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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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A Tale of One City

Once upon a time, literature mattered. James K. Baxter’s polemics divided the nation; the majority of our early premiers and prime ministers wrote on the side. And now it doesn’t. It’s a long time since there’s been a writer in the news for something other than writing, and bookshops are closing rather than opening.

All of this is a bit odd, because viewed another way—sitting in the middle of the Kelburn campus—New Zealand literature’s never been in better health. On one side at 49 Rawhiti Tce there’s Victoria University Press, headed by Fergus Barrowman, which is as good as any overseas publisher, and consistently putting out the best New Zealand literature. Down the hill on 16 Wai-te-Ata Rd is the conspicuously successful International Institute of Modern Letters, manuscripts flowing out of it and into publication on the other side of the campus.

Together, they’ve monopolised the literary scene, and out-competed everyone. VUP’s really the only large publisher of new poets left; it’s the most prestigious imprint for literary fiction in New Zealand. And though it’s starting to seem like there’s a school of creative writing on every campus, the IIML is still the place to go. Bill Manhire set it up; Damien Wilkins now runs it; Emily Perkins teaches there; Janet Frame’s desk is in the lobby. It’s a who’s who of New Zealand literature.

It’s fair to say that most of this is because VUP and the IIML are the best (and, to a certain extent, the only), but part of their advantage is more complex. In a system like the teaching of creative writing, based around cooperative peer workshopping, there are huge advantages to a stratified system where the best get amongst one another, feeding off each other, reinforcing their collective dominance. Even somewhere like the Manukau Institute of Technology’s creative-writing school, which has some of the best writers in the country on staff, suffers from this. None of its students have yet produced work with a major publisher. VUP, meanwhile, owes something to its university backing—it’s able to take risks on less commercially tenable work—and something to having the first dibs on MA theses of IIML students. All of this makes it difficult for anyone else to compete on artistic terms, if not on commercial ones.

But does that matter? VUP and the IIML are great: why not just let them get on with it? Because any small group, no matter how talented its members, will inevitably become conformist, and any monopoly will benefit from competition. The oddities of literature in a small country combine to give disproportionate power to publishers and writing schools in New Zealand, and the advantages of Victoria’s institutions mean they’re the ones who matter. Good literature feeds off conflict with what has come before it, but these groups cannot meaningfully create conflict within themselves.

Imagine publishing a book in the UK: first you’d submit it to an agent, then they’d get the best deal they could for it from a publisher, then it would be widely and sometimes caustically reviewed, and then it would reach the book-buying public. Here, it goes straight to a publisher—without an agent: where you learnt to write becomes a mark of quality in itself—and on publication, reviews will be invariably positive. Reviewers see it as their duty to promote New Zealand literature over giving an accurate assessment of its value; as Professor Mark Williams says, “New Zealand reviewing is certainly more anodyne than it was in the 1980s,” driven by a culture of consensus and falling budgets with little theoretical underpinning.

The publisher has become the sole arbiter of quality, instead of one of three. Since most literary fiction and probably all poetry more or less relies on state patronage, the book-buying public lack commercial influence, and the publisher becomes all. It’s easy to see how this can lead to a worrying homogeneity; poems that all sound a bit like Manhire, short stories that are sort-of bloodless imitations of Emily Perkins.

This is a problem. And we—over-opinionated undergrad English students—don’t have the answer. But we know what we want. We want a national literature that comes from and thrives on various sources and creative ideologies, manifested in a diversity of publishers, reviewers and book-buyers. We don’t want a national literature arbitrated by one group and one set of literary values, no matter how high-quality. We especially don’t want this to be confined to one small campus of one university.

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