Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nigel Cox on Alan Duff

The 37th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1993 issue (which, mortifyingly, was labelled July 1993 on the cover) and was requested by Steve Braunias. The illustration is by Georgia Hibberdine.

The intro read:
With a record three books in the top 10, Alan Duff is possibly our best-known writer. But is he famous for his fiction or because his public statements inflame the liberals and delight the rednecks? Nigel Cox looks at why both public and media have become fascinated with the man and his work.
Alan Duff keeps his image on a short leash. When Rosemary McLeod in­cluded his every use of the four-letter favourite in a North & South profile Duff quickly pointed out that McLeod “herself is a liberal user of the word” but that she’d edited all hers out. This is Duff at his best, appealing successfully to “common sense”, swapping subtlety for hard-headedness, getting more exposure in the process. But in the same letter he threatens libel action against publisher Bob Ross for saying that Duff’s contribution to the editing of Once Were Warriors was, “if you touch one f—ing word of my f—ing book I’ll come and punch your f—ing head in”.
At the time of that first publication, Duff, a complete unknown, was happy to have himself presented as anything that might interest readers. The Bad Mouth From The Bad Side, fine. The Thunder From Under. Mr Duffya Up. But that was then. These days he wants to be less crosscut. Smiles in his author photos. Describes himself as “an award-winning novelist with soon an international audience”. Tells us that his daughters go to Woodford House.
But he’s vociferous in distancing himself from the literati. “MBs” (Mediocre Bores) is how he characterises the writers who, he says, “have taken over literature in this country”. His attack on this group is probably not without its shrewdness, since he recognises that having only those who read literature as your audience is no way to make a living. The time-honoured difficulty of making a living with a pen has had Duff putting words on paper at a phenomenal rate; at a guess, 300,000 words in print in three years. And people are reading him: in the latest best-seller list he has an unprecedented three of the top four.
He’s always described as one of our most successful authors, so let’s tot up what these three might have earned him. Once Were Warriors: 5000 copies at a standard 10 per cent royalty and 22,000 at 15% (the rate goes up as you sell more copies) would come to $75,500. One Night Out Stealing: 12,000 copies on a slightly better royalty is $42,000 – plus 2000 of each in Australia at an export royalty, $5500. Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge: 8000 copies at, say, 15% comes to $24,000. Add to that second prize in the Wattie, $10,000; sharing the Sargeson fellowship, $6250; the PEN Best First Book prize, $1000; the film rights to Once Were Warriors, $40,000 (a guess – North & South said $20,000, but from my own experience in selling the rights to a much less successful novel that seems too low) . . . the grand total must be around $204,000.
When you add to that what he’s getting from his Evening Post column, “syndicated from Southland to Northland”, and the bits and pieces (the Author’s Fund, stories for radio, $250 per episode of The Ralston Group) you can see that this is one author who’s not starving in a garret.
But Duff doesn’t want to starve. He claims Maori people don’t strive for success, and that they should look to him as a role model. And perhaps this is where Duff’s difficulties begin. Making an example of yourself usually involves keeping a low profile – after all, none of us emerges from intense scrutiny quite so sweet-smelling. But Duff needs exposure and lots of it if his books are to keep selling at a level high enough to provide him with a living. He insists in the introduction to Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge that he wrote it “because I care”, and we should take him at his word, but reading it it’s impossible to avoid the sense of a shrewd performer with at least one eye on his audience. Of course there’s nothing wrong with pleasing the crowd – but which crowd? The rednecks?
It’s a question frequently asked about his work. Anyone who is prepared to say – let’s be fair, brave enough to say – that kaumatua aren’t sufficiently well-read to lead their people, or that the Maori lack a work ethic, or that Maori crime has no historical or sociological justification, is bound to be back-slapped by bigots. Duff should be accorded the respect due to those who say publicly what is being muttered in private, and it’s hard to disagree when he argues that education is the key to success in the modern world. But the reviewers were right when they called it “a lengthy pamphlet”, “at times little more than a rehash of racist, rednecked attitudes”, “extremism and invective dressed up as social analysis”.
Lesley Max in June’s Quote Unquote also called it “important”, but I can’t agree that anything as sloppily written as Maori can be accurate enough to really count. Gears crash as another sentence grinds its way up a molehill, big subjects go flashing past like hoardings, but there’s no centre line that the argument is following. Elegance of expression doesn’t interest Duff – he’s in too much of a hurry to throw another punch. But elegance makes arguments convincing, since it brings discipline.
That’s Duff’s biggest problem as a writer and as a cultural phenomenon: he can’t afford to pause and think. He has to pro­duce. Here’s an extract from the only piece he’s produced specifically for international consumption, on what artist-writers like himself are doing:
“That capturement of moment or tone or hue, or all of that; to put a finger, an articulated finger on It, this wonderful, awful instinctive understanding of ourselves, our (mere) dusk speck in the universal scheme of things whatever the hell things might be; to call up and on the background of the trillion voices gone before us but echoing, still, in our genes; to be and do one’s part in the continuum of compoundment, so that when the Time comes, as it shall, it must come, then we are at the same Oneness with Nothing as we were with the Great nothingness of Beginning—”. Sic, every dismal word of it.
But Duff can write well and when he does it’s definitely the business. By far the best chapter of Maori is where he abandons rhetoric and uses a fictional voice to get inside the head of a Maori loser:
“Monday, or Tuesday if we were lucky, we were juss about eating the weetbix box cos there was no food in the house. Every week the same story on Monday or Tuesday. As for Wednesday. Man, I can’t even talk about it, how starving we were on a Wednesday and then still the all day Thursday of waiting til the old man came home with his pay so mum could go and get us something to eat. At school, eyin up the Pakehas’ lunches, bullying the weak ones for a samwidge. Couldn’t help it, though: we were starving.”
Critics have rightly praised the energy and invention he brings to catching the inner voices of his inarticulate mouthpieces. But all too often mouthpieces is what they are, rather than real characters who are alive and speak for themselves. One Night Out Stealing’s Sonny, who stays home to listen to opera while mooning over a photo he’s stolen, simply isn’t believable: “Aspect, see. It’s to do with aspects, is life. But it needs someone, or something of your raising to point out the aspects, the diversity of them, what they can do to you that years and years of incarceration don’t and can’t, and yet so many of them in here could be awakened to emselves by just this very experience.”
“Unfortunately, Duff has trouble stifling an intrusive editorial voice,” said reviewer Iain Sharp. And though the book is graced by well-caught demotic, its gutter-licking characters often seem to have stepped from the television screen rather than life. When they’re busy with a rape or a fight or a robbery the book is vividly alive, but as soon as the action slows, the internal processes Duff insists on minutely detailing feel invented rather than authentic.
Which is strange, since Duff’s potted biographies suggest that unlike most authors, who are a clean-fingernailed bunch, he should know what really passes through the heads of these lowlifes. The problem is, while he was writing this book Duff had his mind not on his characters but his message.
Messages are fatal to fiction, but they’re very good for sales – people who can’t read very well love to have a book’s meaning hit them over the head – and thus Duff is trapped. He has things to say, yes, and at times an original and exciting voice, but if he can’t make the one rise of its own accord from the other he simply pastes it in.
The critics notice and call him a rough writer. Duff calls the critics MBs, refuses to submit to the disciplines of his craft – and meanwhile the redneck and new-right audiences wait to mate him with their other house writer, Ayn Rand. Duff’s contention that his people are themselves responsible for their over-representation in the crime and unemployment statistics gives great comfort to those who believe with Henry Ford that “history is bunk”.
But to those Maoris (and the Pakehas who support them) arguing that during colonisation New Zealand saw injustices which can only be redressed with public money, Duff needs to be brought into line or closed down altogether, as quickly as possible. Thus Ranginui Walker (a kaumatua you could scarcely suggest is ill-read) says, “To the Maori, Duff is irrelevant.”
Common sense suggests that in fact Duff is highly relevant to any debate about the country’s responsibility to its indigenous people, simply because he is being heard and widely discussed. For example, in the week I was writing this, apart from his domination of the bestsellers list, he was interviewed by both Lindsay Perigo and Kim Hill, and had his radio play State Ward on Hill’s programme, which also ran a review of his new book. Planet announced that he’d be profiled in their next issue. Walker devoted his entire Metro column to denouncing him, Ernie Leonard denounced him on Marae, Dr John Barrington gave an academic response to Duff’s views on education in the Evening Post, there were at least three reports of progress on the film version of Once Were Warriors, and rumours that both TV1 and TV3 were preparing documentaries on him.
The media love Duff. But is this because he’s a good writer – not an attribute they’ve traditionally been much interested in – or because they’ve found a Maori who will say things that would be considered racist coming from a Pakeha?
As we all know, the media always win. No matter what results from their transmissions, they just pocket the advertising revenue and move on. So where does that leave Duff? The electronic media tend to reduce debate to sound bites and there’s a sense that Duff, especially as a writer of fiction, has bought enormous sales for his books at the price of being reduced in this way. When his first and best book, Once Were Warriors, appeared in 1990 it contained some interesting ambiguities. Its huge audience was swept on an energetically imag­ined vernacular into the lives of poor Maoris living in despair and waste in a fictionalised suburb of Rotorua. They were taken inside Jake’s fists, believed in what powered them, believed in the existence of Pine Block and the despair of the Heke family. And at the end of the novel readers were left to consider its content for themselves – the book was widely discussed.
At first many Pakeha liberals claimed Duff as a powerful new voice who would bring them fresh insights into the Maori world. But in his promotional appearances Duff couldn’t resist explaining the novel, spelling out what he insisted was its message – that Maoris are themselves responsible for their condition – to any who might have missed it. Its possible meanings reduced, Once Were Warriors became less interesting as fiction.
At that point perceptions about the book seemed to change. At the same time as bookshop staff were being asked for “that book that puts the boot into the Maoris”, in some quarters Duff was being disowned. It’s a process reminiscent of the incident in the 1960s when Ans Westra’s photographs of poor, rural Maoris were collected by School Publications under the title Washday At The Pa. There was an outcry and the booklet was withdrawn, because its pictures were said to show the indigenous population in a poor light.
Duff has also been accused of hanging out the dirty washing. The damage he’s doing can be measured by the invective he attracts. Derek Fox says he is “a non-entity to Maori”. Walker describes him as “a cultural renegade not worthy of being dignified by public comment”.
The struggle to control “presentation” of any given social group has produced the most tiresome and yet the most vital debate of the decade. It’s an area where opinion gets reduced to slogan at the second salvo, especially if the debate is in public. One accusation fired at Duff is that he refuses to come on a marae where his critics can formally confront him away from the prowling media. Duff ripostes in his column by offering to come to the Marae of his choice – Ernie Leonard’s television programme: “I’ll come on your medium, just to be fair (and compassionate) and let’s do some debat­ing.” It’s hard to imagine the results providing anything but delight for rednecks.
In the same column Duff also claims that he doesn’t attack the Maori world for money. “I can make far more from writing novels with not a single Maori character in them,” he says, which must be a hope rather than a fact, since nothing he has published so far could be described that way. Nor does it seem likely to be true of Dreamboat Dad, his third novel, due in November. According to his publishers’ catalogue it’s about Henry Te Amo who lives “in the multicultural thermal ‘wonderland’ village of Waiwera”.
But Duff has talked about such books, about novels set entirely in Europe (“When I break beyond Australia with my literature, I might just sit down and write about London”) so often that it’s clear he has his sights set on a bigger market – and on critics who have less to lose if he succeeds. It’s an exciting prospect, since he’s a writer who is at his most interesting when he forgets his audience and concentrates on his characters.
The break-out has already begun. Once Were Warriors and One Night Out Stealing are to be published in the US by the University of Hawaii Press. Maybe, like Richard Nixon, we soon won’t have Alan Duff to kick around any more.
Which would be a pity. As one Maori acquaintance puts it, “We need people like him, otherwise we’d be invisible. It’s like with Atareta Poananga – once people have had their shout, you wish they’d shut up – but they start everything off.”
Not that it’s time for Duff to shut up. But maybe it’s time for him to concentrate on his fiction.

Coming soon:
From the same issue: Tim Wilson on sportswriting, Elizabeth Knox interviewing Marilyn Duckworth, and Dennis McEldowney on Maurice Shadbolt. This issue also had Bob Harvey on “being a man” and Keith Stewart on Laurence Aberhart, plus Elizabeth Smither, Stephanie Johnson, Judith Binney, Barbara Else, Marion McLeod, Bill Manhire, Graeme Lay, Kevin Ireland and Graham Billing. It’s not my place to say so, but if it was I would say that’s not a bad line-up.


Steve Braunias said...

Thanks for posting this terrific essay Stephen. Great to read such high quality thinking and writing about NZ literature. This is especially brilliant: "Gears crash as another sentence grinds its way up a molehill, big subjects go flashing past like hoardings...That’s Duff’s biggest problem as a writer and as a cultural phenomenon: he can’t afford to pause and think. He has to pro­duce." You can say that again. Nudge nudge etc.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks for the thanks, Steve. And yes, it's a good piece. Nice to see these things holding up so well so long after.

Anonymous said...

Reading Chapter 3 of Alan Duff's Maori The Crisis and the Challenge: describes it completely down to the "Hahahahaha." Maybe his prose might not be the best but I will read further to see where he gets his insight from.