Sunday, February 1, 2015

Where the wild things grow ...

Should I talk about Eleanor Catton? Everyone else has been, and then some.  I don't know that I could add much to the conversation. Still, I have been thinking about it quite a lot. I think our politics have more in common than not, but whether I agree with her or don't, she should be able to express her views about her home country without fear of retribution. She's raised issues it would be useful to debate in a wider forum, but she was effectively told to shut up and called a traitor, which gives the lie to our recent top polling as a socially progressive nation. And telling her that she should stick to her writing and leave political comments to others is patronising and a few other things that I will let you draw your own conclusions about. It's a shame that the name calling might sweep the issues under the rug.

Catton called out a lack of support for arts and culture here. Yet she's received money and accolades and adoration nation-wide, as people have readily pointed out. But folks she's received these things because she is deserving of them. And if she's had $50,000 worth of support over several years as she's risen in prominence, this is not exactly living the high life and it's important to realise this is not what writers generally receive either. For every writer who receives some financial manifestation of support or encouragement there are many more who never get anything.

Most creative writers work on spec. We spend hours on a manuscript with no guarantee of income for that invested time. Yes, we could try something with an hourly rate, and actually, most do. Many writers have 9 to 5 jobs or do other casual work to bring money in, whether teaching, editing, or running workshops etc... I also, where possible, do paid work that utilizes my writing skills. If I am successful here in New Zealand with a novel, which might have taken me 1 to 2 years to write, I get, at most, royalties of $2 per book (often less if the book is sold through book clubs or special deals) with a print run of between 2,000 and 3,000. So I might, if I am lucky, receive up to, but most likely less than, $6,000 (half if it's a picture book as I share the royalties with the illustrator). And this will be over several years. Any advance I am paid for writing a book that gets published is not additional to any royalties paid on sales but must first be earned out from those sales. And I'm not pumping out ten books at a time. Even if I did there are no guarantees that all would be accepted for publication. It's not 'easy' money. We aren't greedy. And what we do isn't indulgence.

Our stories are part of our culture. They reflect and shape who we are as a people. They help us stand tall on the international stage. They influenced the development of people like Catton, and Lorde, whose triumphs we have rightly applauded and shared as a nation. We liked their success.The fruits of their creative labours are admired as sophisticated and fresh by overseas critics. Our culture contributed. Lets make sure we don't throttle or starve that culture. If anything we should invest more in it to create and influence more fresh and innovative thinking amongst our future generations. Still, I know I'm likely to be preaching to the choir with this. And I do worry that we might no longer be talking about increasing funding and support, but doing all we can to maintain the little we have.

And that tall poppy thing? We have an uncomfortable relationship with success. It's not just a New Zealand phenomenon and I confess I admire those who behave with restraint and humility and wish I was more like them. I grew up in this kind of environment where we like our heroes to be humble.  Does the point exist at which there is a right balance of pride and modesty? Where we can talk about our achievements without being thought of as bragging. Some middle ground between Sally Field and Kanye West perhaps? I think a more troubling thing is a sense of entitlement. It's an unattractive quality in any industry - whether it's writing, politics, big business or radio hosts.

1 comment:

Yvette Carol said...

A thoughtful treatise on the current subject of hot debate. Nicely done. Unless you're in this industry, I think a lot of folks have no idea...