The quality question, Chris Else

New Zealand Society of Authors president Chris Else examines  the options for funding a home-grown literature.

In offering his radical rethink of Creative New Zealand’s policy for funding literature (NZB, December 2005), Tim Hazledine suggests the only reasonable justification for such funding – we want to live in a society where New Zealand books are read and talked about: “[T]he sum of all the reading and talking and engaging with books is an essential contribution to our culture, our civilisation, our sense of nationhood; even to our economic capabilities as an intelligent, well-educated, literate citizenry.” If this is so (and on the face of it, it seems a pretty good argument) then Hazledine believes our approach to funding is wrong. The point is not to get more books written, by supporting writers while they write, but to get more books read. He thinks this can best be achieved by giving publishers block grants based on sales.  This will encourage them to publish more and to put more effort into marketing.

Hang on a minute, one wants to say. Do you mean a publisher who sells 50,000 copies of one title gets more than a publisher who sells 8,000 copies each of five titles? What happens to poetry under this scheme? Are you suggesting we include books on gardening or the biographies of All Blacks? Hazledine answers only the third of these questions. On this point he suggests that certain categories of books such as “cookbooks, textbooks and sporting books” be excluded on the grounds that they are “unworthy of further public encouragement”. And here’s the rub, it seems to me. In the pubs that I drink in, discussions of this sort always founder on how or why we should discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy.

There are two standard justifications for excluding certain kinds of books from public support. The first is that they are thoroughly commercial and can look after themselves. This cannot be the basis for Hazledine’s exclusion because commercial success is precisely what he is aiming for. If we are going to give Random House more money because the latest Alan Duff sells 20,000 copies, why should we deny Hachette Livre (formerly Hodder Moa Beckett) on the grounds that books like Justin Marshall can look after themselves?

The second basis for exclusion is that certain categories of book are not of sufficient cultural or literary significance. In other words, the reading and the talking and the engaging with books, which is the justification for public funding, is only an important contribution to our culture if the books are of a certain kind so that the talk or the engagement is of a certain quality.

Now we are on difficult ground. Any talk of quality seems to suggest the need for some sort of monitoring function to make sure the money is being properly spent. It also suggests that it is not enough just to give readers what they want, as a profit-oriented publisher might be prone to do. Culturally responsible publishers must also offer quality writing, whatever that is, and induce people to buy it. They must educate the taste of their customers, in other words. Finally, we must recognise that there is not a homogenous audience for a single product called New Zealand Literature but a whole range of genres, and works within those genres, that result in an equally diverse range of reader experiences. Will Hazledine’s scheme take care of all this? I don’t think so. This is not because it is a bad idea but rather because it only addresses half the problem.

It seems to me that there are two issues facing any literature but especially the literature of a small post-colonial country like New Zealand: one is sustainability, the other is diversity or richness. By sustainability I mean the extent to which the literature can support itself. In economic terms this comes down to sales of books and to publishers’ profits and writers’ incomes from those sales. In social terms sustainability requires a critical mass of reader interest that underpins the sales and provides the broad context for the culture, the civilisation and the sense of nationhood that Hazledine describes. Sustainability is measured by success and popularity in the marketplace. It therefore requires an inclusive view of literature (after all, sports biographies and cookbooks are part of our culture), and it results in a general disregard for minority taste. If we focus on sustainability we don’t really care if certain small publishers go to the wall or nobody in New Zealand ever buys a book of poetry or certain novels never get written. Hazledine’s scheme is tailor-made to support sustainability, and a good thing too. I’m all for it. Without a certain level of commercial and cultural robustness, New Zealand writing will shrivel and die or be swept away in the vast flood of overseas imports.

The problem with a focus on sustainability is that it tends to equate quality with success and this leads not so much to a dumbing down of taste to the lowest common denominator (although that is certainly a danger) but to a sameness in style and treatment and subject matter. This sameness, in turn, contributes to a stultifying, complacent and ultimately sterile cultural environment. Some such tendency is probably inevitable. Although publishers are less risk-averse than we often suppose, they nevertheless have a natural tendency to go with the kind of thing that has worked in the past. And why not? To a degree, this is exactly what readers want. In each of us somewhere there is still the little child who wanted to have The Five Chinese Brothers or Hairy Maclary read to them over and over again. Our search for novelty is counterbalanced by our need for the familiar. Indeed, it might well be the case that the psychological basis of a love of reading is precisely the experience of the new and challenging and dangerous in a safe and familiar context. What this means, though, is that if we are to achieve the kind of energy and enthusiasm around our literature that Hazledine suggests is desirable, we must pay attention to more than mere sustainability. We must also take steps to encourage diversity and richness.

Some 30 or so years ago, in an essay entitled “High Culture in a Small Province”, Wystan Curnow explored the question of what it means for a society to be culturally rich. He based his discussion on the work of American sociologist Morse Peckham who suggested that the hallmark of cultural richness is the discovery and solution of problems by people engaged in artistic and intellectual activity. This definition applies equally to scientists as to writers and it has the advantage, from a literary point of view, of avoiding any aesthetic theories or agendas and any canons of taste.

It also emphasises the fact that there is no end to the process of making literature and no defined or circumscribed field in which a writer lives and works. Any writer who is not simply going through the motions wants to find and meet new challenges in their work, whether these arise from issues of subject matter and experience or craft and technique.

The second point that Curnow and Peckham make is that the ability to discover and solve problems in one’s field requires a degree of psychic insulation. I take this to mean the conditions which are conducive to the development of a mental space that encourages the risk-taking required to find and meet new challenges. One of the main purposes of a literary grant, in my view, is to achieve precisely this situation. It is not simply a matter of “time to write” or of paying someone to produce another book. Creative New Zealand grants are given largely on the recommendation of an assessment panel that consists of a writer’s peers and according to criteria that include a requirement that the proposal demonstrate some new development or direction in the writer’s career.

This endorsement from somewhere other than the market place is a key ingredient. Just as reading involves a balance between familiarity and novelty, so writing involves a comparable balance between knowing what works and trying something which might not. The purpose of a grant is to shift this balance in favour of the new. Maybe there are other and more cost-effective ways to achieve this, but I don’t believe it can be done merely by giving public funding to publishers who sell the most books.

 

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