Thursday 8 August 2013

The Right of Reply

The short article below, a response to an article published in the NZ Author, was rejected by its editor as of no interest to NZSA (PEN NZ) members. Yet he obviously thought the original article was. Others think the topic is of great interest. Whether or not you agree with the views in my article is secondary to the fact that he denied the right of reply, a fundamental part of the right to freedom of expression, unacceptable in an organisation that is part of International PEN.


Philip Temple

James McNeish asserts that in the mid 1960s ‘general fiction in this country was still suspect.’ But by that time ‘general’ fiction was being widely published,one notable example being Maurice Shadbolt’s Among the Cinders (1965), which went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. It had passages including real, identifiable people but Shadbolt did not attempt to describe his book as ‘creative non-fiction’, despite its autobiographical elements. It has always been a novel, a form that allows the fictional exploration of character, motive and relationship to arrive at authentic emotional, psychological and spiritual insights that non-fiction finds difficult without evidence.

 McNeish cites Jean Echenoz’s book Running  as being ‘creative non-fiction’. But the book is described as a novel (un roman). Echenoz himself says that he did not want to write a biography of Czech runner Emile Zatopek but wished to treat him as a literary character, drawing on biography with ‘room for the imagination.’ That’s fine and the same applies to the works of Lloyd Jones and Sarah Quigley that McNeish refers to. 

McNeish continues, ‘What these writers [such as Echenoz] demonstrate is the idea that fiction is a form of lying that helps us recognise the truth’. Earlier he states that in the ‘writer’s world, what most people think of as “truth” does not exist.’  Then, ‘in the words of Anatole France, “Histories that contain no lies are too dreary for perusal.”’  So McNeish (and France) knows what ‘untruth’ is. This is a tiresome circular argument that always arrives at the old conclusive chestnut that there is no absolute truth. Every non-fictional scientist knows that.

So what is ‘creative non-fiction’? First, it is not something that says it is something else, that is, fiction. In one form, it does its best to present a narrative based on documentary evidence but within a story structure and literary style that allows it to be readable and entertaining. The characters of real people are conveyed by allowing them to speak in their own words, from letters and diaries, for example, as well as presenting the known details of their lives and behaviour and relationships.  
Another form embraces all memoir, as well as non-fictional stories where the author is central to a narrative investigation of a subject. Anna Funder in Stasiland takes us into the world of East Germans blighted by the Stasi through her personal interviews with selected subjects.  On a more literary level, the creative non-fiction form is perhaps best expressed in the marvellous books of W.G. Sebald, such as The Rings of Saturn, which mix memoir, history and fiction. The character of all these books is signalled and there is no attempt to present the books as either wholly fiction or non-fiction, creative or otherwise: what is found to be ‘true’ is up to the reader.
James McNeish thinks that novels about real figures serve ‘to heighten fact but also make it more comprehensible, even - heaven forbid - more popular.’ On both counts, they may or they may not. The ‘fact’ remains that non-fiction, including both history and biography, often - even usually - outsells fiction. The biggest seller in New Zealand in recent times has been Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, a book that is neither incomprehensible nor unpopular. There is room for every kind of genre and theme in our literature but, I suggest, readers do like to know what they are reading. McNeish, not for the first time, tries to blur the boundaries for no good reason.

Friday 26 October 2012

Crisis? What crisis?

It was unusually hot for the time of year, they said in Chania last week. Thirty the day we went to the beach and island at Elafonisi, separated by the world's biggest paddling pool. As we waded across we saw a shoal of five tiny fish, the only sign of wildlife except for a passing swallow and a couple of crows. Is the sea so clear around Crete because little lives and dies in it any more?

In the evening the temperature dropped to 22 and Chania harbour seemed filled with oil reflecting the lights of restaurants and the lighthouse with Van Gogh ripples but there was no starry night. The tourists numbers were holding up and there seemed to be no reflection of Greece's deep economic crisis. Until the day of the general strike when several thousand marched down the streets of the real town. Until the taxi driver who took us to the war cemetery told of his fears for his family. The tourist numbers had actually dropped and the income he needed to winter over was down. The real crunch would come in the new year, he said. Then there would be more than a general strike. He said he'd lived in Upper Hutt for six years as a kid and we said maybe he should go back. Too big a family, he said.

At Knossos a few days later a well-dressed woman in late middle age approached us to take us on a guided tour of the palace. We agreed but then she was told to wait her turn by the other women looking for business. She was clearly humiliated by the need to hassle and we declined another offer and went on by ourselves. Then she caught up with us and, they had let her go, perhaps sensing the air of desperation we had picked up, in a woman who had been a teacher all her life, had lost her job in the savage austerity cuts and now had to hassle at the gates of Knossos for a few euros to make ends meet. On the Aegean flight to London, the service was lousy, the stewards almost surly. Have they been paid, will they be paid, what will the new year bring?

Monday 15 October 2012


People's day and a time for bargains for local readers of whom there seem to be tens of thousands streaming through the halls, bringing trolley bags to cart away the discards of exhausted publishers eager to offload and go home. The success or otherwise of the fair depends on who you talk to. One English old timer reckons it has been a bit quiet this year and ... er, didn't really notice the guest of honour. For the NZ publishers it was flat or good. NZSA authors seem to have done well with translation rights and agents contacts.

The group winners of NZ's 'While You Were Sleeping' are clearly Maori and cooks. What the medium and long term effect will be for NZ lit remains to be seen. One of our publishers said that a one off hit like this won't work with German publishers who are looking for long term relationships . A local German author said that the problem with the guest of honour format is that on Sunday you are flavour of the year and come Monday you are out with the empty cartons and the next kid on the block (Brazil) is already skating. So will there be effective follow-ups? There is talk of such on the one hand but on the other, embassy staff in Berlin is being slashed by 30-50 per cent . The concept of cultural diplomacy doesn't sit easily with the current government but shifting product always will.

Finally had space today to visit a couple of galleries . The architecture of the Museum of Modern Art out dazzles any of its current exhibits, a marvel. Some doozy photography but the best item by far was the three screen video 'Operation Blackbird' , our Alex Monteith 's three camera trip with an RNZAF helicopter flight around the Nelson Lakes area - mesmerising, gripping, dark edgy. Her motorbikes on Muriwai video was also one of the best things about the exhibition of NZ art at the Kunstlerverein.  But too much of our art shown over here runs along the well worn, increasingly banal route of bleeding over colonial exploitation. It is boring, usually bad art and just panders to European guilt complexes.

Taking a break now. Raining and chilly in Frankfurt. 30 degrees forecast for Crete tomorrow!

Saturday 13 October 2012

The great promo

My session on NZ's natural world attracted an excellent audience -pity that, apart from Tui de Roy's NZ bits, there has been nothing else in this area, unless of course it's an expression of Maoritanga which has been relentlessly strong in performance inside and out. The promo of NZ has been strong and perhaps effective , down to platform ads at the main railway station, but perhaps the scale of the presence of NZ books at the fair is best epitomised by the main international Random House stand in Hall 8 which would absorb several of the PANZ cluster of all NZ publisher displays. It seems as if PANZ were not too keen on having the NZSA book panels too adjacent so NZSA scooped a wide stand on a busy walkway and pulled in numerous enquiries.

The NZ pavilion has been designed around the theme of 'When You Were Sleeping' so sports a permanent full moon and stars in a black environment with water to help with reflections . High panels display the pavilion story or the kapahaka action or, like yesterday evening, a Samoan exposition on tattoo. There's a kind of dream like quality to all of this, permanent land of Po,and I feel like declaiming 'Let there be light!'  Rangi and Papa need to stay separated. If there is one attribute of the NZ environment that is distinctive to almost anywhere else in the world, it is the light, the light dammit not the darkness.

A final summing up tomorrow before we escape to Crete (and the light). But I'm not the only one who has commented on all the leading writers who are missing - Farrell, Marshall, Kidman, O'Sullivan, McQueen, Turner et al. Note where most of these writers reside. Was Victoria the only university invited to support the literary presence at Frankfurt? Was Kaiser Bill the only consultant ?

Never mind. At least a Hobbit stands proud and unusually tall in the main Agora of the book fair grounds. That's what it's all about, eh? In the pavilion the books are kept tightly chained.

Friday 12 October 2012


Robust was the word used for my contribution to the NZ Pavilion panel on tradition and landscape in NZ lit with Witi Ihimaera and Cathie Dunsford (with spontaneous contribution from Maori members of pavilion staff). Reading 'Ancestors' by Brian Turner and a piece from 'Beak of the Moon', I asserted pakeha place in the landscape and reminded Witi that it's possible his skill in writing may well have come from his Irish ancestor. Judging by audience comments afterwards, my 'robustness' was appreciated. One needed to be vocally robust also because of the visual and aural display in the pavilion that continued behind us, with the occasional splash that signaled another visitor falling in the water.

If I can be taken here for a friendly German who knows the way to everywhere, Diane twice yesterday was deemed to be Maori, first by Hinemoa Baker and later by one of the kapahaka whanau. Diane has decided to follow this up and then, as Witi suggested, she can put in a claim.

NB On sighting Minister of Culture Chris Finlayson, he accosted me as that 'leftie stirrer'. Nice to know Iget through . The deputy PM William English attended a book launch - any guesses - yes, the German version of the Lord of the Rings guidebook to NZ Middle Earth. Go NZ lit.

Wednesday 10 October 2012


Self-effacing kiwis, end of the world where we might disappear when the tide comes in, a snake and a lizard, a haka in a black watery space, images of, yes, more water, rangi and papa, some words emerging from a watery, starry universe.... There was a puzzling disconnect, as Witi has it, between who we are, what we could and should have said and presented about NZ at last night's formal and pavilion openings at the Buchmesse. Why bother saying it again, but if you are going to present a country and it's literature to a German audience, then you have to take it and them seriously, give them something to grapple with to chew on, to discuss. One onlooking German politico actually  asked what the pavilion presentation was all about. Disconnect, between theme, presentation and audience.

Publishers don't  mind. Anything is OK to get attention. They tell me this place is all about business and deals, writers add entertainment. As Chad Taylor nicely put it, we are the equivalent of the bikini clad models leaning on the cars at a motor show.

NB IIML a gridlock on the poetry. Schade. What could have been.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Prose,poems and kiwifruit

A great evening on the restaurant 'ship' Patio,  a kind of two decker river cruiser permanently moored on the banks of the Spree near Bellevue and the Akademie der Kunst. The entire lower deck was booked by Mana Verlag for an evening of NZ food, wine and literature and supported by the embassy and MCH. About 40 people enjoyed a five course gourmet dinner with NZ style ingredients, each course accompanied by a different NZ wine. The courses were also followed by a reading from the five kiwi writers there, providing a similar variety of flavours. The arrangement was spontaneous enough that Chad Taylor, without hard  copy, had to download his novel 'Pack of Lies' from the net and read from his iPhone while Diane had recourse to poems she had on the iPad. What did we do before? Peter Walker, Robert Sullivan and I all read from real books, 'The Fox Boy', 'Star Waka' and 'To Each His Own' respectively. All went down a treat, even book signings to follow. Got home before the S-Bahn stopped.

Other highlights have been a visit to the flea market at Mauerpark ... Stalls along what was once the death zone between the Berlin wall. Here, for the second time this week, and it happens every time I come to Berlin, if I stand still for too long, someone comes up and asks me the way to somewhere. Do I look like a friendly German or someone who knows?

We went to the Pergamon Museum today and the highlight was the Pergamon Panorama - the 21st century  version of the cylindrical displays of battles or exotic places that used to be such an attraction in the early 19th century. And then the Neues Museum, the marvelously self-reflective museum that  displays its own archaeology of bullet and shell wounds from WWII, as well as its Greek, Roman and Egyptian treasures. The single wonder is Nefertiti's head, more than 3000 years old yet utterly timeless and mesmerising in its androgynous beauty. See Nefertiti and die.

Off to Frankfurt tomorrow.