A seat on the bus, Elspeth Sandys

The recent tragic death of novelist and short-story writer Bronwyn Tate set me thinking, not for the first time, about why her works were not better known in this country. I’m not alone in regarding her as a fine writer, whose stories, often with small-town settings, bring to mind the novels of the brilliant Barbara Pym. Tate’s writing was always truthful, careful in its attention to detail, and, at its best, luminous in its insights into the human condition.

So why was she on the fringes of the literary world, not at its centre? Was there a conspiracy to keep her out? Of course not. But if it’s generally acknowledged that she was at least as talented a writer as, say, Annemarie Jagose (winner of last year’s Deutz Medal) or Kirsty Gunn (another delineator of small-town life), then what was it that kept her out of the limelight?

In an attempt to answer these questions I decided to imagine New Zealand literature as a bus on which certain writers are invited to travel, while others are left either waiting at the bus stop, or, having been given faulty directions, stranded on the wrong road at the wrong time. The bus with NZ LIT emblazoned on the front approaches. Whose faces do I see at the windows? Obviously the Big Names from the past –- Mansfield, Sargeson, Frame, Baxter et al – will be there,- but who else? What does a writer have to do, or be, to secure a seat on that bus?

There are two writers, one long dead, the other who died in 2003, both of whom failed in their lifetimes to make it onto the bus. The first, Jane Mander, may arguably be given a posthumous place, but if so I would contend that has more to do with the controversy surrounding the connection between her novel The Story of a New Zealand River and the film The Piano than with her hitherto neglected reputation as a novelist. Yet Mander, in my view, is a far more interesting and wide-ranging writer than Frank Sargeson, whose right to be on the bus no one disputes.

More recently the poet Bill Sewell, a writer whose talents (again in my view) made him the equal of several of his more celebrated contemporaries, died knowing his chances, even posthumously, of being invited onto the bus were virtually nil. Why was that? Why do some writers, helped along by those mysterious forces – -luck, personality, timing, geography – -“over-thrive”, while others, the Bill Sewells and Bronwyn Tates of this world, “under-thrive”?

Various explanations can be offered, some obvious, some less so. Most writers would agree that the choice of publisher is crucial (not that all writers are lucky enough to have a choice). But if you are published by Penguin, for example, or by Random House, you have a far greater chance of seeing your work promoted in the media and elsewhere than if you are published by Steele Roberts or Hazard Press. This is not to denigrate the smaller publishing houses, simply to point out the economics of the situation. Persuading newspapers, radio, and television to review a book is crucial to its success. A powerful recommendation from a respected editor at Victoria University Press (VUP) will carry far more weight than an equally impassioned plea from Otago University Press (Bronwyn Tate’s publisher).

Patrick Evans has already examined the reasons for this in his controversial article on the effect of the creative writing industry on our national literature (New Zealand Listener, August 16-22 2003). VUP has had a run of international successes, ergo its voice is the one listened to. Even entering a book for a major literary prize costs money. A small press, strapped for cash, may baulk at the prospect of further promoting a book with only a slim chance of winning.

The general rule that without publicity even the best of books will fall by the wayside has only rarely been subverted. Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, a novel published by a small publishing house in Germany, with no expectation of large-scale success, went on to become a worldwide bestseller. But that is the exception that proves the rule. Word of mouth can work powerfully in a writer’s favour, as it did in Schlink’s, but without the infrastructures of publicity and promotion to support the work, the chances of success remain bleak.

As for the effect of the multiplicity of creative writing courses across the country, whatever your reaction to the arguments Patrick Evans raises in his essay, it is more or less accepted now that a writer who has graduated from Bill Manhire’s course and gone on to be published by VUP has a far greater chance of “making it” – getting a seat on the bus – than a less well-placed writer.

Judging the worth of a novel or a book of poems or short stories has always been a largely subjective business. Yet we are more likely to find ourselves reaching for a book that has been published by a prestigious house and gone on to win a prize, than we are to search for some half-remembered, inadequately reviewed, “minor” work.

So what are a writer’s chances of getting a seat on the bus if he or she hasn’t graduated from one of the better creative writing courses, and his or her work is published by a small house, with a limited promotion budget?

There’s really only one way to overcome these obstacles and that is to win a literary prize. We are so obsessed with competition in this post-Roger Douglas era that we are almost unable to judge a book on its merits alone. It has to come garnered with, at the very least, a place on the bestseller list. Yet it is surely true that in any one decade there are unlikely to be more than three or four books of “outstanding literary merit”. It follows therefore, since we have to have winners, and judges are not allowed to say “this has been a disappointing year, so no winner has been selected”, that some books will be promoted simply because they have won a prize. Phrases like “a remarkable new work from one of our most accomplished novelists”, or “a new star has appeared on the literary horizon” will jump out from the pages of author interviews and publicity handouts. If the photo on the book jacket shows the author to be young, attractive, or from an interesting minority group, then their chances of adding commercial success to critical acclaim will be increased on a ratio of one to three, depending on how many of the above criteria he or she meets.

A major prize is guaranteed to launch a literary career, whether or not the work itself turns out to be of lasting importance. We all love a winner. Which is why the various promoters of literary careers –- Creative New Zealand, the New Zealand Book Council and so on –  invariably back the prize-winning author and not the also-rans.

By the same token, an attractive author who performs well in public is far more likely to sell books than a shy, stuttering writer who dreads personal questions and shuns the limelight. Publishing a book has become a business, not just for the publisher, who understandably wants to make money, but for the author as well. Doris Lessing, a writer known for her sharp tongue and intolerance of fools, once told me she considered book tours a “necessary evil”, part of the business of being a writer. I can’t help wondering how she would have fared had she had to undergo such ordeals at the beginning of her career. Fortunately for her, and for us, her reputation was secure by the time book tours and public appearances became part of the contract between author and publisher.

But what of subject matter? Is there a “type” of book that is more likely to succeed today? Were the things Bronwyn Tate wrote about too ordinary, too local? Patrick Evans wrote about this too, so I won’t labour the point. But it does seem there is an appetite among contemporary publishers for more exotic themes, ones that don’t have Made in New Zealand stamped too obviously on their pages.

A writer like Maurice Shadbolt was fortunate in the timing of his stories. Would he have the same success now? Perhaps in our hunger for the exotic we are overlooking those writers –- Christine Johnston and Judith White, both of whom won the Reed Fiction Prize, are two who come to mind – whose timing hasn’t so far worked in their favour. Judith White’s novel Across the Dreaming Night was shortlisted for the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Yet when the Aotearoa New Zealand Literary Map was drafted last year, Judith’s name wasn’t on it, an astonishing oversight that has since, I’m happy to say, been corrected.

For every “over-thriving” writer there are probably two or three who, because of the very factors that have advantaged their more successful contemporaries, are left “under-thriving”, watching from the side of the road as the bus trundles past.

And, finally, there’s geography. Bronwyn Tate lived in Palmerston North. Would she have fared better if she’d lived in one of our literary capitals? Hard to say, given that we can all name first-class writers who live away from the literary limelight. But a degree of networking is necessary if isolation is not to be a handicap. It may be that Bronwyn was unable, or unwilling, to indulge in this dubious pastime. I have no way of knowing. But now that writing has become, for better or worse, a profession, the days of the haphazard but thriving literary career are over. If you want to get on that bus, you have to work at it. Writing a fine book is no longer a guarantee of anything but private satisfaction.

 

Elspeth Sandys is a novelist and playwright, who was a judge in this year’s Tasmania-Pacific Fiction Prize.

 

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