Editorial – Issue 32

Adding to the cultural capital

As New Zealand Books moves into its eighth year of existence and a new editorial regime, it can be said to have demonstrated some important things. One is that, under Colin James’s enterprising editorship, it has greatly widened its range – in respect of both reviewers and reviewed – and enhanced its reputation. Another is that there is an indisputable place for such a journal in our society. However, there is one more thing that its very presence emphasises, and that is the continuing centrality of the printed word – and particularly of books – to New Zealand culture.

The printed word, as Alan Loney suggested in his December review of Book and Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa, is part of our heritage: what informs, shapes, argues, accuses, guides, teases, bewilders, frustrates, enlightens all of us in ways that we are usually barely aware of.

There is certainly no shortage of publications to review, indeed it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to do justice to the flood of new books published in New Zealand. These publications range over a reassuringly wide field: from fiction, cooking and sport to collections of poetry and studies in history, economics, psychology, film, ornithology, and religion. Somebody must buy them, and somebody must read them.

The fact is, there are enough of us around who still like books. Not only do we savour their contents, but in a purely physical sense, we still like to handle them: to feel their weight in the hand (particularly if they are a present yet to be unwrapped), to run our fingers over the glossy cover, to flip through the pages, to smell the irresistible combination of ink and paper. Many of us also still prefer to use books for reference. It’s still faster to refer to the paper form of a dictionary, for example, than its electronic form. There’s no waiting for the PC to wheeze into life, to pedantically check over all its systems, and only then let you look up what you’re after. By which time, often, you can’t be bothered.

So, in spite of the PC, the CD-ROM and the Internet, books remain a primary record of our history, ideas and culture. The appearance of many books is still an event. They make their debut, many of them, at a public launch. They and their authors or editors are the subject of radio and television interviews, and of feature articles in newspapers and magazines. We may wonder how National Radio would fill the day without new books to discuss. And what a service National Radio provides to the publishing industry in return. Books are at least widely talked about, if not actually read.

Not that talking about books is a cop-out. It’s what we at New Zealand Books do, after all. We provide a forum for detailed and critical debate about as many New Zealand publications as we can. In doing so, we also achieve something else: we reflect, in however unstructured a way, the important issues and ideas of the time. This became clear to us after we had edited Under Review, out selection from the first six years of New Zealand Books, which was published late last year. We rediscovered excellent pieces on contemporary Maori writing, the New Right, the dumbing down of television, and New Zealand film in the 90s, to take just a few examples. Many will become seminal documents of our age.

But even though books are an integral part of New Zealand culture, and even though compared with other societies we are good readers and book-buyers, our population base is too small to sustain our publishing endeavours with any margin of comfort. Print-runs are generally small – one of 10,000, for instance, is regarded in the trade as phenomenal – publishers’ profits are also small, authors’ royalties are smaller.

Sadly, many worthwhile and necessary publications cannot make it on sales alone, in particular those that are out of the mainstream, that challenge the reader, that attempt to push out the intellectual or artistic boundaries. They require a degree of subvention, whether it is in the production cost or the living expenses of the authors themselves. Such support is sought (and found) more and more in the private sector, and certainly New Zealand Books could not manage without the generous support it gets from its commercial sponsors. But because the private sector is ultimately responsible to its shareholders, its support also depends on commercial imperatives, and therefore cannot be relied on in the long term.

That leaves the Government and its funding of Creative New Zealand. It would be tempting to say at this point that literature in particular deserves more government funding, because it is especially needy and in comparison with, say, opera or ballet or theatre, it seems less extravagant with funds. But that is not the point. Our literature – from Curnow to Kidman, from Belich to Bornholdt – is only one part of the whole cultural package that defines New Zealand and New Zealanders as uniquely as our sauvignon blanc or our endlessly trumpeted sporting ventures.

Instead of being grudging with its funding of Creative New Zealand – and therefore those artists, writers, musicians, actors and craftspeople who depend on it for assistance – the Government should reward them for being the excellent investment that they are. We at New Zealand Books join our colleagues in appealing to the Shipley administration to foster the arts more generously and more resolutely than its predecessor. Maybe then the literary world, of which New Zealand Books is now an integral part, would be able to devote more of its energies to getting on with what it does best: writing, publishing, reading, debating – adding to our cultural capital.

A New Year’s Honour for Fiona Kidman

New Zealand Books warmly congratulates Fiona Kidman on becoming a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. The award recognises both Fiona Kidman’s achievement as a writer of fiction and her contribution to literary organisations and to the interface between literature and the community. She has been prominent in the New Zealand Book Council, PEN, and in the Writers in Schools, Writers on Wheels and Writers Visiting Prisons programmes. The award also acknowledges the importance of writing to New Zealand culture in general.

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