News functionary I sent Stuart some talking points for his speech. In my email I said that “national” was the important word here, even though the seed money came from Auckland, because the ANZL was about writers all over the country, and New Zealand writers overseas as well, and their work and their books.

Stuart incorporated most of my talking points, but added a special touch of his own, right at the beginning of his speech. He wanted everyone to hear what I’d written in the first paragraph of my application. This, he said, was some of my finest writing – which may mean he suspected it was fiction, or that he was amazed that a literature-related application had won over the hardened STEM philistines on his strategic committee. I stood cringing against the gallery’s wall of perplexing art, cowering in Selina Marsh’s Amazonian shadow, grimacing at every word. I can’t even bring myself to type them here. Just imagine a paragraph built around the words “strategic” and “centre” and “University of Auckland”, and maybe even something about the “intellectual life of this country”, or similar. The kind of things to be written in a grant application, which is essentially a begging letter that has to sound like bragging.

The grease of the expensive kumara frittata was still slick on everyone’s lips when the first tweet from IIML – the creative writing centre at Victoria University – popped up. I’m a graduate of the IIML; I’m one of the writers featured on their site. It is “New Zealand’s oldest and most distinguished creative writing programme”, according to its Twitter profile. I regard Bill Manhire, its former director, as my mentor, and like and admire him tremendously. Everyone from IIML is friendly to me in person. Three of its instructors – Pip Adam, Emily Perkins and Chris Price – accepted the invitation to be Members of the ANZL.

But there it was on Twitter – a line from the VC’s speech, quoting my application: “aims to place the University of Auckland at the centre of the literary conversation in this country #fineprint.”

Aha! I’d been rumbled. How could the ANZL be a good thing when its true sinister motives had been exposed by IIML? Maybe the same way that Sport is a good thing despite the fact that – revealed by undercover work, AKA the Book Council site – it has “featured many writers from the so-called ‘Wellington group’ associated with VUP and Bill Manhire’s Victoria University creative writing course.”

I wish I knew who this IIML was. Convenient, isn’t it, to tweet anonymously on behalf of an institution? Bill Manhire had, at least, tweeted under his own account that afternoon when he posted this: “Searching online for news of ANZL, I discovered something like this has been tried before.”

The link was to a newspaper article from 1917 headlined “An Australasian Academy of Literature.” The subheading is “A Silly Project”. The article declares that all such academies are “perfectly useless as a means to the encouragement of good literature”.

Bill is a Member of the ANZL – and I’d discussed the plans for it with him in detail – so I’m assuming he meant this as a joke. This is not how many other people read it, judging by the comments filling up my inbox. The anonymous #fineprint detective at IIML responded to his Tweet with “great find!”

Great indeed. Such a silly thing, all this work I’d been doing; so perfectly useless. Why was I bothering with all this at all?

I saw all this – the tweets, the inbox – when I got home from the launch, with 20 minutes to spare before I headed out for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards; I’m on the board, and had to get to the Town Hall early to run around being anxious. I’d already MC’d a morning at the Auckland Writers Festival schools programme that day as well; I had MCing duties in addition to teaching the next two days coming up, and two big interview gigs at the festival itself, plus a panel to chair. On Friday of that week, just before my interview with Jane Smiley on the main stage at the Aotea Centre, I was at Greenlane Hospital learning I have to have major surgery.

Added to all this stress was an endless string of late nights and early mornings, trying to get the ANZL website populated and functioning and live. It was not a good week. I allowed myself a Twitter burst of bad temper to IIML’s news flash: “For god’s sake! Do you understand how grant applications work? #badfaith.”

Then I scrubbed off the frittata grease, applied too much lipstick, and stalked down to the Town Hall to celebrate New Zealand literature.

paullll

Paula Morris in simpler times: winning the 2013 NZ Post book of the year

It’s easy to get angry. I don’t get paid to work on the ANZL; I don’t get teaching buy-out. I have a part-time helper, Harley Hern, who is supposed to work 20 hours a week but has been working triple that. We’ve been begging writers to send information, re-writing or re-writing bios, commissioning and editing features, nagging about deadlines, scrambling to buy photography (or get some from my cousin via Facebook at the last minute, because that’s what family’s for). Harley, in particular, has been the front line with our web developers, who live in another land and do not feel quite as desperate and hysterical as we do about the site and its issues.

It’s also easy to get angry because writers here are angry all the time. When I was working on the ANZL last year, and having lots of meetings with industry mavens who advised me on what not to do, I was warned about the seething anger that lies beneath the placid plains of our literary landscape. I’d had a taste of this when we sent out invitations.

The worst of all, I was warned, would be the uninvited – children’s authors. And there they were, helpful friends pointed out, prowling Facebook, spitting and clawing in their closed groups. Easy to ignore, until one escaped the cage and pounced on someone else’s crime fiction thread.

Just feel happy that crime made it into the Academy of NZ Literature – children’s and YA have been left out in the cold. Obviously they are just not literature.

I made the mistake of stepping in with what I imagined to be a reasoned explanation – I’ve published YA myself so I have no bias against it; we have to start small; our activities must have focus during the seed money period, etc. But no.

I understand the logistics but it has upset a lot of children’s writers (there is a very long facebook thread on this already believe me) and this divide that there is writing for children and writing for adults is just wrong – we are all writers. Isn’t that what matters?

Luckily passing playwrights and screenwriters and historians didn’t chance upon this thread, because they are writers too. Maybe they’re too busy writing to feel neglected. Maybe there aren’t as many of them as children’s writers. More than 140 books were submitted to last year’s CYA Awards; including children’s writers in the ANZL and applying the current criteria – two books, last ten years – would instantly double our numbers. And then the illustrators would be on the warpath next.

I should have stepped away at this point, but clearly I’m as silly as my silly project. I replied:

By your argument, we should just have one national book awards every year, because books are books and writers are writers. The intended audience for the ANZL site is readers of adult books, not children or young teens who might find the content and look dry. This is not to say the ANZL won’t expand in the future- just not now.

This fanned flames.

Of course we should have one national book awards with the same prize money for each section and the same media attention – you think what we have now is the way it should be????? The way children and adult writers in this country treat each other (both are at fault) is awful and I hate it and we need to do something about it. I’m sorry, but this has only made it worse – there are a lot of children’s writers who are very, very upset.

The way we treat each other – hmmm. I’d met this particular children’s author the previous week when I came across her in a festival green room, telling two visiting overseas writers, Edward Carey and Michel Faber, how dreary the Ockhams had been. They weren’t as “fun” as the CYA Awards, apparently. I’ve been to both, and I have to say: no one really has fun at these things, unless they’re writing satirical reports about them.

My correspondent hadn’t finished.

And obviously the money didn’t stretch to paying someone to proofread the website – but then what would a children’s author know about spelling.

I said that the comment was spiteful, and that its author should remove it. The reply?

Children’s authors also have a sense of humour.

Though not much sense of judgment, I would say, when it comes to remarks on social media – however, I’d not exhibited much either. Time to get off Facebook, because I had larger battles to fight, mainly related to getting our ANZL writers seen and heard and read, both at home and overseas.

*

It’s unsurprising that writers here are angry all the time. We’re artists with the status of freelancers in a small athlete-worshipping market far from the centres of publishing power.

Children’s authors are angry because no anonymous donor is stepping forward with $50K prize for their awards. They are angry because the Book Council doesn’t pay enough for school visits. They are angry because they think they’re undervalued as writers in our national literary scene.

Writers of commercial fiction are angry because their books don’t get shortlisted for our book awards. They are angry because overseas readers embrace them more than locals do. They are angry because they don’t get Creative New Zealand grants and never get sent on the Katherine Mansfield fellowship to Menton. They are angry because they think they’re undervalued as writers in our national literary scene.

Writers of literary fiction are angry because readers here prefer Anyone From Overseas, in book shops and at festivals. They are angry because children’s writers have taken over the Book Council and its activities. They are angry because the vast ranks of the Unpublished have taken over the NZSA. They are angry because they think they’re undervalued as writers in our national literary scene.

Some of this is true; some of it is true-ish; some of it is not really true enough. But meanwhile, everyone is angry.

This is exacerbated by our ongoing state of enraged parochialism. Some South Island authors, invited to join the ANZL, voiced their suspicions to me of its Auckland base: we would be sure to be biased, inviting our Grey Lynn chums and lopping off our literary map at the Bombay Hills. Some Wellington authors were even more suspicious. I wasted half the month of February, when I was supposed to be sequestered in a residency writing my novel, trying to soothe the paranoid beast roaring from the south. Why this? Why that? Why now? Why Auckland? Much of the Wellington literary community has embraced this; many are supportive and enthusiastic. But some prefer to sneer.

The only negative industry voices have been Wellington-based too. One told me that what I really needed was a marketing person, as though my own background (VP of marketing for a major record label in New York) was yet more fiction. One told me that the Book Council was doing everything already – revealing ignorance both of the Book Council’s kaupapa and its limits.

This week one of the above told me I should change the entire plan and double my own work load by conceding to the complaints of children’s authors, because it was better to have everyone in the same tent. That it would make it unbearably crowded in the tent, and that none of the above showed any interest in pitching the tent in the first place, or doing any work around camp, appears to be beside the point.

I’ve been told that there’s no need for us to be in dialogue with writers overseas, or that there’s no need for us to be in dialogue with writers at all. I’ve been told we should really let publishers do things related to getting our authors overseas, because they know best.

Publishers know publishing, of course. But publishers are business people. They are there to publish our books, to find ways for them to be sold in shops and online, here and overseas. They may be passionate about books, of course, but they’re not the ones who write them. Writers are not business people, as you can tell from some of our creaky author websites; by the skimpy and uninspired bios some of us write for ourselves; by the way some of us cower on stage at festivals, muttering or blurting out our readings. We are artists, and most of our lives are spent not publishing or promoting books, but writing them. Each book might take years, during which our publishers say to us, every now and then, ‘When might we expect a manuscript?’ Mainly they are busy publishing and selling other people, the ones who’ve actually finished their books.

The ANZL website is there to tell stories – long, detailed, informed and wide-ranging – about our stories, so we attract and inform and engage readers here and overseas. But the real heart of the ANZL, and the work of it, is in the back room. I know how residencies and festival participation can make all the difference in a stop-start life of writing. Many writers, like me, would rather appear at a festival in Shanghai with a suitcase stuffed with books than wait all our lives for our publishers to make a rights sale in China, because the visit there will lead to new opportunities and perspectives, new connections, and maybe – as in my case – new work. Our lives are conniving, not straightforward.

Sometimes they make no obvious business sense at all, because our true success is creative, and not about money or celebrity. We’re playing the long game.

Before I spoke at the ANZL launch, before even the VC had his wicked way with the anodyne talking points I’d provided, Nicola Legat – chair of the Book Awards Trust – welcomed everyone to the event. From now on, she said, the ANZL would host an informal lunch on the day of the Ockhams so the writers could get to meet each other.

Most of us, you see, don’t actually know each other. We write in isolation; we live all over the place. We have little excuse to get together, angry Facebook groups notwithstanding. The ANZL is intended as a showcase and, behind the shiny shop window, a community, exchanging knowledge and contacts. Small right now, during its seed money period, but hoping to succeed and to grow.

At the launch Nicola, intending to be kind, described me as a force of nature. When I walked up the hill to my flat that afternoon, past the Globe scaffolds coming down and the diggers mashing up my street, I had a few tears – not full-on public crying: I saved that for when I chaired Michel Faber’s session a few days later. I’d used those words to describe my mother, 18 months ago when I spoke at her funeral. I suppose I’m like her in some ways, though I’m not completely crazy and occasionally, when speaking, I pause for breath. She’d be pleased, I suspect, that something about her drive and persistence has surfaced in me, something of her ferocious energy. And none of this, I’ve decided, should be wasted in anger.

Vague plans and good intentions, I said at the end of my launch speech, are not enough. So now, for better or worse, the ANZL has taken shape. The web site is still revealing its flaws, but the first round of features and news items are up. Work begins on the first e-sampler later in the year; research is already underway. I’m spending the month of June working on my own book, a novel, and bending over discarded crumpets, green with mould, in the street.


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