Saturday, March 19, 2011

On being Squeezed

This month has been Book Month which is a laudable venture at a time when books seem under such challenge. There have been talks all over the country. I went to one myself, when Dame Fiona Kidman talked in Hastings. It was a personable talk, one of those events where readers get the chance to encounter a working writer and try to work out the strange strategyms that a writer takes over the long distance journey of a work.
Because books do take time. Even the fastest written books take about three to eight weeks to actually just physically write. And authors who manage this feat usually have years behind them in preparation, pre-thought - a kind of stopped up energy which, once released, fleets away like a hare.
Most books usually take two to three years, a fact which astonishes most people. This is why authors are generally not rich people. It takes so long and the financial results are so poor that - if you were being paid by the hour - it would be cents rather than dollars.
But that is what you put up with in order to have the intense pleasure of a work which involves long consecutive thought.
It is like going on a journey - a long and exciting exhausting journey to an unknown destination.
I mention all this because on Friday I heard something which really disturbed me.
It was on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand, which is generally an information-rich programme which takes a certain level of intelligence for granted. If that sounds snobbish, sorry, but that’s the truth and the beauty of it. Every society needs such forum if a society is to progress.
  What disturbed me was that Charlotte Randall’s latest novel Hokita Town was being reviewed. As a fellow-novelist I was interested, maybe even competitively. I respected Charlotte. After all, she had won the country’s top fiction prize, which made her the equivalent of an All-Black. 
  Unfortunately the review was squeezed out by the kind of story which clogs up the stratosphere. This was a moving story of someone who had had a double lung transplant and who had ended up being, we were told, an opera singer
Good on her. 
There are uplifting stories on people like her in women’s magazines (usually with horrific photos), on 20/20, on just about every format you can think of.
The story obviously had such legs that she was allowed to talk for much longer than her alloted time. (She was meant to finish at 10.30am. She was still talking at 10.42am)
Then we had to hear the evidence that she was actually a singer, which meant a not very convincing voice singing not very good lyrics which took up even more time.
As I say, good on her, it’s uplifting and maybe we all need good news at the moment.
But the outcome was a disgrace.
A book which would have taken one of the top writers in the country several years to write was very quickly - and I’m afraid - inadequately reviewed.
(The reviewer knew alot about gold rushes on the West Coast but didn’t realise you never reveal major plot points, let alone all the plot points and outcomes of a novel.)
After all, narrative tension depends on not knowing what comes next.
Katherine Ryan seemed distracted and didn’t leap in to stop him. And then suddenly it was all over.
A major work by a major New Zealand writer had been dustbinned in a few minutes. (I hasten to add, he basically gave the book a thumbs up.)
Radio New Zealand and Nine to Noon is one of the most important marketing venues for literate New Zealanders.
That it happened in Book Month just revealed the way books get squeezed out in our society.
I know it was, to a degree, unavoidable. The opera singer’s story was too good not to be juiced half to death.
But I ask you: surely in Book Month isn’t it just the time every book lover expects the whistle to be blown and for a little bit of respectful coverage given to one of the serious contenders in book culture in New Zealand premiering a new work?


  1. Good on you Peter.

    Why do 'they' get these amateurs/incompetents to review?

    I am frequently amazed by the sheer incompetence and dullness of the book reviews here in the Australian Book Review (they often enough get 'experts in the field' to review books in that field).


    The internet has unleashed this tsunami of sensationalism which people crave but which leaves them depleted. Transplanted double lung opera singers, who can top that? A porn star bearing someone else's old penis?


  2. Peter, I would love to quote you on my blog and then link to this well voiced essay. If you could send me an email at roxboroghpt[at]xtra[dot]co[dot]nz saying you are fine about this.

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