Bringing on the bovver boys?
The theme of your brief piece in the first issue of New Zealand books, justifying the publication, was that books were an undervalued cultural asset. Mention is made of designers and publishers, but not authors who are conspicuous by their absence. Is this an editorial policy, as you seem to find it easy to separate books from their authors? Your ‘bovver boy’ reviewers are following your lead and think they can kick a book with steel-capped boots and the result will not be an author lying in a gutter with his or her creativity leaking out their ears.
It is perplexing that you claim ‘to stimulate pride and critical concern in New Zealand writing’ and then bring on the bovver boys to let the authors’ blood. I refer to the smug review by Andrew Mason (October 1991) on John Connor, Norman Bilbrough, and Sheridan Keith and the withering comments by Lawrence Jones on Noel Virtue’s work. Mason does not like our nation portrayed ‘warts and all’ and uses pompous doublespeak to suggest that these books should not have been published.
Lawrence Jones’s derision at the positive comments by other reviewers of Noel Virtue’s work is out of order. He ‘rubs his eyes in disbelief’ at them and then contradicts himself by saying: ‘Virtue is a writer to be taken note of’. It is no wonder Virtue sells his books in Britain when the Thought Police in New Zealand don’t know what to think. Perhaps Connor, Bilbrough, Keith and other authors who have been mauled by thoughtless insensitive reviewers can learn from his lead and turn their backs on New Zealand.
There are many good and enjoyable features of your publication, and I hope it does not become known among authors as the ‘New Zealand book basher’. It’s up to you as its editor.
Lawrence Jones replies:
I am rather surprised to be called a ‘bovver boy’ reviewer; I had always thought that I was a soft reviewer, attempting primarily to take a book in its own terms. But a reviewer must be willing to be reviewed and has to take the lumps along with the strokes. I was, however, concerned to see my remarks on Always the Islands of Memory referred to as ‘withering comments’ and then to be accused of self-contradiction in finding that Virtue is ‘a writer to be taken note of’. I was attempting a kind of dialectic, a three-part argument:
1) Virtue is ludicrously over-estimated by British reviewers who do not know the New Zealand literary scene. His novels certainly do not ‘tower above anything in recent New Zealand fiction’: I would need to point only to The Burning Boy, The Carpathians, Seasons of the Jew, The Book of Secrets, or Symmes Hole, to take the most obvious examples, to knock that one on the head.
2) But he is probably undervalued by New Zealand commentators who see him as a mere ‘pasticheur’ irrelevant to contemporary New Zealand or as a writer of therapeutic autobiographical fiction.
3) Rather, the most recent novel confirms that he is a genuine historical novelist (as the editorial heading, ‘Chronicler of our “provincial” past’ indicates), with a voice of his own: not a Maurice Gee or Janet Frame, but a real novelist of interest.
Longer reviews please
There appears, from your comment in the October 1991 issue, to be a management disagreement between reviewing in quantity or reviewing in depth. I see the former as the preserve of the daily and weekly press, supplemented by the monthly ‘quality’ magazines. As one who insists, despite other pressures, on reading every copy of the New York Review of Books, I had hoped that New Zealand books would follow its style. My disappointment with the London Review is that it settled for quality but, nevertheless, book reviews rather than issue reviews. In view of the other outlets for brief reviews, I urge you to adopt the style of the NYR of B. Please, please revert to your original notion of commissioning lengthy reviews.
We intend to do just that ‑ Ed.
You referred in an earlier issue to Lindis Taylor as a ‘trenchant critic’ of the Arts Council’s opera policy. His lobbying in New Zealand books (October 1991) which purports to be an account of the Council’s recent review is, however, neither ‘trenchant’ nor ‘criticism’, but a spreading of misinformation which is unworthy of your publication.
It is difficult to understand why Lindis Taylor did not refer to a number of significant developments in the Council’s opera policy report which have been greeted positively by many in New Zealand’s opera community. These include the inclusion of three opera companies with other professional arts companies in the Council’s new Arts Investment Programme, which provides access to additional funding for special artistic projects including New Zealand work, professional development projects for trainee positions, projects in marketing and income generation, and education initiatives. Another development is the creation of a new programme for Performance and Recording Projects which provides access to funding for the first time to Hawke’s Bay Regional Opera and to other one-off opera projects and initiatives.
Elizabeth Kerr Manager, Music Programmes, QE II Arts Council of New Zealand
Abridged ‑ Ed.
Lindis Taylor replies:
I was invited to make comment, not to report; the full text on opera policy was available elsewhere. Nevertheless, perhaps I should have praised the very readable and thorough document that it is, both in its account of New Zealand opera ventures in recent decades and its comparative studies of the Australian scene and operations elsewhere.
Though she alleges misinformation in my article, Elizabeth Kerr fails to instance any. I referred to the main features of the Arts Investment Programme that will apply to opera from 1993 and to the Music Performance and Recording Projects Programme. The latter, with a budget of only $40,000 for all the many music organisations, can obviously be of very limited value. Such funds, for admirable but quite specific purposes, cannot be regarded as a substitute for adequate funding of opera production. My essential point was that these fine-sounding schemes were empty gestures if there was to be no significant increase in overall funding. I wanted to stress that gift-wrapping could not disguise the huge discrepancy between New Zealand and most other western countries.
Kerr is upset because I do not report the positive response to certain developments. Of course, the recipients of increased funding are pleased, but reporting that was not my brief. The much more important fact was that their increases were the result of others’ decrease. And there is naturally a reluctance on the part of the losers to be outspoken in print lest it jeopardises the chance of future benefits. I do have that luxury, and I am prepared to use it.
What does surprise me about Kerr’s role as Music Manager is the fact that in her report to her Council, there is no indication that she recommended more generous treatment than the Council did in fact approve. One would normally expect an officer, charged to look after a particular sphere, to argue for more than might eventually be agreed, and that public criticism of an unsatisfactory outcome would be welcomed since it would strengthen the case for change when the opportunity next arose. All I could conclude from that and from her present immoderate attack, is that Kerr is content with the Council’s treatment. In spite of their restraint, the opera community in general is not.
Lindis Taylor, Editor, Opera News
Abridged ‑ Ed.