Largesse for literature
Over the last four-and-a-half years, New Zealand Books has kept a watching brief on the Government’s performance vis-à-vis the Arts. After Jenny Shipley became Prime Minister in 1997, we expressed the rather vain hope that she would prove to be better disposed towards them than her predecessor. Then, when the Labour-Alliance coalition took office, we hailed what promised to be a “more open, flexible, generous, and hands-on” approach. In May 2000, the coalition was as good as its word, injecting substantial new funds into such things as film production, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Te Papa and Creative New Zealand. At the time, we asked that literature not be forgotten when it came to distributing the Government’s largesse.
It’s taken a further two years not to forget literature, and in that period, writers – a notoriously disgruntled bunch – have been getting more and more disgruntled, but, finally, on 23 May, the Government announced significant extra funding for literature. A further $1 million is to be made available annually, representing an increase of some 40 per cent. As Helen Clark, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, conceded, “New Zealand’s authors have long played an important role in expressing and projecting what is unique about our country … That essential role has not been well supported.”
In order to help decide how best to allocate the money, a working party, which will consult leading figures in the writing community, has been established. This will make recommendations on such matters as the Authors’ Fund and the needs of New Zealand writers in general. New Zealand Books warmly welcomes both the increase in funding and the willingness to consult. We look forward with interest to the working party’s recommendations; our own wish-list, though, would include the following three important items.
First, we very much hope that the Authors’ Fund will finally be brought into the 21st century, and make realistic payments to those who qualify.
Secondly, Creative New Zealand grants to writers should revert to earlier models that provided a good year’s income, allowing a solid block of work to be completed. For example, this could mean grants of $36,000 for major projects as a matter of course, instead of $18,000, and would contrast with the current policy of cutting the grant cake rather too thinly.
Thirdly, there needs to be greater support for non-fiction in its many guises: biography and autobiography, personal essays and travel writing, Maoritanga, national, regional and local history, and writing on the environment. In relation to fiction, non-fiction – of which there are now many excellent local exponents – is still regarded as something of a poor relation, and requires nurturing. After all, sophisticated and well-written non-fiction is one of the hallmarks of a maturing culture.
But whatever the recommendations, we join other writers in applauding the coalition government’s funding initiative. We might add that such a supportive and forward-looking policy should not be an irrelevant factor in weighing up voting preferences in the coming General Election.
Harry Ricketts and Bill Sewell