Friday, July 29, 2011

What I’m reading

Actually, what I was reading earlier this month. Have been busy writing a book. As one does. Is. Am. Whatever.

More filth at Ally’s place: dirty haikus. She claims that she didn’t write them, that they are by a friend and we must believe her even though she is a musician. (Little known fact: some musicians are sometimes economical with some of the truth.) All the haikus are far too rude to quote on a family blog except this one:
I was so close and
I think you were too, but then
Your parents walked in.
Matt Nolan is ambivalent about public funding of higher education. It’s a nice illustration of how economists think.

This is a bit late but Guy Walters at the New Statesman rips into celebrated plagiarist Johann Hari and elicits this comment from Cordelia Hope:
Come on, Guy, Hari’s a great journalist. You might not have heard about the interview he did with South African freedom fighter Yusuf Dadu. By sheer chance, Ron Howard, Ronald Reagan and L Ron Hubbard were there too. They quizzed Hari about a British anti-litter campaign they’d heard about. ‘But who’s the guy behind it, this Bryson fellow?’ they asked, as one. ‘What’s his first name, and when did you meet him, Johann?’ ‘I met him on a Monday, Dadu, Ron, Ron, Ron,’ Hari said. ‘Somebody told me that his name was Bill.’
When my first-born was tiny I could get her to sleep by tunelessly crooning Iain Matthews’ acapella version of “Da Do Ron Ron” from his 1971 LP Tigers Will Survive. I liked the way he didn’t change the words. This was a bit adventurous in 1971, a man singing:
I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still
Somebody told me his name was Bill
Yeah my heart stood still
Yeah his name was Bill
Yeah when he walked me home, Da doo ron ron, Da doo ron ron

He knew what he was doing when he caught my eye
He looked so quiet but my oh my
Yeah he caught my eye
Yeah but my oh my
Yeah when he walked me home, Da doo ron ron, Da doo ron ron

He picked me up on Sunday and he looked so fine
And one day soon I’m going to make him mine
Yeah he looked so fine
Yeah I’m going to make him mine
Yeah and when he walked me home, Da doo ron ron, Da doo ron ron
Location, location, location. Size matters too. Oz blogger Tim Blair points out that Israel is roughly one-third the size of Tasmania. In the comments, Tommy Shanks says:
If we were to offer Tasmania to Israel on the condition they all move there this would solve two major problems simultaneously. Win-win all round. Israelis get a pleasant, green, but hitherto impoverished and expensive-to-maintain island a long way from the world’s trouble spots. ‘Palestinians’ get a small stretch of desert – and good luck with that! – and we get a financial burden fixed.
Another commenter points out that Tasmania already has a River Jordan and Walls of Jerusalem. Sorted!

In music/whinging Pom news, English rock musicians complain that they can’t get grants to record their albums and organise their tours. Poor dears. In my day, etc. Even though this report is in the Guardian, which is usually supportive of the grants-seeking community, the musicians in question get roundly told off in the comments which are wonderfully sarcastic. For example:
It was only because of generous government loans that “The Beatles” were able to get started. If not for such loans they would have ended up having to play gigs in German strip clubs and so-called “Cavern clubs” for pitiful amounts, an obvious non-starter.
Older readers may remember 10CC (“I’m Not in Love”, “Dreadlock Holiday”, “I’m Mandy Fly Me”). They started out separately playing in covers bands, graduated to writing their own songs, formed the band – and built a studio with their own money. There they worked as a backing band for other people – recording everything from football club Christmas songs to housewives with a dream and two well-received comeback albums by Neil Sedaka. (Titter ye not, he was great.) They even had a contract to produce bubblegum-pop for a US label. As the band’s drummer and best singer Kevin Godley recalls:
We did a lot of tracks in a very short time – it was really like a machine. Twenty tracks in about two weeks – a lot of crap really – really shit. We used to do the voices, everything – it saved ’em money. We even did backing female vocals!
They learned how to play, produce and engineer. Then they started making their own records and became huge. In 1975 every student flat had a copy of The Original Soundtrack. And then they got even bigger. Without no grants at all, ever, they became amazing. Fancy that. Maybe it was all that hard work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2011 NZ Post Book awards

At about 10 p.m. I gave up waiting for Stuff, the Herald, Creative NZ, Booksellers NZ or even Facebook to notify us of the winners of the NZ Post Book Awards announced tonight in Wellington – and then thought – Twitter! Specifically, the IIML Twitter. And lo, the results were there awaiting. In no particular order:

Fiction: The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley

Poetry: The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls by Kate Camp

General non-fiction: Blue Smoke by Chris Bourke

Illustrated non-fiction: The Passing World by Damian Skinner.

Book of the year: Blue Smoke by Chris Bourke

A few minutes later Booksellers NZ updated its site with the full results, adding that Chris also won the People’s Choice Award, which makes a unique hat-trick.

I hope he has a hangover in the morning. He has earned one. That book has been years in the making, and a lifetime of thinking.

Writing awards

All eyes are on Wellington tonight for the announcement of the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards. While we wait anxiously, let us amuse ourselves with the results just in from the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which celebrates deliberately bad writing in the form of the opening sentence of a novel.

The winner is Sue Fondrie who is an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin and lives in Oshkosh. Sore losers may grumble that being an academic gives her an unfair advantage. Her winning entry is:
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
There are many categories – western, crime, romance, fantasy and so on – and the winners and runners-up in each are listed here, along with some others that the organisers thought deserved to be preserved. Winner of the adventure category was this:
From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages -- which are sometimes called boudin noir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place – but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.
Winner of the fantasy category:
Within the smoking ruins of Keister Castle, Princess Gwendolyn stared in horror at the limp form of the loyal Centaur who died defending her very honor; “You may force me to wed,” she cried at the leering and victorious Goblin King, “but you’ll never be half the man he was.
Runner-up for purple prose:
The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.
Winner of the romance category:
As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.
Among the also-rans:
Dawn crept up like the panther on the gazelle, except it was light, not dark like a panther, and a panther, though quiet, could never be as silent as the light of dawn, so really the analogy doesn’t hold up well, as cool as it sounds, but it still is a great way to begin a story; just not necessarily this particular one.

As the young officer studied the oak door, he was reminded of his girlfriend – for she was also slightly unhinged, occasionally sticky, and responded well to being stripped and given a light oiling.

The grisly scene before him was like nothing Detective Smith had ever seen before, but there were millions and millions of things he had never seen before, and he couldn’t help but wonder which of them it was.

Business was kinda slow at the ‘If You Build It’ sperm bank.
That last one, needless to say, was from Australia.

Monitor: Mick Hartley

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fomenting happy mischief

Over at Kiwiblog David Farrar excels himself with this suggestion for how the next government could find a use for the inevitable John Banks:
Unless there is a major upset, John Banks will become the MP for Epsom after the election. Now I don’t think Banksie is coming back to Parliament so he can sit on the cross-benches. It is highly likely that John will want to be a Minister again, especially as he has significant experience as a Minister.
So the question is, what portfolio would John Key give Banksie if they win the election? He could take Police again, but do you want to go back to your exact old job? Plus Judith seems very attached to it. 
Thinking about it, the perfect ministerial job for Banksie is to be given  Judith Tizard’s old job, and made Minister for Auckland! Wouldn’t that just be delicious.
Could you imagine the cries of horror from Len Brown’s mayoral office when he finds out his new Minister is Banskie?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Well, someone is buying the stuff

For evidence to support the proposition advanced in the July issue of North & South, and fisked by me here last week, that “most New Zealand novels struggle for recognition and sales” because the book-buying public is not interested in our literary fiction, we turn to the Nielsen Weekly Bestsellers List for the week ending 16 July.

The list is absolutely bang up-to-date, the latest data available. It doesn’t tell us the number of sales but it does tell us which books are selling. Let’s have a look:
1. The Conductor by Sarah Quigley (Vintage, $39.99)
2. The Larnachs by Owen Marshall (Vintage ,$39.99)
3. Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $40.00)
4. Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Poems by Hone Tuwhare (Godwit, $44.99)
5. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $30.00)
6. The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $40.00)
7. The Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $36.99)
8. La Rochelle’s Road by Tanya Moir (Black Swan)
9. The 10pm Question by Kate de Goldi (Longacre Press, $29.99)
10. The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin, $13.99)
If we can include poetry as being literary, and for our purposes I think we can, there are nine books of literary fiction and one of popular fiction in the Top Ten. Some of them have been there before.

The Nielsen bestseller list is published each week on the recently revamped website of Booksellers New Zealand, which is an excellent source of other books-related information.

A well-placed mole in the book trade tells me that in the four weeks from 19 June to 16 July Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (Allen & Unwin, $39.99), currently #3 on the Nielsen bestseller list for international fiction, sold about 1500 copies, and that in the same period Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs, currently #2 for NZ fiction, sold about 1000 copies.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Paragraph of the day

From the Economist’s obituary of Robert Oakeshott, a passionate advocate of workers’ co-operatives who inadvertently damaged Doris Lessing (the full obit is here):
Despite his upbringing, surrounded by books and learning as the son of a man who became vice-chancellor of Oxford, snobbery never touched him. He loved red wine, but the quantity mattered rather than the quality. His idea of an elegant dinner was macaroni cheese with a kipper thrown in, and with pages of the Financial Times (for which he had written from Paris) spread on the table as a cloth. His decade in Africa in the 1960s made him feel “in more vainglorious moments” that he was a black-Africa buff and an old Kalahari hand, but he approached the place humbly: at his school at Shashe River he dug fields and scrubbed latrines with the rest.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Katherine Mansfield, blogger

As reported here last year, in January 2010 Katherine Mansfield started blogging. She’s still going, every day posting extracts from whatever she wrote on or about the same day 90 years earlier. It’s a nice idea: here is part of today’s entry, from a letter to Dorothy Brett written at her home in Montana-sur-Sierre, Switzerland on 25 July 1921:
This is a marvellous moment for peaches & apricots & wild strawberries. They grow lower down the mountains. Very little grows here except pines, wild flowers and occasional small bobbing cherries. I feel at present as though I could spend the rest of my life here, with occasional descents. But this is more what I would like for home than anything I have known. I don’t know why. There is a kind of charm. For one thing its so unspoilt - no railways, no motorcars, no casinos or jazz bands. Every tiny flower seems to shine with a new radiance. That queer chain of modern life seems to be unknown. I feel one will get younger and younger here & its fatal to begin laughing – one never leaves off.
And then you remember that Mansfield died in January 1932.

The blog and website is run by the Katherine Mansfield Society and its energetic chair, Gerri Kimber, an English academic who is currently in Wellington working with Vincent O’Sullivan on a definitive edition of Mansfield’s fiction. They are to talk about the project at a public meeting in Wellington on 10 August: it’s at 50 Homewood Avenue in Karori, and tickets are $12. 

It would pay to book: the event is being organised by the NZ-UK Link Foundation which is based at the British High Commission – their phone is (04) 924-2800, email is, or you could just send a cheque and contact details to NZ-UK Link Foundation, Box 1812, by Friday 5 August.

Fisking North & South part II

North & South responded last night to Thursday’s post “Fisking North & South on New Zealand novels” and I responded to the response. Rather than leave the exchange buried in the comments, I’m reposting it here on the front page for anyone interested in the discussion.

Graham Adams wrote:
Your criticisms of my North & South article centre on your claim that Creative NZ does not rely on taxpayers’ funds for grants and that such grants are not “public money”. You assert: “I can tell the taxpaying public how much return it is getting on its investment: 0%. That is because the [Creative NZ] grants do not come from tax revenue.” 
Unfortunately, to use your own words, you are “totally, utterly, spectacularly wrong”.
Forty per cent of Creative NZ’s funding comes directly from government taxes through the budget’s Vote Arts, Culture and Heritage and 60 per cent from the Lotteries Commission. And the commission, of course, is a Crown entity, which spends roughly 20 per cent of its revenue funding various sports, charitable and cultural bodies, including Creative NZ. Everyone who buys a lottery ticket pays for this levy as a de facto tax incorporated in the price — in much the same way drinkers, drivers and smokers do, since a tax is incorporated in the price of alcohol, petrol and cigarettes. The major difference is that by not routing the money from state lotteries through the consolidated fund, the government can create the illusion of the lottery grants not being funded from taxation but it is only an illusion. And the fact that these taxes can be avoided by not drinking, driving, smoking or gambling does not make them any less a tax.
Also, a proportion of each lottery ticket’s price goes to the government for GST and gaming taxes, bringing the total tax take from the sale of each ticket to more than 30 per cent. Lotto and Keno players are, indeed, taxpayers, even if unwittingly.
With the 40 per cent direct government subsidy and the taxpaying lotteries player accounting for the remainder of Creative NZ’s money, I was entirely correct to state that “the taxpaying public has a right to be told what sort of return it is getting on its investment”, that writers’ residencies are “mostly publicly funded” and that Carl Nixon was paid with public money to write Settlers’ Creek.
If your readers want to decide whether to believe North & South or Quote Unquote on how Creative NZ is funded, they could always ask Creative NZ itself. The figures it sent me regarding its funding were: “Approximately 60 per cent from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and 40 per cent from the Vote, Arts Culture and Heritage, ie Government funding”. Quote, unquote.
To which I replied:
Good to hear from you, Graham. As a mathy kind of guy I do like to get the numbers right and am always happy to be corrected when I am wrong, as happens – can you quote a person at Creative NZ rather than “it” so I can check? With whom did you talk?
Re that 40/60 split – maybe that 40% government funding goes to overheads and the 60% Lotto money goes to grants? What I have always heard is that grants money comes directly from Lotto. Is this not the case? I'm meeting a senior CNZ operative in a couple of weeks so I'll ask her and update here.
Leaving aside what seemed to me to be inaccuracies about the fellowships and the Montanas, which you don’t address, can you give a named source in publishing for that figure of most NZ novels selling 300 copies? Because everyone I have talked to, whether publisher, bookseller or author, snorts at it. I think we should be told.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Daddy, look what I found on YouTube!

Not what you want to hear from the seven-year-old daughter, is it.

She’s home sick while I work on three books at once – who said men can’t multi-task? – so after a morning of reading she went on her mother’s computer to play games. And then:
Daddy, look what I found on YouTube!

I didn’t know she knew about YouTube, let alone know to find stuff there. But this (link only – can’t embed it) is what she was so pleased to have found. It is her current favourite song, “Rubber Bullets”, performed live in 1974 by 10CC – Lol Crème on guitar and lead vocals, Eric Stewart on lead guitar and vocals, Graham Gouldman on bass and vocals, and Kevin Godley on drums and heavenly vocals.

Honestly, kids today.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fisking North & South on New Zealand novels

The good news is that ACP’s flagship magazine North & South devotes six pages of its August issue to New Zealand novels. The article asks why they don’t sell better and raises some discussion points well worth discussing.

The bad news is that the article is wrong or at best misleading and because it is in North & South readers will believe it.

“The (not so) Great New Zealand Novel”, is not available online – ACP’s CEO Paul Dykzeul is no fool – so I can’t link to it to let you see for yourself. It starts by pointing out that local TV, movies, music and even theatre do well commercially but fiction struggles. Evidence for this comes from the January editorial in N&S’s ACP stablemate Metro:
Most New Zealand fiction sells a mere 300 copies, I’ve been told by someone in the business who should know.
So, no name for that statistic, just “someone”. Whoever “someone” is, they were wrong. Totally, utterly, spectacularly wrong. Most New Zealand fiction does not sell a mere 300 copies. Some novels – name authors, major publishers – have sold so few copies but that is highly unusual. Last time I interviewed publishers about this, sales of 3000 were regarded as OK. In the 300s was not normal, it was a disaster.

Next up, we hear from Debra Millar who used to run ACP’s magazines but now runs Penguin’s publishing so she is a proper source. At this point we get another confirming instance of the Stratford Theory of Numbers:
According to Millar, New Zealand fiction accounted for only four per cent of all fiction sold in the country last year, both in terms of dollars and volume.
But are we talking about all fiction, i.e. including children’s fiction, or specifically adult fiction? N&S doesn’t think to ask. Fortunately, Guy Somerset of the Listener did think to ask last year, and found that of New Zealand-published books sold in 2009, 6.1% were adult fiction. Yes, this sounds bad – but there is another question that N&S doesn’t ask: how does this compare with Australia, Canada or England? Is New Zealand adult fiction uniquely disadvantaged: is this unusual in an Anglophone culture? (It isn’t.)

Then comes the big one:
over the past five years Creative New Zealand has handed out $824,640 in direct grants to novelists (and another $227,983 to a handful of short-story writers, graphic novelists and novella writers) as well as direct grants (usually $2000-3000) to publishers for publishing novels. Writers’ residencies are also mostly publicly funded.
You might think, in fact, that the taxpaying public has a right to be told what sort of return it is getting on its investment.
I can tell the taxpaying public how much return it is getting on its investment: 0%. That is because the grants do not come from tax revenue. The money comes to Creative NZ from Lotto profits. Admittedly Lotto is a tax on the stupid, but that’s not what N&S means. Maybe $1,052,623 to writers over five years seems like a lot of money, but it’s $210,525 a year. Piddling when you look at what goes to dance or music, let alone sport. A comparison might have been interesting.

And the writers’ residencies are not “mostly publicly funded”. Each university fellowship is jointly funded by Creative NZ (i.e. with Lotto money) and the university (public money). The Michael King residential fellowship is funded by the Michael King Trust in partnership with Auckland University. The Sargeson, Foxton and Russell Henderson  residential fellowships are entirely privately funded.

Then we turn for comment to Gordon McLauchlan, an author who complains that no one is writing novels that are “socially or politically challenging, or even about the true downside of New Zealand life”. On the next page N&S gives an example of a novel that didn’t sell as well as it should have, Carl Nixon’s Settlers’ Creek:
It is a provocative tale of Maori and Pakeha families squabbling over a dead man’s body [. . .] the novel’s sales, I have heard, are far from brilliant. Unfortunately, I can’t say what that figure is exactly because neither Nixon nor [publisher Harriet] Allan would tell me, even though he was given $36,000 by Creative NZ to write it.
What a non-sequitur. It is not public money so why should they?

We come now to Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining, a finalist in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards. It’s a very good novel and had great publicity but:
by early June the novel had sold around 1300 copies. And it’s hard to argue that the subject matter was inherently unsaleable given that the Left Behind series on the same topic has sold 65 million copies in the US.
Another non-sequitur. Tim’s novel was published in NZ and the Left Behind series was published in the US. Two very different countries with very different cultures.

The next paragraph claims that the sales may pick up if Tim wins on 27 July:
although winning hasn’t guaranteed sharply higher sales for many previous winners.
That’s not what booksellers say but could well be true. It would be nice to have some examples, wouldn’t it, of books that won the big prize and didn’t sell more as a result. You know, evidence.

The wonderful Sarah-Kate Lynch is quoted as saying that popular genres like chick lit, crime, thrillers, historical fiction etc, are never taken seriously in the awards. Wrong. Two words: Maurice Shadbolt. Season of the Jew won the big one in 1987. He very nearly won another big one for a later novel in that trilogy.
And then:
Lynch says she was told the theory behind the Montanas is that “commercial books get their rewards in high sales” while literary works generally “need the exposure the awards bring”.
She was told? This is untrue, it is hearsay, and why would N&S refer to the Montanas in the present tense? But Lynch is right to be annoyed that her publisher didn’t enter her books. 

There are some good points in the article about whether arts funding is monitored for results, over-generous reviewing and our fiction’s lack of compelling stories – but hang on. That may well be true of some literary fiction but it is not true of crime writers Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon and Alix Bosco – and it is especially not true of Paddy Richardson. Her Hunting Blind, about two small girls who are abducted, has haunted me since I first read the manuscript in 2009. Our house has six external doors and every night I neurotically double-check that all six doors are locked. If that’s not compelling I don’t know what is.

Latest information on sales of NZ fiction in later post here. No numbers, but the ranking may surprise.

The new post has been updated with some anonymous but (I promise) reliable numbers.

Mervyn Peake paragraph of the day

In 1939 Mervyn Peake inveigled his wife-to-be, Maeve Gilmore, to his room in Battersea. It was a damp, run-down place on the first floor with few facilities. But it had a bed, which was the important thing. In the middle of the night, however, they were woken by noises from beneath, and when they lit the candle they saw the floorboards were moving. Peake leapt up, and threw back the rug to reveal a trapdoor. He threw that back too. While they were asleep a circus had moved into the ground floor, and an elephant was scratching its back against the beams. For the rest of the night they fed it buns.
That’s from Fergus Fleming in the July issue of the Literary Review. As most fans of the Gormenghast trilogy know, 2011 is Mervyn Peake’s centenary year: he was born on 9 July 1911. There is a massive reissue programme with new editions of Gormenghast, Mr Pye and Letters from a Lost Uncle; the Complete Nonsense includes more than 30 newly discovered poems. Peake was an artist as well as a poet and novelist: Fleming reports that:
The British Library are publishing Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake (£25), as well as mounting an exhibition devoted to Peake (The Worlds of Mervyn Peake, 5 July-18 September), while there is also a deluxe ten-volume Complete Works featuring Peake’s manuscript illustrations, limited to 150 sets and available at an eye-watering price from Queen Anne Press.
And then there are two new books: the long-anticipated Gormenghast sequel, Titus Awakes (Vintage 288pp £7.99); and his daughter Clare’s memoir, Under a Canvas Sky (Constable 224pp £14.99).
Fleming’s very positive review of these two books is here. More on Peake at the Mervyn Peake Estate’s excellent website and blog, which are run by Sebastian Peake (that’s him on his father’s shoulder in 1940, above).

Chris Bell, another Peake fan, writes a thoughtful appreciation on his wordsSHIFTminds blog here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You don’t have to be a genius to be a book editor

So says RobertGottleib, former editor-in-chief at US publisher Knopf, who should know, in the Paris Review:
[You] don’t have to be a genius to be an editor. You don’t have to have a great inspirational talent to be a publisher. You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill. Those shouldn’t be rare qualities, and they don’t deserve a lot of credit, because you’re either born with them or you’re not. It’s luck. And that’s why you can be as good an editor your first day on the job as on your last; you’re not developing some unique and profound gift.
But publishing has changed in many ways, and one of them is that these days many editors don’t edit. There are editors now who basically make deals; they have assistant editors or associate editors who do the actual editing for them. When I was growing up in the business, editors, even if they were heads of publishing houses, tended to edit what they brought in, or they had someone who worked with them who could help them. Now it’s much more splintered, and the business of publishing has become far more complicated and fierce and febrile.
It’s a great piece with comments from authors Gottlieb edited – Joseph Heller, Crichton, John Le Carre, Doris Lessing, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Mordecai Richler and more. It’s an amazing range – even though I have edited James K Baxter, Vincent O’Sullivan, Lauris Edmond, Mike Moore and Rob Muldoon I must concede that Gottlieb has the edge. I loved this from Lessing:
There have been two pressures that have eroded excellence in publishing. One is its increasing commercialization, the other is politics. We now have a generation of people whose literary education has consisted not of being soaked in excellence, but of judging novels and stories by their theme or by the color or political stance of their authors. Now it is common to meet editors who will talk about a second-rate book as if it were the best. My guess is that they probably started off with high standards—that is, if they weren’t political—but the commercial pressures slowly brought them low.
Gottlieb went on from editing books to editing the New Yorker. Eventually he saw sense, gave up magazines and returned to books. Much the same career trajectory as mine, then, apart from the success and the fame and the money. 
Monitor: Chris Bourke

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Go ahead, make my week

A Xenakis festival. In France, this week, 13-18 July. The programme is here. We’re talking the big stuff – Kraanerg, Persephassa, La Legende d’Eer, Trookrh, Oresteia, ST/4 – and a whole lot more plus Pleiades. Well, you always get Pleiades. 
As Milan Kundera wrote:
Je suis tombé amoureux de la musique de Varèse et de Xenakis. … j’ai éprouvé un plaisir sincère à l’audition de ses oeuvres que j’ai écoutées avec avidité. J’avais besoin d’elles: elles m’ont apporté un bizarre soulagement…
If I had won Lotto last night, right now I would be on a plane heading to Reims. 

I didn’t, so will have to content myself with watching the finals of the world netball championship, New Zealand vs Australia. It was a great game last night when the Silver Ferns beat England: we’re hoping for the same again tonight. Nothing against Richie McCaw and his Crusaders but a win would be good.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Peter Sculthorpe sentence of the day

William Barton’s virtuoso didgeridoo provided the underlay to this largely bold and distinctive choral piece, writes George Hall.
That’s the Guardian website’s front page promo for this review of Peter Sculthorpe’s 2004 Requiem, performed last week at the City of London festival. 

Titter ye not: the didgeridoo may not be a clarinet but Sculthorpe is more than a major Australian composer, he’s a major composer. And doesn’t he look as though he’d be good company.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Writing is bad for you

So says author and bookseller Rick Gekoski. Money quote:
“That’s not writing, that’s wanking,” he said censoriously. “Finish it, and get on with something else!”
Hong Kong-based Dutch academic Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine details how Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward led to the deaths of, Dikötter estimates, 45 million people. It has won the Samuel Johnson prize and sounds like a great book. One of the judges, biographer (Lawrence, Yeats, Nora Joyce) Brenda Maddox said of it, “This book changed my life – I think differently about the 20th century than I did before. Why didn’t I know about this?” To which one can only reply, “Yes, why didn’t you?” Everybody else did.

On Sunday 26 June the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival ended. Daily Telegraph reviewer Ivan Hewett writes that the Saturday concert by the London Sinfonietta was “totally intoxicating” but:
Just as thrilling was the performance in the [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra] concert of Stravinsky’s Variations, composed in 1964 when the composer was 82. In this electric performance conducted by Oliver Knussen, the music’s splintered sound felt like pure thought in motion. As did the brand-new double concerto Conversations from the 102-year-old Elliott Carter, in which percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard tossed musical shapes at each other like netball players.
That’s right, a major work by an 82-year-old and a brand-new concerto from a 102-year-old composer. Still with us.

Sentence of the day

Chad Taylor has a Word:  
That’s why I started working on laptops: they’re easier to throw across the room.
See why here.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

In praise of: no regrets

Everyone loves Harry Potter but look what starring in the movies did to Daniel Radcliffe:
[He] developed a penchant for whisky and partying, and says he was fortunate that the paparazzi failed to capture his drink-fuelled excess. “I really got away with that because there were many instances when a shot like that could have been taken,” he said. 
Realising he had to change his ways, Radcliffe quit drinking and has not touched a drop of alcohol since August last year.
“I’m actually enjoying the fact I can have a relationship with my girlfriend where I’m really pleasant and I’m not ----ing up totally all the time,” he said of his new lifestyle.
Good for him. Admirable. One is pleased for him. And yet, and yet.

One of best books written by a musician is Bit of a Blur by Alex James, bass player in Blur. He’s a really good writer – he even had a column in the Spectator for a while. The book documents his time in the band and his excesses. He is a reformed character now but is admirably unapologetic about the past because it was what the job entailed and what he thought his fans wanted: 
I’d spent about a million pounds on champagne and cocaine. It sounds ridiculous but, looking back, I don’t regret it. It was definitely the right thing to do. It was completely decadent, but I was a rock star, after all, a proper one, with a public duty to perform.
No regrets.

So here is Joni Mitchell on 25 November 1976 performing “Coyote” (from her Hejira album) in The Last Waltz. (Can't embed it, sorry, but really is worth a view.) That’s Rick Danko on bass behind her in most of the shots. Doesn’t get any better, imho. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

It’s a boy

Photo by Mark Mitchell, NZ Herald

Stuff reports that the world’s favourite emperor penguin is male. That explains why he got lost and ended up 4000 kilometres from home – he wouldn’t stop and ask for directions. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

What I’m reading

When the New Zealand Herald is good it is very good. Today’s business section has an excellent story – it is by Karyn Scherer, so of course it is excellent – on the changing of the guard at Whitcoulls. It is four (tabloid-size) pages and very thorough. The main story is here, and the sidebar about New Zealand being Guest of Honour (better than it sounds) at next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair is here. Quite rightly Scherer is enthusiastic about the return of Ian Draper as managing director and Joan Mackenzie (who is brilliant, and whom the staff adore) as book manager.

In other bookselling news the NZ book most talked about hasn’t even been published yet but already everyone has a view on whether it should be banned, boycotted or whatever. The most sensible comment I have seen is from the ever-sensible James Norcliffe, who wrote at the Dim-Post:
If this is a “ban” then why has there been no outcry over the years about big-box book shops “banning” poetry, philosophy, manuscript music, or just about any book reviewed in the London Review of Books or the NY Times Book Review these many, many years?
Germaine Greer quote of the day:
I’ve spent the whole day learning names of creepy crawlies. I’ve just begun the butterflies, but I need help, I need an entomologist, come and stay with me.
In this brief article in the Daily Telegraph Ms Greer also opines that an award for literature in translation into English is flawed if the judges are English-speakers, and further that because “we have 12 people when we’re trying someone for murder, there should be at least that many for this sort of prize”.
Dr Greer is the author of The Madwoman’s Underclothes.

Probably only journalists here have noticed but there is a scandal in England over the Independent contributor Johann Hari and his unorthodox practice of filching material from other journalists and authors to construct his interviews. He regards this as acceptable practice: here is his initial defence to the Twitter storm of disapproval. Hardly anyone else agrees: as the Press Gazette reports, he may even lose his Orwell Prize. This was the Guardian’s first response; Tim Worstall does a little enjoyable fisking; and the New Statesman really lets Hari have it, going further than anyone else and accusing him of deliberate plagiarism. Well, yes. 
Breaking news from the world of entertainment: Shia LaBeouf responds without a script to a suggestion that he might have shagged Megan Fox:
When asked by the August issue of Details magazine if he and Fox hooked up, LaBeouf reportedly nodded to agree.
“Look, you’re on the set for six months, with someone who’s rooting to be attracted to you, and you’re rooting to be attracted to them,” explained the star.
 “I never understood the separation of work and life in that situation. But the time I spent with Megan was our own thing. [. . .] It was what it was.”
I do love that “reportedly”. And the rooting, and oh just the whole actorspeak.

Finally, Tim Worstall – yes, him again – predicts the demise of the euro with these wise words:
you may try to ignore economics but that doesn’t mean that economics is going to ignore you.