Jenny Robin Jones runs a discriminating eye over submissions for one of this country’s annual literary awards.
Seven years ago an idealistic board of directors inaugurated the Copyright Licensing Limited (CLL) Writers’ Awards for Non-fiction. CLL acts on behalf of publishers and authors around the world to license reproduction of extracts from books, periodicals and journals. To extend its support of this country’s literary primary producers, the company committed up to two per cent of its annual revenue to assisting those with worthwhile non-fiction projects that writers would have difficulty completing without financial help. The first year we awarded $30,000, the second $35,000, and, since 2004, we’ve granted two awards of $35,000 every year.
A CLL award isn’t a reward for something achieved, it’s wherewithal to fulfil a promise, and over the past seven years, not all those promises have been kept.
It turns out that New Zealand writers are not uniformly dedicated to the Word and the search for Truth. Some, I fear, have egos. And when you consider the life they have to treadmill on their journey to fame and fortune, it’s clear they would be pushed to make it without egos. Even with occasional bouts of success, the writing life is pockmarked with insecurity – both professional and financial. For an ego that’s up to the challenge it’s a short step – down a slippery slope – to a galloping sense of entitlement and an eye for easy money. The owners of these egos know how to write brilliant and persuasive applications.
Some writers are good at picking award-worthy subjects but cannot distinguish a passing enthusiasm from a project they’ll stay with until it is done. Many of these know how to write brilliant and persuasive applications.
Some follow academic careers that pay a living wage; they write as part of their university schedule or in their spare time. Sometimes they seek funding to enable them to lessen their teaching load for up to a year. Others look for travel expenses or the money to buy extra equipment. Many of these know how to write brilliant and persuasive applications.
Those who make writing their number-one activity often struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Without financial assistance, the needs of their children may elbow aside the great book or even any book at all. Few can convey this in an application without seeming to drown in self-pity.
These writers, reared in an age of self-deprecation, do not reveal themselves with the easy confidence of their more limelight-savvy descendants. Though their projects may promise useful or even maverick additions to the literary fruit bowl, they tend to rely on connections made during the writing process itself to achieve something exciting and outstanding. Few of them write brilliant and persuasive applications.
But although no identikit picture of “The Applicant” emerges, they have more in common than two eyes, a nose, a mouth and possibly some hair: they want to write a book, they hope one day to finish it; they hope it will be published; they hope it will be read. In all these aspirations CLL is right there with them.
Entries over the last seven years have averaged 66 a year. This year, as a result of a major review of our processes and forms, we received 36, but we judge this a sign of success. We looked in vain for the application from X who fancies a wine-tasting tour of Tuscany and Y who expects to make a $35,000 killing on that old manuscript in the bottom drawer. This year’s applicants had obviously put in the time to submit a serious case, and the hard thing was whittling the choice down to two.
Our 36 applicants offered to write books on a range of relevant and thought-provoking topics: 13 biographies, 12 histories, three social commentaries, two science projects, two natural histories, one cultural project, two memoirs and one answering to the mind-body-spirit genre.
The selection panel eventually chose two projects that stand in outrageous contrast to each other: Philip Norman will write a history of New Zealand musical composition, while Hazel Riseborough’s history of shearing will tell us what was going on down on the farm.
Philip Norman’s will be a companion volume to his Montana-award-winning biography of Douglas Lilburn. It will chart the course of New Zealand composition from the beginnings of European settlement through to the 21st century, with particular focus on the post-WWII era. His new book aims to illuminate the work of New Zealand’s composers, their sounds, achievements, preoccupations, and the particular problems they have faced composing here. Readers of his Lilburn biography will know that he can develop a narrative and draw in the reader.
The shearing industry has been vital to the nation’s prosperity, and, given the iconic place of sheepy things in Kiwi hearts – witness the dominance of wool in any upmarket tourist outlet, and the enduring memory of Fred Dagg – it’s surprising such a history hasn’t been written before.
Shear Hard Work will tell that back-breaking story. It will use an oral history approach, as did Hazel Riseborough’s last book, Ngamatea: the Land and the People, to astonishing effect. Her academic credentials mean we can be confident that, although her book may appeal widely to both readers and non-readers, she will not compromise on sound scholarship.
This year’s award winners join an already strong troupe, especially as the books in whose birth CLL assisted come on-stream.
Last year saw publication of Lloyd Spencer Davis’ imaginatively written Looking for Darwin; this year, public and critics alike welcomed Jill Trevelyan’s bio-graphy of Rita Angus, while Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s history of the New Zealand gold rushes, Diggers, Hatters and Whores, has also hit the shops. Martin Edmond’s The Zone of the Marvellous is almost completed, and Auckland University Press will publish Paul Millar’s biography of Bill Pearson in mid-2009, as will Cape Catley Judith Dell Panny’s of C K Stead. Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s Best of Both Worlds is also expected next year. With a record like this, CLL’s idealism about New Zealand writers and writing still burns brightly.
Jenny Robin Jones is chair of the CLL awards panel, and this is an edited version of a speech she gave at the 2008 awards in Auckland.