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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 9. May 21 1968

Looking At The Literary Scene

Looking At The Literary Scene

The literary scene at Victoria has been rather active in recent years. This activity has not been due to great numbers.

Literary talent is rare, probably rarer than the other artistic talents. The result is that at any time a university is likely to have only very few students with this talent. Of course, there will be others who have an interest in writing.

From such a small group it is not to be expected that any great numbers of publications should issue or that they should represent any real achievement. But there have been publications, and it looks as if this year a good deal of literary work will see print in university media.

But it is not difficult to demonstrate that the literary group has played a part out of all proportion to its size in the university recently. That is the very nature of literary activity.

The literary group popularised the cult of nonsense in the university. It founded the Pooh Club, and inspired a public happening in which 500 students participated and 31 were arrested. This was the Taj Mahal incident.

Some measure of the activist, free-wheeling approach of students last year was due to this group. The presidential elections of winter 1967, when 50 odd nominations were received and 16 candidates went to the poll, reflect this attitude.

But while the Literary Society owes its notoriety to these non-literary activities, the real interest of the society should not be forgotten.

Literature is an art which has a peculiar standing in the community, and which is greatly affected by community attitudes.

Let me say a little about these matters.

In the course of history, literature has gained great prestige, probably deservedly.

New Zealand has inherited this high esteem of literature. But the discrepancy between this inherited esteem and the actual attention New Zealanders give the literary worker and the local product is so great, as to be paradoxical.

This discrepancy can be illustrated by a consideration of reviews and of sales. Many New Zealand magazines and papers review books. The reviewers' fees and the cost of paper and production for each review must run to quite a few dollars. But often the book sells only a few dozen copies.

It would not be difficult to argue that reviewing is economically indefensible. However, so great is the prestige of literature that literary editors and reviewers are long likely to profit by this act of homage.

Many New Zealanders see their work in print in book form. A very, very few can make a living from their books. Some may get a fair return from an odd book. But generally the profits on a book published are negligible for the author, and certainly not an economic return for the time and effort outlaid.

For the novelist there is little hope of more than a token return. For the dramatist and the poet there is no hope at all of a return.

A first class New Zealand poet with a popular following can sell 300 copies. I understand reliably that some reputable New Zealand poets are lucky to sell 80 or 100 copies.

The situation for books of poetry is that publication is impossible without a subsidy virtually covering all the production cost. Without the subsidy selling prices would be double and probably high for any sale.

In view of the poor support by the public, the government has been persuaded to grant aid to literature through the State Literary Fund, by subsidies on publications and grants to writers. The effect of this aid has not been altogether fortunate. It has succeeded in creating a false price level for books of poetry, and so made poetry not so supported a commercial impossibility.

It has also led, I believe, to a perversion of literary standards, at least in poetry, by the support of work of little merit.

New Zealand is not without financially successful publications, but they tend to appear in these classes: "beautiful New Zealand" books, appealing to sentiment and patriotism; books about sport or adventure, appealing to the outdoor type; scholarly books, written by academics and appealing to academic buying agencies, often students and books used as literary texts in schools and universities.

It should be obvious that more of these classes of books can be expected to provide an author with a year-in, year-out income, and none are avenues which promote the production of high literary work.

New Zealanders with literary interests are tempted to try to make an income by miscellaneous literary work or in journalism. Many people do make a living in these ways. However, the creative literary artists cannot serve two masters, and personally I consider it a gross mistake for a writer with serious pretensions to undertake such work.

Since, then, all hope of a profitable literary career seems ruled out in New Zealand, it might seem that this country can expect to have few writers. But this is unlikely to be the case, for a reasonable number of people will inevitably turn to literature for psychological reasons not unrelated to the prestige of literature and from a sense of mission. Such people do not face an altogether impossible situation.

I would say that the universities at present best serve New Zealand literature by providing a place where young writers can form groups, where they can organise publications, and where they can obtain a market for small publications.

University Writers

Writers are a clannish lot, and naturally influence one another. But I do not believe they are much given to trying to educate and train one another in the art. I think one writer must allow another to learn and develop in his own way without interference. So in a group of creative writers much actual discussion or analysis of writing can be expected. This is better left to more purely academic and scholarly groups.

The one unique thing that a university can offer a group of writers is the opportunity of association free from outside interference. In recent years, it was the conscious intention to exclude established New Zealand writers from the university group.

The reason was that only in such isolation could a new approach to literature be developed. It would be too much to say that such an approach has appeared, but it is true that any writers who do emerge from this group will be unlike anything before seen in New Zealand and will reflect the mutual influence in the group.

There is no doubt that any book of real literary merit will reach publication by some channel, even though the author does not profit much by it, or that New Zealand offers various sorts of employment that permit the author to pursue his literary interests, after a fashion.

For instance, teaching. But at present, there is no chance of New Zealand supporting full-time literary artists.

My own solution to the publication problem has been to sponsor my own books or to find sponsors for them. In every case, the New Zealand writer is reaching publication by non-commercial means, at least in the first place.

Most of the publishing ventures that New Zealand writers have embarked on originated in the universities.

The prestige of literature leads many young people to try writing, but the total lack of finance means that few continue.

Those New Zealanders who do not give up in these circumstances must possess a Herculean dedication and must in due course find some sort of publication media. For a group of writers in the 1930's it was virtually a matter of setting up their own publishing firm. There is always the move to publish a magazine; Landfall is the most classy effort of this sort.

I shall hazard some guesses on the form of any literature we may produce. I may be describing my own work, but here goes.

  • • It will have a more nihilistic basis than has been seen here before.
  • • It will be unsentimental.
  • • It will be humourous rather than tragic.

I am sure of this, that at least embryonically a new type of New Zealand literature has appeared in Victoria University in recent years. This may be a foundation which can be built on in future. Prospects such as this make the literary scene at Victoria an exciting one at the present time.