All in the same nest
The Germans have a word for it: Nestbeschmutzung. It literally means “fouling the nest”, but it has a more general meaning of “putting down your own kind”. This is in effect what Rosemary McLeod did when she had a go at Fiona Kidman in her Sunday Star Times column back in late August. Kidman had just resigned from the board of Creative New Zealand over a cut of $100,000 a year for the New Zealand Authors’ Fund, and McLeod seemed to consider the gesture altogether too precious.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Kidman’s stand (one, incidentally, with which we sympathise), McLeod muddied the waters by making assertions that were either mistaken or misguided. First, she talked carelessly about “the right of authors to get paid for every copy of a book of theirs held in a New Zealand library”. In fact, this is not a general right: to qualify, an author needs a minimum of 50 copies of a single title to be held in New Zealand libraries before he or she gets a solitary cent – something which McLeod, as a former beneficiary of the Fund herself, went on to acknowledge.
Then she described the institution of the Authors’ Fund as a “rort”. Now, according to the Shorter Oxford, a “rort” is well-known Aussie slang for “a trick, a fraud, a dishonest practice”. It is grossly unfair to look upon the Authors’ Fund in these terms, and even if it were gravy train territory, the relatively small amount doled out to authors would hardly rate a Winebox-style inquiry.
Finally, McLeod seemed to have signed up for the Bob Jones school of literary funding. She maintained that “if [Kidman] writes books people want to read, she is well rewarded with royalties. The whole world is her market, and millions of books are on sale there, along with hers”. In other words, no market, no money. Literary value is equated purely with number of copies sold – no matter how trite, trashy or turpitudinous.
But perhaps more dismaying was the false distinction McLeod drew between journalism and serious writing. She stressed the “ephemerality” of journalism, claiming that it “is closely linked to its time and place; it is not intended to last.” By contrast, writers of fiction are conventionally considered “superior. They produce literature”. But though she made the distinction, her heart wasn’t really in it, because she felt the need to observe that both journalists and fiction-writers share the role of “hold[ing] up a mirror to the world”.
Her intuition was closer to the mark than she gave herself credit for. Fiction and journalism have long been intertwined. In the 19th century, stories and novels by Dickens, George Eliot and Hardy were routinely serialised in magazines and newspapers. In addition, many notable literary authors have been celebrated journalists – from Defoe, Dr Johnson, Kipling and Orwell to Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Helen Fielding. Closer to home, we have Allen Curnow, Lloyd Jones, Brian Turner, and Helen Brown. We’d like to think that New Zealand Books makes its own substantial contribution to this tradition, publishing reviews by prominent journalists such as Colin James, Kim Hill, John Campbell and Rosemary McLeod herself, alongside those by well-known literary writers such as C K Stead, Linda Burgess, Anne French and Owen Marshall.
The fact is that we are all writers together, all in the same “nest”. Some of our work will be ephemeral; some not. All of us deserve support, from whatever sources are available, whether we write full-time or in stolen moments. McLeod probably commands a generous fee (by New Zealand standards) for her columns. Good on her. As Dr Johnson remarked, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But not every writer is read by so large an audience and they too should be given a hearing. Public funding – modest though it is – helps to make that possible.
Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts