Letters – Issue 120

Throw off the founders’ shackles

As regards your editorial about “our present reviewing wasteland” (NZB, Spring 2017): perhaps the time is ripe for New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa to take some practical steps to improve matters beyond scolding strictures. The editorial refers to the original intents of the review quarterly’s founders: reviewing only “our books” and becoming the New Zealand equivalent of the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. You add a third intent, “just for you”: being a journal where “local reviewers can learn their craft”. Hmm. Twenty-seven years on, the record is not that compelling. It might be time to review those objectives.

Take the first objective. Like the third, commendably worthy. But do you have to do worthy? And to such an extent? I sometimes wonder whether New Zealand reviewing is constrained – even infected – by the quality of work under review. So much New Zealand fiction seems to be dark and earnest, a kind of NZ noir. While it might seem loyal of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa to review all and sundry, some more stringent quality control would surely result in a modest cull.

But, you might say, what would we be left with, if we cut back? Well, that leads to a consideration of the second objective: being the New Zealand equivalent of those two prestigious overseas literary journals. They don’t confine themselves to the home-grown, nor to book reviewing. On the contrary, they are both energised and enlivened by essays, diaries, commentaries, letters and by film, theatre, opera and art reviews. All in all, in most issues, some 30-35% of the content of these two celebrated journals – your models – does not consist of book reviews.

Should New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa, 27 years on, be so faithfully constrained by what you call its original raison d’être? Could it throw off its founders’ shackles and broaden its canvas to include some essays and commentaries? And thus reduce the scope for the often uncompelling reviews of the sometimes mediocre books that your reviewers so earnestly struggle with.

As to achieving the third objective, that would surely be helped by confining your reviewing to those practitioners who do it best. Then the others would see how to lift their game. And then you wouldn’t need to struggle with any more earnest editorials!

Yours sincerely

Nick Bridge



On the new format

A joy to receive the new New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa. It now has the look, and feel, of a serious literary quarterly.

Great improvement.

Leonard Lambert


I’m so delighted with the new format of the latest edition of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa. It allows the reader easier access to content and greater manoeuvrability of the publication within smaller spaces.

With thanks and best wishes

Margaret Nielsen


This a note of appreciation and bouquet for the new format. It’s nice to have more room for manoeuvre when reading on the bus, and your nice matte paper isn’t so easily distressed by the threats posed by snatches of kitchen-table reading. Important features, and worthy of congratulations.

Dougal McNeill



Congratulations on the new format. It’s attractive, and in line with similar publications around the world.

Jane Westaway and Gerard Birrs



Missing the mark

In a recent piece in New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa (NZB, Winter 2017), Paul Schimmel looked down his spectacles at Hera Lindsay Bird, finding her work (and her speeches) gratuitous and unfunny. He tried to outweigh sales, followers, fame, attention and praise with a nebulous sense of “critical value” on the wonk. The ho ho “No country for old men” heading signalled a distancing by the magazine from the views espoused, and you can guess why.

I want to say two things. One, good on New Zealand Books. We should never be afraid of sourpuss commentators in New Zealand letters challenging the majority view. Two, I pretty much disagree with everything Schimmel said. This isn’t so surprising – Bird is a bit brilliant – and it’s the less interesting point, so I’ll curtail my virtue-signalling gush and try to defend point 1.

When attacked, many leap to Bird’s defence. Fair enough. Though at times the outrage causes the eyebrow to raise. Twitter tuts: It’s the old guard of old boys trying to protect itself! For shame! I’m all for shame and repression but it is wrong-footed to want opinions you disagree with banished from sight. For one thing, it gives those opinions too much credit. (Bird herself is hilarious with bizarre mock-serious rejoinders to Twitter hecklers.) This isn’t the orthodoxy protecting itself: Bird is New Zealand poetry right now. More often than not, it’s the squeaking of the also-rans and once-weres.

Voices of dissent are important. We don’t want a culture of letters where we all pretend to think the same and simply waft lukewarm congratulations at one another. Readers want the truth, and I am glad there are still grumpy naysayers. I love Robert McLean’s refusal to tolerate whimsy in our poetry, and his recent attempt to summarise the career of Bill Manhire as shallow and morally disengaged. Disagree on both counts: whimsy can be artful and delicious, and we have enough puritan scolds in New Zealand, so I don’t care if Manhire mentions bukkake or brushes past the Korean War without solemnity. But we need anti-establishment killjoys like McLean and Schimmel to keep our feet on the ground. And it has to be said that reading a rain shower is more fun than reading a backrub. You don’t have to agree with them, but let the sourpusses speak.

I think Schimmel misses the mark on Bird, but I’m glad the guy wrote it. My main niggle is Schimmel’s pooh-poohing of the humour. Funniness is risky, and I think pulling it off is much more worthy than lyricism or imagistic minimalism. Bird is funny. Sure that’s subjective, but, watch, do a little comparison: Bird’s poems and preambles get big laughs. Her witticisms are novel, intricate and surreal. Freya Daly Sadgrove, too: funny as hell. I think it’s easy to please critics and academics, or to imitate whatever style is considered worthy of a period, but it’s hard to be funny. The most boring arbiters of taste think it’s cheap. They are dunderheads.

Nick Ascroft

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