Jacinda Adern, the Labour Spokesperson for Arts, Culture and Heritage, assesses the literary sector from the left of the political spectrum.
I can still remember the mottled edges of my favourite childhood books. I read everything, including my mother’s dog-eared Nancy Drew collection. Back then, the arrival of the “pick a path” genre felt pretty crazy. What will they think of next? As it turns out, the answer was “everything”.
There are some things that will never change when it comes to reading, writing, and creating – they’re fundamental to the human condition. But around that fundamental swirls a world of change and uncertainty that literary art practitioners in this country, and indeed across the world, are having to grapple with.
Politicians should be wrestling with those same issues – or at least, if we value your craft and your industry, we should be. And here are my thoughts on why.
It’s always been a given for Labour that the arts are fundamental to building and strengthening our cultural identity. But, increasingly, we’re also pushing the role of the sector as massive contributors to our economy. Sure, this is secondary in my mind to the sense of self and community that the creative sector provides, but we should never take for granted that the arts are a part of our economy too.
Helen Clark understood all of this better than most, and I’m still really proud of the fact that she took on the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio when she was prime minister. It sits in stark contrast to the current political response to the sector. Who doesn’t remember, for instance, Judith Collins tweeting that Eleanor Catton’s Booker was “a prize given for the most unreadable novel”, or John Key’s dismissive comment of 2009 that, “while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us”.
There are many things I could write in response to that statement; none of them belong in a respectable publication like this, though.
Sadly, the Prime Minister’s words mirror what has been a gradual but steady decline in focus on the literary sector. Yes, we have fantastic writers producing amazing works, events that attract wonderful writers and delight their readers – but this seems to be happening in spite of the environment, rather than because of it.
For me, both as an avid reader but also as Labour’s Arts spokesperson, I too have watched in dismay as the support for literature continues to fall. Since having this portfolio, I have seen sponsorship for our two major awards dropped, the New Zealand Book Month postponed indefinitely, Te Papa Press “under review” and numerous literary opportunities either shrink or cease to exist altogether. In short, the voice that speaks of and about our culture is faltering. And what is the flow-on effect to New Zealand when that voice is no longer audible?
The two key disruptors to the literary sector that I see are a lack of funding, and technology.
First, I want to make a couple of points about funding. New Zealand is a comparatively wealthy country. There is, however, an issue about an imbalance in wealth distribution – in other words, wealth is concentrated in a small percentage of the population. So that means a few people are doing really well while the majority of New Zealanders are doing it tough.
And the impact of this imbalance on the cultural landscape? Fewer people have the disposable income to buy things like books or the ability to offer philanthropic support. And the few in the position to offer support are often forced to pick, choose and change where they provide that support.
The result is uncertainty and a lack of ability to forward plan for organisations involved in celebrating and promoting the arts. Put this alongside the changing face of business, with more multi-national companies often operating from offshore and local businesses going under, and the upshot is – less support of and engagement with “things New Zealand”. The sponsorship dollar dries up, events fold and there is less recognition, support and celebration of the breadth of creativity that marks who we are as a people and a land.
And then there is technology. You in the literary arts sector tell me you feel the technological revolution keenly – both the advantages but, even more so, the disadvantages, from online sales impacting on local sales and booksellers to the sheer volume of written material that is now accessible. The shrinking of local publishing houses means that more and more authors have no choice but either to go hybrid or self-publish and try to learn the business of promotion in a very crowded market place. All this at a time when traditional media like radio and print are cutting back on reviewing. It is also at a time when festivals such as the Auckland Writers Festival, the WORD Christchurch Festival and A Lit Crawl in Wellington and the like are seeing large audiences of young and old turn out to enjoy and be stimulated by writing and writers.
So, there we have it – a massive challenge for you as arts practitioners and for me as an MP.
Like you, I want to see a return to the New Zealand where the arts are valued. Government policy settings are critical and can make a real difference.
In the lead-up to last year’s election, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with some members of the literary arts community and to hear firsthand what the issues were and what could be done to support the industry. I was then able to reflect this in Labour’s Arts Policy which included:
• Working with the Book Council, the Authors Society and publishers to re-establish a pan-literary group to discuss and advise on policy and legislation that impacts on writers.
• Working with the pan-literary group, and more broadly, to ensure that New Zealand Book Month occurs on an annual basis.
• Reviewing and amending criteria for writers’ scholarships. Recipients of writers’ scholarships should have the option of staying and working at home.
• Reviewing the Public Lending Right for New Zealand Authors Act five-yearly (or CPI adjusted). The first review will take place when we take office.
There will be more answers out there to help meet the challenges the literary arts are facing, both public and private. It is fair to say that what has worked in the past may not work in the future. Other creative sectors have been grappling with what change means for their sectors and have come up with alternative ways to celebrate and give exposure to the achievements in their industries – “the Moas” being a great example.
My job is to see things through the lens of politics – what happens across the whole of New Zealand, what impact is being had on, in this case, the literary arts and what we can do to make things better across the sectors for us all. One of your many jobs is to tell me what you think and what solutions you think will work. I want to add Labour’s voice to yours to work to find sustainable solutions to both the funding and technological challenges we face. Because, ultimately, without a supported and celebrated literary culture we will all be worse off – both now and for future generations of readers and writers.
I look forward to hearing from you!