Stuck in the middle – or the New Zealand publishing scene observed, Iain Sharp

In order to understand the New Zealand publishing scene a little better, let’s play a game of make-believe. The first scenario goes like this. You are someone who loves New Zealand for its climate, scenery, canned food, sports heroes and the opportunity to dangle headfirst from old railway bridges with an elasticised rope attached to your ankles. You have no desire to emigrate, but it has always been your ambition to edit a magazine. You’re a realist, so you don’t expect to amass the same kind of fortune as Tina Brown, the legendary resuscitator of the Tatler and Vanity Fair. All the same, you would like to make as handsome a profit as possible. You can see how small the New Zealand market is, even in its totality. You don’t want to restrict yourself further by being too highfalutin. The sensible approach is to go for the middle. That is, the middle-class, middlebrow and middle-of-the-road. Ideally, however, your audience should have above-average bank balances. You’re aiming for the top 50 per cent of New Zealand income-earners. It doesn’t matter if a few paupers go without their dinners to buy your magazine, but you don’t want to encourage too many of them. If advertisers form an impression that your clientele is primarily down-at-heel, your journal will sink into oblivion. The ability to attract advertising revenue is what matters most in the magazine industry. To make a decent living, you will need an armful of full-page colour advertisements for luxury hotels, airlines, credit cards, computers, perfume, jewellery, lambskin rugs, flashy cars and fancy liquor.

Obviously, these will not come your way if you insist on running articles which denounce the rich and express enthusiastic support for the impecunious and unemployed. On the other hand, you can’t just write for millionaires. There aren’t enough of them in New Zealand. Advertisers understand this perfectly. They don’t want you to direct your editorial content at Sir Ronald Brierley and his friends. They will be happier, on the whole, if you stick to the middle, targeting people who are already quite comfortable but seek to increase their comfort. It’s clear what you have to do. If you want your magazine to succeed, you must flatter these comfortable people by telling them how fine their way of life is and reflecting their own opinions back at them. You should praise them for being middling. It’s probably a good idea to publish a series of articles about how feminists, greenies and Maori land activists have gone too far in their claims. You should also score well with a few sobering essays about contemporary health problems, some fretful remarks about the education system and an occasional scare story about the more violent sections of the urban poor. Such hard-hitting stuff must be leavened, of course, with light celebrity gossip. Will Madonna beat Meryl Streep to the coveted leading role in the movie version of Evita, or will they both be pipped by gorgeous young Mariah Carey? Are the Duchess of York’s hemlines currently too explicit? What part of her anatomy will Cher reconstruct next? There’s enough of this material available to fill every issue. In fact, when your magazine isn’t cribbing directly from British and American sources, it will be apeing them furtively. Still, it’s important to give the illusion of local content. Each issue should contain a couple of chatty profiles with such indigenous stars as New Zealand can muster: weather girls, newsreaders, hosts of television game shows, models who have married antediluvian rock singers. You have been to university and think of yourself as a pretty good mind. Thus you decide that once your magazine proves a hit with the advertising agencies and supermarkets you will toss in something to appease the more intellectual elements in your audience. A short poem perhaps. Or a cryptic crossword. Or an interview with a conspicuously brainy overseas visitor. Possibly all three. You don’t want to overdo things, though. The money comes from the middle. You don’t want to offend them with too much intelligence in any given issue.

But let’s move on to a second scenario. You love New Zealand for the same reason as before and still want to edit a magazine. This time, however, you already have a full-time job and don’t expect to earn anything of significance from your journalistic labours. The magazine you have in mind is a small, exclusively black and white quarterly which caters to a minority taste. Literature, in this instance. The Literary Fund has given you a grant of $5000, so you’re not concerned with advertising revenue although a couple of friendly booksellers have agreed to pay a small sum for notices in your inaugural issue. At first you feel free to be as highbrow and even esoteric as you like, but gradually a doubt creeps in. You have accepted public money for this magazine. Don’t you have a duty therefore to interest as many of the public as possible? Originally, you planned to run a series of detailed discussions with writers under 30 about matters of technique. Now you’re no longer certain you can find more than 200 people who are interested in this sort of thing. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to interview older writers whose books feature in school and university syllabuses? That way your readership might rise to as many as 2000. Not wishing your magazine to be a flop, you decide to play safe and move more towards the middle-of-the-road. You’re careful to stay on splendid terms with all the authors who appear in syllabuses, but you’re sometimes rude to more obscure writers, especially when you suspect that they don’t subscribe to your quarterly anyhow. The third scenario goes like this. You’re a full-time journalist. You love New Zealand for the customary reasons and don’t want to emigrate. Most of your working day is spent interviewing weather girls and the hosts of television game shows, although you occasionally do brainy overseas visitors as well, provided they’re not too abstruse. Recently, however, your editor has decided, perhaps erroneously, that you like to read books and thereby given you a swag of New Zealand publications to review. You actually read these things, you’ll be putting in hours of overtime for very little remuneration. Fortunately, most of them come with publicity sheets inside which give you the general drift.

You decide on a policy of unilateral praise. You take a couple of paragraphs from each publicity sheet, make a few quick changes to the wording and add a brief, generalised encomium. Freed from the burden of having to read the books or, worse still, think about them, you complete your reviews swiftly. Your editor is delighted with the promptness with which your copy arrives. The publishers, who are probably struggling to make ends meet, are delighted that sales haven’t been hurt by negative criticism. They make sure you are included on the guest list of all their book launches. You consume much free wine and eat many free snacks. Some of the authors are so delighted to receive favourable mention that they offer you free accommodation and guided fishing tours whenever you pass through their hometowns. In private, of course, some of the smarter members of the New Zealand literary set consider you a total ass, but this need not trouble you unduly. To your face everybody is perfectly pleasant.

These scenarios are cartoons which fail to do justice to many brave, industrious and cunning spirits. Nevertheless, much that is published in New Zealand seems to me tame, dull, lazy, cowardly and predictable. Very lazy by nature myself, I’m usually content to go along with the status quo. Who needs fuss or enemies or complications or extra work? Sometimes, though, out of sheer boredom, I would like to see ideas discussed with real fire and depth rather than the same old flapdoodle being rehearsed yet again. New Zealand, as we’re all painfully aware, is a little place. For the last 150 years Pakehas have been accustomed to wait at the wharves for the culture to arrive from abroad. When ideas are passed around the world, we’re the pipsqueaks at the end of the queue. Yet lively minds exist here and not all of them feel inclined to emigrate. My hope is that New Zealand Books will provide a forum for frank discussion that dares to rise above the suffocating confines of the Middle Kingdom.


Iain Sharp is an Auckland writer and journalist.


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