Triumph in the regions, Lauris Edmond

Women’s Book Festival

In the first week of October this year a major national institution will make its annual appearance. In libraries, theatres, halls of various kinds, cafes and school rooms, in large cities and smaller towns all over the country, books written by women will be read, talked about, bought and sold. The Listener Women’s Book Festival, October 2‑9.

Many of those in its audiences will have been waiting for months for these events, borrowing books by the touring authors from local libraries, swapping titles and opinions with friends and colleagues. Organised book discussion groups ‑ of which there are more than 300, mostly in country districts ‑ will be waiting for the festival with the pleasant anticipation of the well‑informed.

Reading being the contagious condition it is, there will also by now be a heightened interest in many other books, not necessarily all of them written by women (men who complain at being left out would do well to observe this phenomenon). English teachers will have thought of ways to use the momentum of festival publicity to highlight the work of New Zealand authors; librarians must be having a field day.

Any literate traveller who has not been in New Zealand for September or October during the last five years could not but be amazed at this ferment of activity. We have surprised even ourselves ‑ not to mention others. The festival is looked at with interest and some envy by other book promoters. How on earth has all this come about and so quickly?

In 1987‑88 someone in Blackwells told Bridget Williams, travelling in Britain on a Churchill Fellowship, how they tested the market for books by women writers by putting them out in a prominent place, all together: “The response was astounding; they left the shop in great piles.” Back home Williams, then at Allen & Unwin, Kitty Wishart of the Auckland University Bookshop, Cathy Handley of London Bookshops, and Karen Ferns of Penguin initiated a plan that had within it all the ingredients for the spectacular development that was to follow.

Guiding principles have remained the same. They have their key in the structure, which was from the beginning designed to give maximum freedom of choice, with maximum opportunity to country districts and provincial towns, not just the main centres. This has proved to be both the festival’s main strength and its peculiarly New Zealand character. (Penny Hansen, who administered the festival for four years. says there is a parallel in men’s nationwide sporting organisations, particularly rugby and cricket.)

A central committee, led for many years by Wishart, organises national publicity and makes travel arrangements for local and international touring writers and finds financial backing.

Local committees decide what they want ‑ which means who they want to visit them ‑ manage all their own arrangements, including publicity (which has meant strong interest from regional newspapers and radio stations) and keep the profit, if any, for their own planning. This year the New Zealand Book Council has taken over the central administration and the Booksellers Association the role of chief sponsor.

Behind these systems is the designation of a Top Twenty books each year, chosen by a panel of booksellers appointed by the central committee; these ‑ mainly, but not exclusively, written by New Zealand women ‑ form the basis of the catalogue, but current important women’s writing is more generously highlighted. In 1989 35,000 catalogues and 2500 posters were printed and distributed. By 1993 catalogue numbers had risen to 65,000 and posters to 5500. The scale of the events themselves has grown similarly: in 1988 there were a few appearances in the main centres; by 1993 40 cities and towns were involved and the number of events totalled 203. The events themselves ‑ readings, talks, discussions, backed by book displays, lubricated of course by the social oil of occasions ‑ have the same ingredients, yet each has a strongly idiosyncratic local flavour.

Hansen, an inspired organiser and one of the stars of the movement, says the strength of the festival lies in this recognition of local differences. Choices are never imposed from the centre; the vitality of the whole comes from the independence of each group. My own experience as a touring writer has shown me a high quality of audiences in provincial towns and convinced me that the balance of central control and local independence has an understanding of the true nature of New Zealand social structures.

There have been problems. Hansen says keeping the claims of different regions in harmony has required a delicate balancing act. Local independence has taken hard work and careful thought to bring to maturity. Women living a long way from the main centres and with slight experience of managing and organising have learnt year by year. In this way the festival has operated as something of a training ground for women.

Money, or the lack of it, has been a constant concern. There is a burn‑out factor, but a considerable group of highly skilled and experienced women are still there, still active and enthusiastic after five or more years of hard grind. This is probably a comment on the freedom of action and the scope for co‑operation that is built into the system; also, one supposes, on the inherent fascination of the books themselves. Not to mention the stature of the women.

Men who work in publishing and bookselling support the festival ‑ at least those I’ve heard talking about it ‑ for the very good reason that it benefits them, too, and the whole industry. More broadly, the shaping of this movement has powerful political implications. If the initial concept had been competitive, hierarchical, canonical in the academic sense, status-conscious (dare I say patriarchal?) the results would have been very different.

Whatever you take from that, it is clear that we have moved a long way from the time less than 50 years ago when two of the country’s leading writers, Denis Glover and A R D Fairburn, could openly scoff at the “menstrual school”. A pity they can’t see New Zealand’s women and their writing now.

Lauris Edmond’s Selected Poems and An Autobiography have just been published by Bridget Williams Books.

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