Thursday, July 4, 2013

Three things worth reading on the Internet

The NZ Post children’s book award winner, Into the River by Ted Dawe, has not been universally acclaimed – a bookseller in Hamilton has refused to stock it, the Herald on Sunday was moved to write an editorial. Quote unquote:
Teenagers would never say so, but they do not want this sort of fare from their school any more than they would want it from their parents.
It is not prudish or patronising to maintain a certain standard, it is re-assuring them that quality exists and people they respect can recognise it. For many, their early teenage years might be the last in their lives when they read literature worthy of the name. 
Yes, that was written and published in 2013. 

Leading the case for the defence here is author Emma Neale. Quote unquote:
I strongly believe that literature is one of the places that young people can safely think through situations, and rehearse their moral choices, without the grave personal compromise that living through the real events might involve. Forewarned is forearmed.The novel is aimed at ages 15+: the sex scenes are unromanticised, and speak the truth of unsatisfactory experiences. Yes, they’re awkward, raw, discomfiting. That’s part of the point. They happen in the context of a young, disenfranchised teenager trying to grapple with a loss of identity and with institutionalised racism, casual racism, and classist attitudes; with a life where the moral compass seems skewed to the powerful and those with a dubious authority. The sex scenes have to be read in context. If readers read the entire book, they’ll see that the main character, Devon, is left hurt, bewildered, empty, and wanting more than the casual encounters he’s had. The point isn’t the sex: it’s what the sex represents.
And here is author Bernard Beckett, convenor of the judges. Quote unquote:
Now, it may be that you accept this is an important, and indeed moral novel, and you accept that the graphic content is a necessary part of this book’s story, but still oppose it on the grounds that the price we pay for this message is too high. Specifically, it might be that you believe that young adults reading this book will be encouraged to use the less palatable language themselves, or indeed take this book as licence to indulge in the high risk activities that are portrayed. To this, I would only say, trust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more. It is simply not true that the young refrain from swearing because they have never heard it. There are no words in this book that a teenager will not have heard in the school ground, at the shopping mall, the bus stop or read online. That they will suddenly, at the twenty third exposure, switch lexicons on us, is an absurd suggestion. All teenagers are exposed to offensive language (‘bugger’ was turned into a national advertising campaign) and most of them, most of the time, manage to express themselves beautifully without it. It is the way we raise them, the way we win their respect, and earn our place as role models, that matters.
On an unrelated matter, Metro editor Simon Wilson was moved to write an editorial complaining about writers/authors who would rather Tweet than submit articles to Metro. Quote unquote:
Meanwhile, there’s an essay on my desk by another writer, who has been fretting about whether to adopt this or that mode of writing. It’s a writing exercise about a writing exercise, by someone who has been hothoused in one of the country’s university writing programmes, and is both beautifully written and dead on the page.
I found it a little bit irritating. Not entirely because of the subject — I believe you can write well for a general readership about anything, if you’re good enough. But if a writer does want to share their writerly concerns with us, they need to make them fascinating and they need to draw larger themes and ideas from them. My would-be contributor was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to do either.
Do I blame the writing courses? I don’t know. I’m not privy to the ways they value writing. Do they praise a raft of elegantly turned phrases that do not compel readers to care about the subject? Or do they see that as a disappointing waste of talent?
So here is author Ashleigh Young putting Wilson gently but firmly in his place. Quote unquote:
Around three years ago I guess I would’ve lamented the state of New Zealand creative nonfiction and journalism right along with Wilson. I was reading the New Yorker and the Atlantic a lot more devoutly than I do now, practically bleeding internally with envy, wishing New Zealand had writers like that, wishing I could think and write like that. But I don’t lament too much any more. I think we’ve got too much to look forward to. I’m not sure that scolding writers for who they are not, for what they are not doing, will get us there faster. I also feel that if you start reading a piece with the hope that it is going to be written by a Janet Malcolm or one of those ‘New Yorker types’, you will be stymied. Our voices necessarily come from a different place. I think we’re at the beginning of something; we’re witnessing a slow but sure surge of interest in the kinds of nonfiction that do illuminate things around us and in us. We have writers who are doing these things right now (some of them are even on Twitter) – but not always in the publications that Wilson identifies. [. . .]
Also, I find it weird that in talking about good, thoughtful longform writing we would ignore the writers whose blog posts are ferociously intelligent, beautifully crafted works of nonfiction in their own right. This work is a salve for the disaffected reader. A few obvious examples: Giovanni Tiso, Dougal McNeill, Megan Clayton, Cheryl Bernstein, Matthew Dentith, Robyn Gallagher – all of whom are on Twitter, and all of whose writing I’ve come to appreciate and look forward to even more through their presence on Twitter. There are the writers for the Public Address community of blogs; one recent example that bears rereading and sharing is ‘Paul’ by David Herkt. There’s the terrific blog Reading the Maps. I do feel that at the moment, in most print media in NZ, it can be difficult for writers to push longform work, or to experiment with creative nonfiction – with ways of telling a story. So many go online, where they’re free of constraints. [. . .]
I guess I’m also discouraged by the way that the would-be contributor to Metro is described in the article – as a product, as the end-result of a narrow, closed-off process, without any acknowledgement that writers change and develop, without any acknowledgement of potential in that writer’s work. It’s a close-minded way of reading. And in talking about good writing, I think we need to talk about good reading as well.
The three authors posted these thoughtful pieces on their blogs, thereby, I think, proving Ashleigh’s point.  (Her original post has links to all the writers she cites.)

In Metro’s defence, it’s pleasing to see that it is using some of the livelier bloggers and Tweeters as contributors, among them Joshua Drummond, Paul Litterick and Danyl McLauchlan. With the MSM and social media, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. 

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