Criticism

Death by Stranglehold, Too

Shelley Gare’s article “Death by Silence in the Writers’ Combat Zone” (in the July-August Quadrant) is a welcome if disturbing reality check. There is no doubt that the literary circles in the New Zealand, too, are now controlled and monopolised by the Left, well-funded with government handouts. It seems to be even worse here, given our smaller population and a lack of any real intellectual opposition.

Being a small country, New Zealand is easily dominated by small but highly controlling in-groups. A well-dug-in writers’ establishment clique with very sharp elbows manages the award systems and selects the judges from among its own anointed. These same anointed, conveniently enough, appear in due course on the rotating list of award recipients. Any media interest in the scandal of those sitting on such committees and managing to appropriate a great deal of funding for themselves is merely a passing one, given the once-over-lightly state to which mainstream journalism has sunk in this country.

Controversy swirled briefly around this issue in the 2005 report into the Marsden Fund (ostensibly set up to promote excellence in research) that found, among other things, that there was doubt about the allocation process; there was doubt about priorities; and “there appeared to be some confusion in the sector about what the Marsden Fund should properly be funding” together with “a public perception of conflict of interest in allocations”. More recently, $465,000 was given to lesbian novelist Annemarie Jagose, Professor in the Faculty of Arts at the now highly radicalised University of Auckland, for a project writing about “Acts and Identities: Towards a new Cultural History of Sex”. Her website tells us about her current research project:

“Orgasmology”, a cultural history of the unique compactions of cultural meaning that have accrued to orgasm as well as the wide repertory of narratives that have taken orgasm as their figural vehicle across the twentieth century. In 2004, I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Strategic Research Development Award (2005-2006) to advance this research.

Dr A.C. Lyons at Massey University was awarded $864,000 for his project, “Young adults, drinking stories and the cult of celebrity”.

The national arts council, Creative New Zealand, has long supported politicised criteria, which has seen the same process of a heavy leaning to the Left and an expectation that writers will meet its politically correct guidelines. This has reached scandalous proportions with regard to the children’s book awards, where writers must follow certain specific guidelines. These include a virtual racism (the leaning towards stories with sanitised Maori content: activists recently mounted an extraordinary attack on an historian by repudiating his reference to cannibalism and the cruel primitivism of the pre-European, Maori tribal environment); those recognising our supposed and exclusionary “biculturalism”; “reflecting our national identity”; and stating a preference for contemporary stories reflecting a child’s immediate environment (although this requirement is apparently waived if the entrants are from the usual in-group writers).

This demand in the Left’s current crusade for children’s writing to reflect our cultural directions, national identity and modern “relevance” is a restrictive, parochial edict, not only an attempt to cramp the writer within politicised boundaries but a deliberate and long-standing move to ignore the European cultural heritage of most young New Zealanders. As a Weekend Herald letter writer, Harold James, wrote:

A powerful prescription for educational underachievement lies in the remarks of Christine Rubie, deputy director of primary teacher education at Auckland University, in her article headed “Achievement gap promises disaster”. Her complaint was that “the books a teacher chooses to read are not always relevant to students’ experiences”.

Overlook the sneer in her chosen example (“a book on skiing at the weekend is unlikely to reflect the experiences of many children”) and examine the proposition for what it’s worth. As Harold James pointed out:

It has to be equally true that books about pirates or Romans, West African village life, Troy, or Thomas Edison, for example, are unlikely to be “relevant” to the experiences of many primary schoolchildren. That may be their value. Without exposure to things beyond immediate experience, children are denied the imaginative, emotional and intellectual tools to understand life at large, realise their own potential or extend their humanity.

Another disturbing aspect of the in-group’s preferences is the acceptance of dark, even sexualised themes whose suitability for child or “young adult” readers could well be questioned. From the literary circle’s much-acclaimed and inevitably televised Maurice Gee, the ending of whose books, even where evil is defeated, is still often bleak (giving the child reader a sense of loss, of unpleasantness still looming around the corner) I noted these in-your-face descriptions from The Fat Man in an article I wrote for the monthly Investigate: “Black hair on his chest pasted down like slime … He squirted creek water from his mouth like a draught horse peeing … He brought the chocolate close to his mouth and dropped a gob of spit on it. ‘Okay, kid, there you are. Eat it all up.’ … The fat man grinned at him. The scar curled. It was like a worm living in his cheek.” I don’t read Gee now. But I noted at the time that he is extremely good at describing the nasty, the depressing, the pathologically bizarre.

Local teacher Patrick McGrath wrote a letter to the Nelson Mail quoting from a past winner of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year, The Plight of the Penguins:

raunchy birds … Penguins are no less prone to relationship break-ups, a quick one on the side, or sexual perversion … Seals bully other seals out of their fornicating ways … Male penguins try to copulate with toy penguins … Males fire sperm all over the place and over the female … After two weeks of unadulterated sex and adultery …

He asked, “Is such a book suitable for our kids? No wonder our youth gets more corrupted and violent.” Most parents would think Mr McGrath had a point. But not the judges, obviously. They loved it.

Media darling Kate de Goldi, very much part of literary circles, has been criticised for her dark, sexualised stories. Closed, Stranger portrayed betrayal, incest and death, with her male characters described as “super-conscious dudes: too sophisticated, too knowing by far”. Norman Bilborough is, as in Birdman, a casually crude, even childish writer: “You’re pissed off, aren’t you … I hate you Toby. You’re a shit.” He also “teaches” writing for children, and has himself been an award recipient.

Something goes wrong when writing, and equally, art exhibitions, become state-funded. We are familiar with writers in the Soviet Union having to conform to a totalitarian communist country’s imposed criteria to achieve publication, prominence and funding. As the Russian poet Yevtushenko noted, to write to the truth of things became an act of courage.

In Australia and New Zealand we are apparently now very little better off. As Shelley Gare illustrates, it is indeed a writers’ combat zone, with well-funded, favourably regarded, in-house members of a literary establishment running virtual cliques, and directing funding to their own members and fellow travellers. Government funding in New Zealand, added to by former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark with her Prime Minister’s Award (by no means paid for by Miss Clark herself) sends out a highly politicised message. And as so often, while the real writers are doing what they do best, it is largely the self-promoters with influential social and political contacts who oversee and benefit eventually from the available funding. Essentially, money corrupts, and the government has no business funding exclusionary cliques to decide who and what will be favoured, and who and what will not.

Actual blacklisting occurs, and I am happy to regard it rather as a badge of honour that as a longtime commentator, former columnist for the Dominion and a children’s writer I was notified that I was blacklisted when the left-wing literary and feminist establishment became irritated by my columns. In the words of my then distributor, “they are taking it out on your children’s writing”. I can now guarantee that none of my children’s books will receive the normal reviews—death by silence indeed.

A prominent judge in the recent children’s book awards previously wrote a hostile and destructive review of a book of mine, Who Will Speak for the Dreamer?, a book that Australian author Kerry Greenwood liked so much, to the extent of re-reading it as soon as she finished it, that she generously wrote to tell me so. The same judge/reviewer had e-mailed librarians throughout the country in annoyance at a well-researched article I had published in Investigate illustrating the invasion of what should be children’s literature by inappropriate themes and substandard writing. There is no chance of my ever being placed in the awards, although a Dominion reviewer had previously noted about an earlier unplaced book that it was better than the one which won that year. Quadrant last year published a review of my collection of poetry Deep Down Things—a book which inevitably attracted not even one review in this well-controlled country.  

Amy Brooke, who lives in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, has written numerous books for children. She has a website at www.amybrooke.co.nz.

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