Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Breaks in the symbolic chain.

One of the most powerful images of the year was the photograph from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The image is of retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis, a career policemen, caught on the other side of the law. The fact that Lewis is in full police dress uniform gives the image extra edge and resonance. It forces us to examine a conflict between a symbol used in two different ways.

Police forces have always been very aware of the symbolic nature of uniforms. The uniforms carry strong implicit messages. The bold deep blue of the NYPD uniform speaks of clarity, strength. It’s not some wishy-washy faded yellow. Men and women of power love deep navy blue too for their suits and blazers. It’s patriarchal, more about the symbol of the father figure as a psychological necessity, than it is specifically about gender. The force that knows more, has experienced more, is clear on issues you might be opaque about. But in the image of Captain Ray Lewis the symbolism becomes blurred, because there’s no apparent dichotomy between the characters in the drama. The man being arrested should look like a man being arrested, not like the policemen arresting him. The upright bearing and dignity of the arrested man also clashes with accepted symbology. He’s supposed to ‘look’ criminal. But he doesn’t. He actually looks to have more authority than those arresting him.

This departure from the familiar chain of symbolism makes us question the context. As it should. Who is in the right? Who has the real authority – authority beyond the functional authority bestowed as a facet of procedure by those in power?

The second image, showing Lt John Pike of the UC Davis police pepper-spraying protestors, also disrupts our familiar symbolic narrative, but in a very different way. The clash here is not within the scene itself, but between the totality of this specific scene and the chain of symbols we have built up as part of the meta narrative. The narrative that says ‘trust in the police force, because they are here to protect and serve.’ Only one side of the forces in conflict here has the symbolic uniform of authority. The other side are dressed like ordinary people. The traditional authority figure also wears protective gear, but there is nothing clearly identifiable in the scene that demands he be protected from. He is standing, they are sitting. He is armed with a disabling device (pepper spray), they are not. There is a gross imbalance of power here, at least in the temporal and physical sense. Who ultimately wins that battle for power has yet to be determined.

Both these images speak well beyond their specific context. They attack the history of the symbols themselves, attack our inner diagrams and associations that go with the symbols. There is a rupture in the chain, a break. Those who trade in symbols, as police forces (and business people in suits, and soldiers and sportspeople do) make use of those symbols to give them authority they may or may not have without them. And when the chain of symbology and the associations the wearers of the symbols need to illicit from the rest of us break, then it begins to unravel. The whole meta-narrative can also unravel. Symbols are double-edged, and the process of symbolism and how it echoes or reflects or impacts upon the free floating threads of associations in our subconscious is impossible to control. This stuff runs deep. Governments have been brought down by a single symbolic moment, or a break in the chain of symbols.

Where will this break lead?

Tiny spaces

Early colour footage from 1939, an audience member at a baseball world series game, set to the music of Thomas Newman. This has a balletic quality, almost dreamlike. A clip to stare at with the volume turned up. As this is filmed a month after the slaughter began in Poland to start WW2, the sense of the simple joy of tribal contests that don't end in bloodshed contrasts with the unseen horror, making the assembled cast unreliable narrators. With that knowledge, the monolithic buildings seem somehow sinister, like prison guards. Sometimes beauty is captured in the tiny space between innocence and terrible truth.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Velveteen Rabbit

For me, one of the great childrens' stories is Margery Williams' 1922 tale The Velveteen Rabbit. Like many good childrens' stories it's about the world, about all of us.

The voice is perfectly pitched, for the era, and comes alive off the page, begging to be read out loud with verve and rise and fall of voice. Here's a link to an online copy with some superb illustrations. Like some of the best Dr Seuss stories there are pointers in here to human behaviour which reward an adult's reading, while never sacrificing the enthralling style, to keep a young reader engaged.

There were other things in the stocking, nuts and oranges and a toy engine, and chocolate almonds and a clockwork mouse, but the Rabbit was quite the best of all. For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.

For at least two hours, that says so much.

The story contains all the elements of good fiction - including:

  • Character - the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse are hard to forget. Even the minor characters like the toy motorboat stand out. The Skin Horse reminds me of some of John Steinbeck's later ragged and wandering wise men (e.g. Jim Casey from The Grapes of Wrath.)
  • Plot -  the introduction of scarlet fever, which threatens the boy's life - darkens the story and takes it into new and poignant territory. Like all the most effective plot, it develops, raising the emotional stakes at the same time it raises the tension (this is crucial in strong storytelling) and contains subtextual echoes that go way beyond the specific context of the story. 
  • Conflict - at the same time the boy is saved, the rabbit is endangered (by the same act) which cleaves a split in the reader's loyalties
  • A transcendent scene (best put in either just before the plot climax, or at the emotional climax) - the moment when the Velveteen Rabbit waits, shivering, to be incinerated, thinking of the good times in the past, is heartbreaking. 
I'd advise anyone looking to write for children to study this story. Think about how you might adjust the voice for contemporary audiences, or the plot (do children still relate to fairies?)

The two stories that moved me most from my own childhood were The Velveteen Rabbit and The Lorax (Dr Seuss.) Each generation has its favourites, and it's interesting to think that Margery Williams story predates me by four decades. I guess the best stories really are timeless and always open to contemporary re-assessment and interpretation. I once read an online review of The Lorax by a political conservative who described it as 'tiresome environmental, anti-business agit-prop,'

Jesus wept.

But that's a whole 'nutha story.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who gets to tell our stories?

All the discussion about Wellington's Wellywood sign brings up deep questions about identify. The controversy touched a raw nerve with many and prompted questions about who gets to define us now, to tell our stories. Symbols are pieces of story, suggest a wider and deeper narrative. The people of Wellington rightly complained about a sign that not only was derivative (Hollywood - Bollywood - Wellywood) but gave out a covert message that the entire city had now been kidnapped by the film industry, in particular Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop. There is a difference between recognition and visual ownership.

Corporate entities (which are what Jackson and Weta are) have many means of public relations and marketing at their disposal, to be bought and paid for. A city and its people are more than just a 'thing' to be captured by business interests. They are a history, a culture, a whakapapa, a million stories that all weave into multi-layered narrative of everyday lives and struggles and challenges.

If a corporate wants to pay to put up a sign, they can, just as any of us can advertise. It's the covert kidnapping of the wider public's identity that bothers me, the automatic association that says that we are all now employees or mouthpieces. It's like the separation of church and state: an individual is free to work for both, to move between both, but does not have the right to force everyone to blur both into one.

It reminds me of Jean Baudrillard's book Simulations, 1981, when he speaks of the four stages of the sign. This is part of a recurring narrative in Baudrillard, which he calls 'the loss of the real,' the view that modern film, television and advertising has led to a loss of distinction between the real and imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth. (from Barry, 1995).

Baudrillard's four stages/orders consist of:

1) Attempt at realism - a sign (painting, poem, story, film etc) that is made to capture the world as it is

2) A misrepresentation or distortion - a romanticized version, soft focus, or hyped up (an example would be some of the pseudo-heroic and patriotic narratives we're often prompted to adopt)

3) A sign that disguises that there is no sign underneath - where the sign is actually all there is. An example is the Rene Magritte painting seen here. Where the painting on the easel and the view outside are one and the same.

4) A sign that bears no relation to any overt reality at all - e.g an abstract expressionist painting where the connections the viewer makes (if any) are entirely subjective and sometimes come from the unconscious.

In Peter Brooker's book Modernism/Postmodernism, (1992, p.154) he analyses the role in the collective imagination and identity of Disneyland, questioning first whether Disneyland is a sign of Baudrillard's second type. (A misrepresentation.)

All its (the U.S.A's) values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified...digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, idealised transposition of a contradictory reality. 

But he decides that Disneyland is in fact a 'third order simulation.' A sign which conceals an absence. (Barry, 1995.)

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it IS the 'real' country, all of 'real' America, which is Disneyland... Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real. 

Food for thought.

If nothing else, the whole issue got people talking about ownership and identity and who has the right to define it. So it's served a valuable purpose in the end. 

Here's an article with the two most popular entries for the contest to fill the space overlooking Wellington airport. The 'blown away' version is okay, though I baulk at it being designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. I prefer the Taniwha, at least visually.

But all that begs the question: where did this perceived need for a sign come from? Does there need to be a sign at all.

A grove of hardy trees would do it for me. Or just the hillside.

Astroturing: narrative in disguise

Surfing around various blogs and Facebook pages recently, especially to do with political issues, I notice that every now and then a poster will arrive on the scene and begin defending businesses or politicians or demographics with great fervor. This is often suddenly accompanied by related articles, charts, graphs, a wealth of links that seem to materialize very quickly. In moments like this I wonder if I'm looking at an example of what is called 'Astroturfing.'

Astroturfing (named after the artificial grass) originated as a term used to describe the formation of a grassroots movement of the people to support a particular cause, which turned out not to be grassroots at all, but instead  a covert paid public relations campaign. One famous example was an organization in the U.S.A. called the National Smokers Alliance, which was an ordinary citizens movement fighting for the rights of smokers. But it wasn't. It was set up by tobacco giant Phillip Morris. In China a couple of years back it was revealed the government was paying people to search blogsites and mainstream and social media to post pro-government comments, and/or make posts and comments to steer discussion away from any protest or complaint about government. Legend has it they were paid $0.50c for each positive post, therefore became known as The 50 Cent Party.

It is organized, usually professionally funded and paid, propaganda. 

Another noted example of a different kind of astroturfing was when Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006 an amateur video clip appeared on YouTube lampooning Al Gore and his message. An American journalist, Antonio Regalado, noted that this clip came up first when he did a Google search on Al Gore's name - something that can only happen if someone pays a lot of money. He traced the 'amateur' video back to a major PR firm - the actual client was never identified, but with Gore's anti Greenhouse Gasses message you can make reasonable guesses.Here is a link to the clip, which is still on YouTube.

There has been much speculation that the Tea Party movement in the U.S. is an astroturfed entity.

Pays to look closely at what you read and who is behind the telling. By the way, my opinions are mine alone. No one is paying me. I don't think anyone wants to.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sons for the Return Home

As part of a course I’ve been teaching in Pacific Literature at AUT I’ve re-read Albert Wendt’s landmark fiction novel Sons for the Return Home. I first read this text when I was in high school in the late 1970’s, which was probably bordering on an act of subversion at that time. The only other NZ work I recall reading in class was C.K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream.  

In the book a Samoan family migrates to New Zealand in the 1960’s (to Wellington) for economic reasons, always planning to return to Samoa with financial security and an increased standing in the local community (as having done well in the Papalagi (White/European) land. This point is crucial, the temporariness of their migration, though it in fact lasted for years. The parents imagine they will return to the same land they left, and that their two sons will fit straight in and somehow become traditional Samoans. This is a pipe dream. As Heraclitus said, ‘You cannot step twice into the same stream.’ The passage of time changes everything. The younger son is soon a hyphenated person, neither wholly Samoan nor a New Zealander. He becomes emotionally and physically involved with a young Papalagi woman, whose parents are an all too common mix of (psychologically unacknowledged) bigotry and themselves still with the strange temporariness of a people who have left the mythical ‘home’ but not quite settled in the new land, even though they were born in it. That both the groups of parents feel ethnical and cultural superiority over the other, is a nice comment on our selective blindness. The Samoan mother’s declaration of all the terrible habits of Papalagi children, then her admission she’s never actually known any, is a microcosm of just how much we take on board the cultural narratives that surround us. The younger son finds when he grows into a young man that he walks with a constant cloud of prejudiced assumptions around him, being constantly assembled into stereotype in the eyes of others.  

Sons for the Return Home is a crucial novel in Aotearoa and the Pacific for several reasons. Firstly it established that Samoan authors had a role to play in creating fiction here, roughly paralleling the rise of the first Maori novels and full short story collections by Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera. Secondly it gave an impression of NZ that was from a source outside of the standard narrative sources. We had had many years of the Eurocentric point of view, with NZ re-cast as a little England (despite the fact the NZ was largely also settled by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, then later the Dalmations coast in addition to the English). Then the ‘sons of Sargeson’ had given us the viewpoint and vernacular voice of the descendants of British settlers, but now broken free of the sense of being psychologically temporary settlers, or scouts of the motherland. In Frank Sargeson’s work the characters were of the NZ landscape, hewn by it, drawn from it and back to it. But the narrative viewpoint of the novels that followed was still clearly from a Pakeha worldview, and Maori and Polynesian characters viewed as the ‘other’. In New Zealand in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s being an ‘other’ definitely put you into the ‘submerged population groups’ (to use Frank O’Connor’s terminology. See. The Lonely Voice, 1962.)

Wendt’s work viewed New Zealand as a colonising force in Samoa, a new outlook for this country, where we (the general populace) were not that long into the recognition of the British as a colonising force here, as opposed to being ‘home.’ That part of it is still an awakening jolt, the realisation that colonisation isn’t as much about the who as the how. It’s about the supplanting of power, of superimposing a narrative of superiority and primacy, and is not solely Eurocentric in its blindness to indigeneity and existing cultural narratives. Colonialism is a mindset as much as it is military power and entrenching political superiority. Witness the Australian mining industry reps in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, with their beer guts and stubbies and jandals and disinterest in the ‘natives.’

Some of the reactions to the novel are now pretty hilarious, in an obnoxious sort of way. One review in New Zealand lamenting that the author felt the need to ‘resort to the apparently obligatory florid ethnic scenes to fill out the book.’ Smarter analyses such as Na Te Morehu said ‘Sons, like Witi Ihimaera’s groundbreaking story collection, Pounamu Pounamu, “rips away the covers of niceties” and looks at the sustaining and confining aspects of nostalgia for a mythicised past and home.’ (Sharrad, 2003). 

The book’s strongest moments for me are its most subtle. The protagonist’s father's shock on the boat journeying to New Zealand at seeing two crewman having illicit sex in a lifeboat (metaphorically his fear that his conservative family is about to ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.) The scene where the young boy is made to kill the pig at a feast, and goes through a maelstrom of emotions. The sequence where the two boys save an old man picking over a rubbish dump from being beaten up by bullies and their disbelief that a Papalagi elder could be treated like this. At other times the protagonist as a young man sometimes feels a bit too cool, a young man’s projection of the romantic view of the existentialist loner always swinging his jacket over his shoulder and leaving.   

The New Zealand Wendt was describing was circa late 1960’s, when Samoans were often spoken of as if characters from Kipling’s jungles, with a searing mix of tut-tutting patronisation and outright contempt. But that’s trap set for us by history, this sense that we’ve evolved way beyond that. It is not an invitation for us in 2011 to get cosy and comfortable in leaving those days behind. To do so would be to ignore the warnings of this novel. The story is also as much about class conflict  and inter-generational conflict (which was of earthquake proportions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) as it is about ethnic and cultural conflict. 
Sons for the Return Home is a brave book by a brave writer who has shown courage and honesty for decades now. I recently read an obituary for a noted business figure that said that the figure ‘was a man of courage.’ A closer reading saw that said businessman in fact always stood up for the apparatus of power and those who held it, for entrenched privilege. To see such shooting from behind mile-high sandbags as courageous is ridiculous. It takes courage to stand against power, to deconstruct the myths of not one society but two, to rattle the bars around you.      

Continuing Education Summer school

For those of you in Auckland the Auckland University Continuing Education Department is running their annual Summer School at the Epsom campus in January 2012. They are offering short courses (up to a week long) in various forms of creative writing.

Here's a link to the general brochure with all the various classes.

I will be teaching a week long workshop in the Novel: From Conception to Completion. It is an intensive interactive workshop looking at all aspects of writing a novel. The format includes mini-lectures, readings from selected texts to illustrate craft points, class discussions, class writing, then feedback and analysis sessions. It's for anyone considering writing a novel and wanting to get a solid grouding in the form and its facets.

AUT writing competition on again...

The third annual Auckland University of Techology Creative Writing competition is now open for entries. Here is a page with all the entry information.
Nb: Where it says entries are limited to unpublished authors only, the definition of 'published' that that implies includes e-books where the book is on sale to the general public. Check with them or at their Facebook page here if you're unsure.

I could certainly use the I-Pad2, they have as a prize.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fact and Fiction

This week saw the death of the great American boxer, (Smokin') Joe Frazier, of liver cancer at the age of 67. The grief expressed by sportscasters and fans around the world has been enormous, and indicative of the place that Smokin' Joe has in sports mythology. Boxing is the most mythologized of all sports, and it's no coincidence that a survey of sports movies once reported that half of all sports movies are about boxers and boxing. It's a little like the Western genre, a scraping away of the accoutrements of 'civilization' to return to a more primeval state, where life and death and the potential for sudden loss is ever present. Where excuses won't save you, eloquence won't protect you.

One of the aspects of this week's reportage of Frazier's death is the twinning almost immediately of Frazier's story with that of Muhammad Ali. This is crucial, for in Ali's constructing of his image was his positioning of himself as pretty/sweet/good against ugly/sour/evil. Ali's ability to sell that image, rocked at first by his (then, for the 1960's) radical cultural and ethnic politics, was eventually all pervasive and persuasive. In the late 1960’s he harangued Frazier publicly, with insults about how (in Ali’s view) ugly he was and how dumb he was. Frazier was then cast as the villain in the public’s eye. The reality was very different.

When Ali was banned from boxing (anywhere in the world) in 1967 he was soon broke, and unknown to the general audience at the time, Frazier, then his sworn enemy, financially supported him. They would meet and Frazier would hand him envelopes with several thousand dollars in them. Ali would then go on insulting Frazier in public. Frazier said nothing, partly because he believed Ali’s banning was unjust, and partly because he wanted to fight him one day, eventually buying into Ali’s taunts that they were destined to meet in some kind of heavyweight boxing apocalyptic moment, which they did, when Ali was allowed to box again. Frazier won, clearly. He quietly went home. Ali went on insulting him.

Boxing in the 1960’s and 1970’s was caught up in the storm of words of a storyteller of genius – in Muhammad Ali. He was able to define other fighters in terms they could never escape from. His characterization of them became the accepted. His three most iconic opponents, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were all cast firmly into the villain box, with Ali as avenger for all that was good. A deeper reading saw that Ali, the political activist railing against the poverty, lack of educational opportunities and racial prejudice of Black America, had not actually lived that upbringing. Liston, Frazier and Foreman had. Ali had the shadow of slavery over his ancestory, but his parents were part of the black middle-class. Liston was one of 25 children of an itinerant sharecropper, never knew the date or even the year he was born, never learnt to read and write. Frazier’s family were broke tenant farmers who ran bootleg whiskey, Smokin Joe’s first punchbag was a rolled-up blanket stuffed with straw and old clothes and tied to a tree. George Foreman grew up in a Houston, Texas slum called ‘The Bottom.’ Named so because if you arrived there, you had hit rock bottom. They knew the sharp end of being poor and black in the U.S.A. When Sonny Liston won the Heavyweight title he spent the plane journey home memorizing his speech for the press (since he couldn’t read.) When he landed, there was no one there to meet him.

Frazier’s victory over Ali in 1971 didn’t bring him the popularity he’d hoped for, he was respected by aficionados, but not liked by the public. Partly because he had shot down the good guy. He went on about his business. That’s what he did. There was never a more straightforward fighter than Frazier, he just worked and worked. No frills, no fancy moves. His comparitively small stature and short reach meant he often took 2 or 3 punches for every one he landed. He and Ali fought twice more, Ali won both. The third (in 1975) was an epic battle of will where Frazier’s manager Eddie Futch, in a rare (for professional boxing) moment of compassion refused to let the battered and half blinded Frazier come out for a 15th round, as he said he 'wasn't going to watch him die.' An exhausted Ali later said that he himself wouldn't have made it through the round.

In the lead-up to the 1975 fight in the Phillipines Ali had gone all out on Frazier, saying it would be 'a thrilla, a chilla and a killa, when I get the gorilla in Manilla.' Then he called him an Uncle Tom, the ultimate insult for an African-American man of the age. He said he’d done deals with the white man to advance himself. That cut Frazier deep, and he never forgave Ali for that.

In the mid 1970’s a huge chunk of Frazier’s biography was finally brought out into the light, only he wasn’t in it. That’s how his luck ran. He had spent time working in slaughterhouses, punching frozen carcasses to harden his hands. Running in the Philadelphia sleet and snow. The end of his run took him to the steps of Philadelphia city hall. From there he went home. All those moments were used and later immortalized on the movie screen, by Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky. The Rocky character won enormous cultural currency in America. Once again, fiction had won over fact.

A few years ago the city of Philadelphia decided to erect a statue of a boxer on those steps that Frazier had run up. The statue went up with great ceremony, and - you guessed it - now the character of Rocky stands there in all his homespun glory. No statues went up of Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Muhammad Ali is now locked away in a world of Parkinson’s syndrome, from where he can no longer tell his stories, Sonny Liston was long ago found dead of a drug overdose at the age of 38 (or 40 or 42 – no-one knows for sure.) It may have been murder, as Liston was not a drug-taker and was terrified of needles. A needle was found in the middle of his BACK. George Foreman has managed to get out from under the villain image of Ali’s creation, and it was an inaccurate image. Through sheer power of will and relentless optimism he has found his own place.

And now Smokin’ Joe Frazier is dead. He was diagnosed only a month ago, and went on making appearances and signing autographs until they put him in the hospice. We now know the story of Ali and Frazier was very different to the one we were sold but the statue of Rocky still stands in Philadelphia’s heart and in America’s cultural heart. Maybe the fiction will always be preferable, and maybe men like Joe Frazier will always be in the shadows, and as characters in other people’s narratives.

R.I.P to a great, great, fighter. And a good man. A man of fact, not of fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'...there are lit up moments, and the rest is dark.'

The above is a quote from Jeanette Winterson's wonderful book, Lighthousekeeping (Fourth Estate, London, 2004) which I finished reading a few days ago.

It was a revelation, quite possibly the best book I've read for... goodness knows how long. Everything about it is luminous, from the names of the characters - Silver, Miss Pinch, Pew, Josiah Dark, DogJim - to the language ( 'As for myself, I am splintered by great waves.' says Dark on page 166) to the commentary on storytelling itself.

There's also a sense of transcendence to the narrative voice - it's the kind of voice that creates a feeling of total uniqueness yet, at the same time, there is immediate recognition and connection. The kind of voice every writer longs for and reaches for. I was heading home from paragraph one.

So much is confessed, so much is not explained, and it all makes the most perfect sense - oh, for such narrative discernment, such confidence!

On page 134 the main character Silver says, '...and the stories I want to tell you will light up part of my life and leave the rest in darkness. You don't need to know everything. There is no everything. The stories themselves make the meaning.'

If you haven't already, read this book.

Here is a link to some reviews of Lighthousekeeping.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading and writing locally

Last week I was chatting to another Auckland writer and reader who commented that my work had a strong sense of being of and from New Zealand-Aotearoa. In particular, they said, this came out in the way I described the landscape, and used it to show aspects of character and psychology as well as to give a sense of place. I took this as a compliment and was rather flattered they had paid so much attention to the story. They then went on to say that they didn't want to write like that, that they wanted to appeal to a wider, more international audience, and that they weren't writing a 'New Zealand' story at all, they were writing for a global market. They had been told - and I'm not sure by whom - that anything too local had little or no chance of being published or read.

Well, I've heard that argument a number of times and it reminded me of hearing Margaret Attwood say that when she was starting out as a writer she was told the same kind of thing - that is, no-one would want to read about anything recognisably Canadian, it was too local - I think what that meant at the time was that it wouldn't appeal to an American audience. So whenever I hear these kinds of comments a part of my brain goes: oh, here we go, the cultural cringe argument again. And I think of any number of great writers whose work is steeped in local environments and communities, e.g. Annie Proulx, Katherine Mansefield, William Trevor, Patricia Grace, James Joyce...

It also reminded me of all the times I've heard writers - mainly but not only, unpublished - bemoan how hard it is to get published in New Zealand, yet when you ask them how many New Zealand books they read in a year they say none. They only read books from overseas such as international best sellers. Hmmm...

I'm not concerned that people are interested in overseas literature and popular fiction - I enjoy it very much myself - but I am always shocked and saddened if they aren't interested in the literature (and other forms of cultural expression) of their own communities. Can you demand the right to be heard, and published, if you aren't prepared to listen, read and support others?

Changes occuring in publishing (mentioned in a number of earlier posts) mean that we now have the opportunity to be published much more easily, but the new technologies and opportunities guarantee no-one an audience by right. Audiences are communities built up through shared interests, relationships and connections. They are not just marketing tools to make a buck out of.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Western Front, in Second Person Point of View

Talking with another writer earlier this week (who is doing AUT's Master of Creative Writing) about war scenes, I recalled a scene from the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone's epic film of life in the World War One trenches, adapted from the novel by Erich-Maria Remarque.

The scene is one of the most famous of all war scenes, prepared with meticulous care and edited with real edge to create an unusual effect. The crew used cameras mounted on dollies on small railway tracks, and also overhead dollies to sweep across the landscape. This was all done on a 1:1 scale, with real actors, years before stop motion, then the CGI wizardry that followed.

The central shot is a sequence that intercuts between a 'looking in' shot to a German machine gun nest, and a 'looking out' shot from that same nest (and along the trench lines, framed with barbed wire) at the charging French infantry, who are cut to pieces. The thud thud thud of the machine gun and the squeal of artillery shells gives a frightening soundtrack.

The cutting, and the intimacy of the viewpoint serve almost to convert the sequence to Second Person Point of View, very rare in film. The viewer is forced to become the shooter, to be responsible for the shooting. This gives the scene rare emotional force. As it proceeds, the whole frame fills with smoke, almost turning the figures into ghosts.

Here is a link to the whole sequence, the machine gun segment goes from 1:21 to 1:58. It is stunning film making: raw, honest, confrontational.

This great film's final scene is also justly famous, and a beautiful and sorrowful metaphor. You can watch it here.


The recent death of Christine Cole Catley (1922-2011) has left a large empty space in NZ letters, though with each day I begin to appreciate more what her life gave to NZ literature than what her death has taken away. Trisha and I were fortunate enough to have dinner with her and a few friends a few months ago, at which she still looked in great vigour.

She was an author, a publisher, a champion of NZ writers and writing and someone who (with the many good people on the Sargeson Trust) actively lobbied to get NZ writers financial backing, believing that our stories matter, as much as our rowing and rugby and what mountains we've climbed.

One thing I always appreciated about her was her lack of complete sureness, of a sense that she must be right because...well, she must be. That was refreshing. At the age of 88 she was asking questions and adding to her knowledge right up to the end.

Here is a link (from the Booksellers, NZ site) that gives some details and observations of what was certainly 'a life less ordinary...'

It seems almost redundant to say 'we shall not see her like again' but it's true.

The American Novel...

Been looking at a review (by Joseph Epstein) of a new book on American fiction. The Cambridge History of the American Novel.   I found myself agreeing with many of the points the reviewer makes early on. Such as:

These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it, at least not quite. A novelist, we are told, "tasks himself" with this or that; things tend to get "problematized"; the adjectives "global" and "post"-this-or-that receive a good workout; "alterity" and "intertexuality" pop up their homely heads; the "poetics of ineffability" come into play; and "agency" is used in ways one hadn't hitherto noticed, so that "readers in groups demonstrate agency." About the term "non-heteronormativity" let us not speak.
For a start, global, may be the most currently overused word in the English language. (With perhaps Going Forward, being the most overused phrase.) However the further I read the more the reviewer sounded like a literary reactionary. Consider:

The Cambridge History of the American Novel" could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.


Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.

There is an equivalence of value in the works of all cultures, as cultural artifacts, as statements that such cultures do or did exist. That in itself is not a statement about quality but about identity and longevity and continuity. Quality is a separate and subjective issue. It's difficult not to pick up on a dog whistle about cultural primacy in such a statement.

But for all that, my favourite quote is:

(...) ... the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.

Oh brother. Somehow I knew that was coming.

Any book on literature surely has a right to exist within its own framework, its own scope and opinions. Even if those opinions are ideologically driven. A smart reader is free to see the agenda behind the work and the opinions expressed as just that - opinions. I'll check out this history when it heads this way, with an open mind. If it is full of lit/crit jargon and ever decreasing circles then, well ... then it is, and the reader is free to put it down without injury. 

I don't believe readers need to be protected from the barbarians at the gate, and anyway, who gets to define the barbarians as barbarians?  

Here's a link to the full review.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The road out of isolation.

Reading Trisha’s post below prompts me to think of several issues.
·        In the traditional model the decision to publish is now economical, not qualitative. It always was, to an extent, but is more starkly so now. If a major publisher can say in November they’ve settled on their one new author for the coming year, then they seem to have shut the door on any other factors. I mean, how can you put a cap in advance on how many quality manuscripts you’ll be receiving.

·        With the new model of p-book (printed book) self-publishing (to a degree) and most especially e-book (electronic) self publishing the economic factors may lessen and the issue of quality of work becomes more black and white. If you can publish at the push of a button, then anyone can. How do we know that anyone/everyone has done the necessary diligence with their work’s quality before they push that button. The reading community will make their own judgements about quality as they always have. The writers need to be very clear-eyed in their qualitative judgements of their own work prior to publication.

In the new model I sometimes come across writers who are consumed by the how, in how to publish, and don’t always give enough focus on the when and what.
·        When – when is the manuscript ready to for me to hit the go button?
·        Why – what have I done/not done to ensure the manuscript is as high a quality as it can be?
The new model of self-publishing takes away the gatekeepers who decide we can/can’t publish, but now so much of the work they’ve done in that role needs to be taken on by the author.
·        Assessment
·        Layout
·        Artwork
·        Editing
·        Marketing
·        distribution
A couple of things spring to mind.
1)    Are potential self-published authors bearing all these tasks in mind when they consider their options
2)    These tasks need to be done, but not necessarily by the writer

When we consider these issues and tasks, how much are we thinking of gathering and pooling knowlege and ideas to work collectively, and how much are we approaching the new world in isolation. 

If we take one aspect of the list – Assessment  - and look at ways to do this, it’s not as daunting as it may seem. It is critical however. Writers and readers will not benefit by having first draft manuscripts published. I’d recommend the smart writer covers this issue in several stages.
·        Get together with a writing buddy or a writers critique group. Start assessing and critiquing your manuscript right from the start. Find out major issues early on, not at page 276. Be part of a pro-active servo mechanism – get other writers to critique your work with you critiquing theirs. Don’t expect anything for free, that’s disrespectful. Listen to advice, you don’t have to accept it, but to not listen is to miss out of fruitful opportunities to learn. For more info see my post on writers’ groups.
·        Attend writer’s workshops, or bang the drum to organize them yourself, with a group of writers. I have conducted workshops with several groups who have contacted writers and teachers themselves.
·        Get into a mentoring scheme. The NZSA has a good one, and it’s very cheap. Numbers are limited, but keep plugging away at it.
·        Have a professional assessment done – but only after you’ve already had several pairs of eyes look at it – on a quid-pro-quo basis. Don’t have the professional assessor be the first person to look at it. Iron as many of the kinks out as you can, prior to that point. Remember, peer critique is an effective way to upskill yourself, both by being critiqued and critiquing.
·        Read read read read read. I’ll say that again – read. Read as a writer – for technique as much as enjoyment. Deconstruct what you see, especially books that either work very well for you or don’t work at all. What are the differences – beyond personal taste.

A lot of writers’ trepidation about this issue, and most of the issues writers now face is based on the feeling that we are isolated. In the moment of creation, that’s true, but it doesn’t have to be in all aspects of what we do. There’s a wealth of ideas out there (but perhaps untapped) on how to get away from this, so we can form collectives and groups to negotiate our way through many of the tasks in the list above.  As Trisha notes, indie film-markers and musicians have already galvanised themselves to face the new reality.
In upcoming posts we’d like to go further into this, and call for ideas on how writers can get on the road out of isolation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Vanity versus Independent - time for Indie publishing?

Last Friday night at the September meeting of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors there was the beginning of an interesting discussion about self-publishing. I use the word beginning deliberately, because while some important issues were raised, they need much more time and space to be thought about and talked through.

The advent of ditigal publishing, book selling and distribution, print on demand, and the seeming demise of traditional publishing opportunities (with multi-nationals like Random House or Penguin) are part of the context for the concerns and questions many authors, both published and unpublished, have. Although in fact, these days the very terms themselves - published and unpublished - are no longer clear cut.

One of the concerns many authors express is over who will now set the standards for publication, given that any one is now able to to publish digitally, and that it is much cheaper to print smaller runs.

Under the old model, self-publishing, especially of fiction, was given the put-down term of vanity publishing. It implied your work was any or all of the following: amateurish, second-rate, badly written, unedited, poorly designed, and only of interest to your family or friends. Most of all it implied that you weren't good enough to be taken seriously, reviewed, distributed or sold in mainstream bookshops.

Published, on the other hand, meant that someone other than yourself - usually a recognised publishing company - had chosen your work, agreed to have an editor work with you, took care of the design, production, marketing and distribution and, if you and they were lucky, made a profit. The publisher set the (literary) standard and bestowed the appropriate status that went it. Of course it was still possible to get bad, even horrendous, reviews under this model, and have almost no-one buy the book, but even so, the writer still belonged to a category whose status was well above that of 'vanity'.

Status and standards, and who has the power to define, bestow and control them, are an integral part of any industry or human activity, whether it be the film or wine industry, plumbers' association, architects, rugmakers or writers. And wanting to belong to an exclusive or high status group, that is, being up there with the best, is a natural human ambition. But just like in the music and film industry, changes in technology and access to that technology, give writers the opportunity to take more control of their work, and break down the old distinction between published and vanity. In itself this doesn't guarantee the quality or sucess of their work, and marketing and distribution remain major concerns - these are issues well worth discussing in another post.

Indie music and films are now thriving. There was a definite feeling at the meeting last Friday evening that it's time Indie writers did too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Contrast and Montage

In the clip below, made of Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard's piece - Now We Are Free - there is superb use of montage effect and equally fine use of contrast. In fact the whole video is a treasure trove of sophisticated visual language.

Note how most of the shots feature a key contrast:
  • size - large against small
  • motion - movement against stillness
That level of contrast allows successive shots where there is minimal movement, but the key elements in the shot are moving against each other. This is an important facet of any form of storytelling, movement is always in relation to something.

I sometimes see student work where everything is moving quickfire, tension rises to a fever pitch and holds it. But continuous rapid movement needs to be against something that isn't rapidly moving, or it's like glancing across at another car next to you on the motorway, going at the same speed. Even though you're moving against the background, you're not against each other, you're still. A story which is nothing but constant movement, can actually flatline.

At 0:08 in the clip our eye focuses both on the boy's face and the water, because of their contrast. The effect of each is intensified because of what it is and what it isn't.

A writer can apply this process of contrast to many story elements:

  • light/shade
  • movement/stillness
  • dialogue/narrative description
  • spoken dialogue/body language 
  • a scene of intense emotionality/writing in extreme plainness
  • present/flashback
  • realistic representation/dreams
  • text/subtext
In the video below the use of contrast reaches its peak with the exquisite sequence from 1:00 to about 1:17 with the children running beneath the elephant's face in the rain. It takes an eye of some discernment to spot the angle to shoot from that intensifies that contrast, and these film-makers possess it.

Another thing that strikes me is the use of montage, where individual shots are layered one after another, and the glue between them is in the viewer's experience, the carry-over from one scene to the next. This is a facet of the reality of modern film. In the silent movies of the 1920's each scene was joined together by inserting a piece of written text that told something of the narrative. (e.g. ... meanwhile, the dastardly villain had kidnapped the heiress and taken her to his lair...) These insertions are a form of transition, corridors and lobbies in the story to take the reader from one scene to the next. Writers often insert these moments into the text, between scenes. e.g:
  • meanwhile, on the other side of town...
  • two weeks later, once he'd returned home from his trip...
  • the following year, they...
Or my particular favourite, from war stories:
  • That night, somewhere in Germany...  (usually written in old fashioned manual typeface)

But as readers and viewers we're capable of constructing such transitional moments in our heads, almost unconsciously, by making our own connections. We can and should be given space to do this.

In the Now We are Free filmclip they use the continuous stream of the music to glue the individual shots together, accentuated by the use of a single colour palette (variations of sepia.)

There are clips available on the 'net now, often created via a montage of 'found' materials that feature more artistry in a few minutes than many films have in 2 hours. Here's another example - also using the music of Lisa Gerrard. The shot of the 4 elephants standing up out of the water is stunning.

This is film-making so alive it breathes. 

Lisa Gerrard - Now We Are Free

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011 BNZ Literary Awards - Novice writers' category

Here is a link to the judge's report for the Novice writers' category of the BNZ literary awards. The judge of this category was Rachel King and I have found her report worth reading for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is purely personal: I was lucky enough to gain third place in this category with a story called The Rings of Saturn and to get mentioned in the report. I am grateful for her comments on the strengths and weaknesses of my story, not just because I respect Rachel King as a writer and critic, but because she obviously took the time to reflect thoughtfully on the top four stories and give some constructive feedback on all of them.

The second reason is that she has made some general comments about the topics and themes of many of the fifty shortlisted stories she read in this year's novice section of the competition. She states her concern that the topics (often around grief and death) might be being used to elicit an otherwise unearned emotional response in the reader. This is a very interesting comment and one worth pondering in more depth. I'm inferring that she means by this that the writing (of any story) needs to be a stronger vehicle for transporting the reader and making them feel and respond than the topic (or plot?) of the story, not that there is anything wrong with these topics/themes themselves? After all, many truly great short stories have been based on these themes, but I guess what makes them great is that the emotional response of the reader has been earned by the quality of the writing and the skill of the storytelling. Definitely something to aim for.

Here is a link for those of you interested in reading my story, The Rings of Saturn.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

ebooks, epublishing and how we read and write

Here is a link to an interesting article from the Independent on how the Internet and the development of ebooks (and epublishing) is changing the way we read. I'm not sure I agree with everything Johann Hari is saying but I think many of his points are worth discussing. His article reminded me how much we need to debate what we think the gains and losses of ebooks and epublising might be for those of us writing (and reading) novels and short fiction, given how much these literary forms have changed and evolved in their (short) history and what has influenced and caused these changes and developments.
For example, a large and on-going influence on contemporary fiction and written storytelling has been film and the film industry. Currently, Hollywood 'experts' like Christopher Vogler (The Writer's Journey) and Robert McKee (Story), who have written interesting but formulaic how-to books on the construction of narrative/story, have been held up by many as the new 'masters' to take note of and follow. While their experiences and opinions are fascinating and informative, they are culturally and industry bound and not the definitive summary of all that narrative is, or how it should work - in the end they are talking about what they think works in Hollywood.

A couple of weeks ago I attended another discussion on the woes of the current publishing industry. A claim was made that ebooks and epublising are as big a cultural revolution as the advent of the printing press. This may well be true, and if it is, then writers and readers, as much as publishers, book producers, booksellers, and Hollywood experts, need to have a say in what is written, what is valued, how it is produced and distributed, and who benefits.

How we respond to the changing nature of publishing and distribution is critical to our cultural and financial survival as writers - lets not leave it the hands of the very industries that have always made more money out of our labour than we have.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mana Waka - a piece of history

Trisha and I went to a screening of a new print of Merita Mita's 1990 re-visioning of Mana Waka, a film documenting the felling, carving and floating of Maori waka (canoes) by Tainui, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, in 1940.

Aside from its historical significance the film is notable for a few interesting filmic variations. The use of voice-over (bi-lingual) was sparing, filling in detail only when it added to what was shown on screen. Much of the running time was filled with scenes with no spoken words, but relying on the sounds of the bush (axes, timberjacks, yoked bullock teams, the birds and insects of the forest.) Because these sounds were primary, they were in fact dialogue, in the way that another film might use spoken words. The sounds had an ebb and flow, a dynamic range. The audience responded to moments (when the waka base was being transported down a steep gully it almost upended - and the audience gasped) as they would to any other filmic dialogue. With intensity, with intimacy.

The film was a reminder of the giant of NZ cinema that was Merita Mita, and it was a privilege to be in the presence of her whanau and iwi in the theatre.  

Waka on the Thames

Here's a link to a short article and other links about the historic floating of the waka commissioned by Toi Maori Aoteroa (The Maori Arts Council) on the Thames in London earlier this month. I have to say, with an eye to history, this image has a mischievous edge that makes me smile.

There's certainly an Alternative History novel in there somewhere.

Katerina Mataira - Groundbreaker

Sad news on Saturday of the death of Katerina Mataira at the age of 79.

Katerina was a groundbreaker in the field of writing for children in Te Reo Maori, both as a writer and a translator. She was born in Tokomaru Bay in 1932 and trained as a teacher and art educator.

Katarina had nine children and leaves behind 50 grandchildren and great grandchildren and one great great grandchild.

In the few times I spoke to her I always found her wise and very progressive in her thinking, while retaining her feel for roots. She had a strong sense of the linking of past, present and future and of language and the arts being a living thing, constantly changing but always born of the past, of whakapapa, of those who have carved their paths before us.

A tangi will be held on Tuesday at Ohinewaiapu Marae in Rangitukia, 25km north east of Ruatoria. Farewell to a great lady.

Legacy Writing and Self Publishing workshops in Whangarei

The Story Bridge ran 2 days of Legacy Writing workshops in Whangarei last weekend. We had around 30 attendees over the 4 workshops, including several people repeating seminars. Some took the Intro to Legacy Writing, then the Advanced the next day. Some took either of the Legacy workshops then the Self Publishing workshop on the Sunday afternoon.

Whangarei city library is a modern, glass walled building with great light and a real feeling of space and airiness and had a real feel of community. Reminds us of the centrality of libraries in communities, especially in the smaller centres. Trisha and I headed out to Whangarei heads the afternoon before the workshop. Man, it was cold but, I think the term is 'bracing.' Beaches are awesome in any season, in any weather, with the earth showing you her different faces, different voices.

Most of the attendees at the workshop were from the Whangarei area.Some were well advanced into their writing projects, and a few were just starting out on theirs, so we had a great mix of students.

Participants learned how to approach their legacy/life story project as a writer would - using storytelling approaches to engage the reader in your story - including:

  • description using Show/Don't Tell
  • use of metaphor and motif
  • how to layout dialogue to ebb and flow and contain a sense of place and landscape
  • how to bring your dialogue scenes to life (to give the reader insight into the people in your legacy story - even though they never met them)
  • how to structure the narrative, including flashback technique to capture moments from the past in immediate time
  • how to think of your writing in terms of both the horizontal (plot and sequential event) and vertical axis (resonance, meaning, character insight)
Jocelyn's Self-Publishing workshop was an intensive introduction to the field, including comparisons with traditional and self-publishing options, and the whole process mapped out from finalizing the writing, to book production costings, print/e-book comparisons, down to writing your back-cover blurb and arranging book launches.

Many thanks go to Paula Urlich and her dedicated team at Whangarei Library for making us all welcome. 

The next legacy writing workshop series will be in Auckland, likely early next year. Will keep you posted.

Jocelyn and I are running a couple of workshops at Auckland University Continuing Education in August, on self-publishing and blogging (aimed at writers looking to develop an online presence). Here's a link to more info.

While we were at Whangarei Library we checked out the model of the proposed Hundertwasser Whangarei art centre. Frederick Hundertwasser is intrinsically linked with the north, and this would be a great addition to the region's public buildings.

I love Hundertwasser's playful pragmatism. A grass slope leading up to the roof of a building is a classic of the guy. Reminds me of all the unused roofs in Auckland City. When I look out from my office at AUT and see all the great spaces just left for air conditioning exhaust towers and roof tilings. We need more green, grass, trees. Even if it's seven floors up.