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It also reminded me of all the times I've heard writers - mainly but not only, unpublished - bemoan how hard it is to get published in New Zealand, yet when you ask them how many New Zealand books they read in a year they say none.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