Monday, November 16, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE DEEPENING STREAM – A History of the New Zealand Literary Fund” by Elizabeth Caffin and Andrew Mason (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

Every literate New Zealander is able to recite A. R. D. Fairburn’s caustic “Note on the State Literary Fund”, which is duly quoted on p.35 of this history of the fund: “Here is a piece of wisdom / I learnt at my mother’s knee: / The mushroom grows in the open, / The toadstool under the tree.” 
Who hasn’t at some time feared that state patronage of literature could open the way for an officially “acceptable” sort of writing, the aesthetic corruption of authors who vie for state grants, and the formation of influential literary cliques who know which government administrators to flatter?
And yet which literate New Zealander isn’t also aware that, without such state patronage, it might for years have been impossible to have much worthwhile literature published in New Zealand at all? Edmond’s Cookbook and Barry Crump, yes. Something more challenging, no. I look at the “Creative New Zealand” logo in my first published collection of poems and I know which side my bread is buttered on.
The tension between the achievements made possible by the fund itself, and legitimate criticisms of the way the fund was administered, is at the heart of The Deepening Stream. This book was begun by Andrew Mason, who chaired the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in its last days, and who died in 2009. He wrote the history of the New Zealand Literary Fund from its inception up to 1955. After editing and re-writing Mason’s three chapters, Elizabeth Caffin completed the story up to the ending of the Literary Fund as it was once constituted. She chose the title The Deepening Stream from one of the culture-defining essays that Monte Holcroft wrote in the 1940s. This is, as her introduction says (p.11) “the story of the evolution of New Zealand’s literary culture over forty years, from 1947 to 1988” – a deepening stream even if it has got turbid and muddy sometimes.
A full history of the literary fund and its advisory committee has to deal with the many-sided relationship of writers, publishers, administrators, lobbyists for special interest groups and so forth. The broad history of the fund, as told by The Deepening Stream, goes something as follows:
There had been much discussion of the need for state patronage of literature in the 1930s, often led by the writers’ “union” PEN and its spokesman Pat Lawlor. In the 1940s Joseph Heenan, “an imaginative and creative public servant” (p.30) in the Department of Internal Affairs, cleverly extended the Centennial Branch (concerned with producing books related to the 1940 centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi) into an Historical Branch (which would fund reprints of notable New Zealand history books). This was the first step towards state patronage of literature. Heenan knew there was much pressure for writers of imaginative fiction and poetry to receive grants, but he was also aware of how contentious this could be. As he wrote truthfully “New Zealand has so many intolerant cliques, each of which claims in all fields of art to have the monopoly of knowledge and taste.” (quoted p.31)
At first the emphasis was on grants to assist publication of completed works, not on grants to assist writers. Finally the Literary Fund Advisory Committee (LFAC) was set up in 1947, but many writers feared the committee would go for “safe” publications and be over-concerned with the “image” which any New Zealand work created for overseas readers. And indeed in its early days, the committee did tend to recommend grants for “respectable” history books. Given the very small pool of New Zealand literary talent, there was the problem of members of the committee who might themselves have benefitted from the fund. There were also too many sub-par submissions. Elizabeth Caffin (or perhaps Andrew Mason) comments:
 “The applications were a motley lot. So were the applicants, who were aspiring authors, friends and relations of authors, interested dignitaries as well as publishers. In this situation the well-meaning committee coming across a halfway-decent manuscript tended to bend over backwards to support it.” (p.54)
The committee soon found that publishers were a poor “filter” when it came to presenting worthwhile works for their consideration. The committee’s habit of  “outsourcing” readers’ reports led to a number of poor decisions so that gradually the LFAC themselves had to undertake the reading of manuscripts, which proved too onerous for some committee members.
Gradually, by the early 1960s, the committee’s focus had changed and there was as much direct support for authors as for publication. There was also more emphasis on supporting fiction and poetry. Many have noticed that at this time, thanks to grants from the fund, a growing number of durable New Zealand writers were achieving their first publication. In retrospect the fund did miss some important works (neither Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat nor Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water received funding). But its list of “successes” was considerable.
Most literary magazines failed to get grants for lack of quality and stability (i.e. many of them lasted for a mere few issues). However, Landfall and Poetry Yearbook benefitted from the fund, until a bad misjudgement ended support of the latter. Later, many connected with “little magazines” resented the apparently preferential treatment given to Landfall and to Robin Dudding’s shorter-lived rival Islands. An annual Award for Achievement was set up in 1956-57. But when the long haul of a National Party government began in the 1960s, government support for the arts became more grudging. (Elizabeth Caffin goes sarcastic, calling the 1960s Minister of Finance Robert Muldoon “kindly” at p.142). However Alan Highet, the National Party Minister of Arts, proved enlightened and supportive of the literary fund’s work.
By the 1970s, there was the looming spectre of the literary fund being absorbed into, and made an adjunct of, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. By this stage, the fund’s subsidisation of reprints was declining. The writing of New Zealand history had become professionalised, and professional historians, receiving full academic salaries, were less likely to be eligible for grants. The funding of nonfiction works therefore decreased and “the adequate funding of serious and gifted writers of nonfiction who were not university teachers remained a problem, and still does.” (p.171)
The whole literary and publishing context was changing in the 1970s. The New Zealand Book Council was set up in 1972. An Arts Council Act was passed in 1974. New Zealand literature was now taught widely in schools and universities. The rising profile of New Zealand literature in the 1980s was accompanied by the greater visibility of women writers and Maori writers, signalled when Keri Hulme’s the bone people won the Booker Prize in 1985. This was also the era when the first New Zealand readers’ and writers’ weeks were being established.
Finally, in the late 1980s, the Literary Fund was folded into the QEII Arts Council, which in turn was restructured as “Creative New Zealand” in 1994. The whole system of providing stage patronage for literature had changed.
Apart from a final ten-page encomium, concentrating on the difficulties of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee’s work, and on its major successes, this is where Elizabeth Caffin ends her history. Before she does so, however, she remarks:
While the entry into the Arts Council had been positive and hopeful, the writers and publishers present at a meeting in Auckland in 1996 were angry and exasperated at the way things had turned out, at the shift of power away from practitioners into the hands of bureaucrats, at an obscure and mystifying assessment process and at the use of a language derived from management and showing none of the sensitivity to which writers were by nature alert.” (p.227)
She closes with a quotation from Ian Wedde expressing these concerns.
So this is a bare outline of the LFAC’s existence.
What I have done here, of course, is to strip The Deepening Stream of much of its colour by not noting many of the personal stories it relates. There was Professor Ian Gordon’s very long tenure as chairman of the advisory committee (1951-74), which inevitably led to much criticism of him, despite his generally efficient work.  There was young David Ballantyne’s stoush, in the early 1950s, with Pat Lawlor (secretary of the LFAC) over Ballantyne’s novel The Cunninghams. Charles Brasch, after first being very patrician and sniffy about the fund (inherited family wealth had enabled him to set up Landfall) became very prone to intervening and commenting on fund matters, clearly casting himself as the godfather of New Zealand Literature. Erratic and bohemian Auckland printer Bob Lowry was so tardy in publishing a book, for the publication of which he had received a grant, that the LFAC brought in a new regulation that grants would be conferred to publishers only upon publication (p.124). Then there’s James K. Baxter’s classic one-line reader’s report to Andrew Sharp on Hone Tuwhare’s debut volume “No Ordinary Son”: “Andy – I think these are good. Jim Baxter” (p.126).
The points at which the LFAC blundered are enlightening. I regard it as a blunder that short-story writer John Reece Cole was given grant after he had published all the fiction that he ever would publish (p.95). I also find it amusing that the poet Hubert Witheford used a similar grant to abscond to England and never to return (pp.103-104). In the early 1960s Allen Curnow who, like Charles Brasch, had pretensions to be the dictator of New Zealand poetry, whined about the quality of poems in the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook. (“its open and inclusive approach led to strong criticisms of its quality, especially by Curnow” p.132) There was then a kerfuffle about the supposed “salacious” quality of some poems and pressure was put on the LFAC to withhold further grants from New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, which it did. Only in 1971 was Poetry New Zealand  (“Frank McKay’s resurrection of the old Poetry Yearbook” p.142) funded once again. [Its not part of Caffin’s story, but Poetry New Zealand continued for over 40 years as a twice-yearly publication, mainly without any public funding and largely under the editorship of Alistair Paterson, and in 2014 reverted to being a substantial Yearbook].
I have to note, though, that most of the really colourful stuff is in the earlier part of the book (from the 1940s to the 1960s). The book becomes more polite and circumspect the nearer it approaches the present, perhaps because it is dealing with people who are still alive. For example we are told that C. K. Stead, who briefly chaired the LFAC (1974-76) had “strongly disagreed with some of the decisions the committee had made” (p.157). But we are not told what those disagreements were.
There may be some undercurrents to The Deepening Stream that are not explored as fully as they could have been. Occasionally, we are reminded that there was often a tension between Wellingtonians, nearer the source of government largesse, and others, who felt locked out and unable to so easily influence grant-giving bureaucrats. There may be an echo of this concern when Caffin writes of the Wellington literary magazine Sport that it was “a reliable stayer and a valuable conduit for students of Bill Manhire’s classes in creative writing” (p.210). Is this statement intended ironically?
Some glib and rude comments before I finish. I do find the giving of “speculative” grants to promising writers to be a dodgy procedure. More than once in (the earlier parts of) this book, there are tales of writers who were given travels funds simply to enlarge their views of the world, and with no specific writing project being a condition of the grant. I think it was this sort of thing that provoked A. R. D. Fairburn’s witticism, with which I began this notice.
In this matter at least, I agree with Fairburn.
I would also have to admit that much of The Deepening Stream seems curiously nostalgic to me. It recalls a different world, in which there were no professional, career, arts administrators, and the language of neo-liberalism was rarely spoken.
Dear dead days.

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