Tag Archives: media

What happens next.

A fitting enough title: the last line from The Sovereign Hand. What does happen next?

Just the asking begs a dozen more questions, a deeply personal interrogation that has kept the authorly part of my brain occupied with reflection, conjecture, and outright battle with a few heaving chunks of reality for several months. Even now I’m not sure of the full answer, but I’m more sure of what I want to say.  What to make explicit, implicit, ambiguous. Or totally leave out.

The easy part is, yes, I know what is next in the story. I wrote The Sovereign Hand to be coherent and complete in itself as a stand-alone novel… for myriad reasons. But any reader can see there is clearly a larger story, the transformations of Alexa and Tanner having passed through only one, naive, revolution, there having been much foreshadowing, and other characters still to be fully revealed.  As such there are two, and only two, more books in this wider arc,  much like Raymond E. Feist’s first novels (Magician/Silverthorn/Darkness at Sethanon) or even the original Star Wars Trilogy: the original, and then a duology.

So will I write them?

The trickier part. I really want to. My love of the story drove me through the writing and publishing of The Sovereign Hand, and would do so again. The difference being, I was younger, unmarried, childless, and cheerily sans career back then, not to mention full of “optimism” about how quality writing – plus a more mainstream enthusiasm for “fantasy” (LotR/GoT style) – could overcome the typical prejudice towards a story featuring the occasional goblin or scales and horns.

And so things are no longer so simple, and I know a few things better. Significantly that I can not expect an interested reception from the NZ “book scene” if it looks like fantasy. And to be fair, the only reason I thought that might happen is that Steam Press had already established itself as a quality publisher: we thought that bridge had been crossed. By 2014, though, the “scene” wasn’t so welcoming to Steam Press publications, whether for review or on shelves.  Large volume of a tight selection of works is now the prevailing business model, and it flows from publishers, to booksellers and into which texts are selected for review. All informed by data on who can actually afford to buy books from booksellers in our depressed political economy. The tastes of a older, conservative, wealthy demographic reins supreme.
So, no immediate hopes of springing from NZ to Australia to other international publishers and thereby funding my next novel – although Steam Press may well be front-and-centre at Frankfurt this year, where genre sell well.

To the internet, then, where the conventional theory it seems is your first novel is the peanuts-grade marketing for your second novel in a whole series of novels you can pump out featuring your world and characters which your readership has hooked into. Which I can appreciate, but ain’t what I’m doing (this time, at least) and it stings me like a fissure in my arse (H/T: Maury Ballstein, Zoolander) cos its kinda the inverse of how I was hoping it would work. I know. Boo hoo.

So with that dubious fucking incentive, will I write a follow-up to The Sovereign Hand?
Yes. You can never be read enough, but besides its inability to help me fund a second novel, I’m really happy with how the first one turned out.
Do I know when? No. It is even possible I will write other things first, maybe some short stories set in the same world. Family and work will keep time at a premium this year, and we have a nation-state falling to bits around us. Time to start putting the P back into participatory democracy.

And this site? I’ll always have something to say, including on The Sovereign Hand. Next time I’ll write a bit about the novel’s successes, and may indulge in what it’s “about”.

Mostly though, I think I’ll veer towards reviewing for a bit. Works of note, hidden gems. NZ books, yes, but not only, and especially those with something to say. Starting with an appraisal of the NZ Book Awards longlist for 2016. I was, of course, eligible (and not nominated) so reading the chosen works this year has been interesting… to say the least.

 

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Eleanor Catton, Braveheart. Copyright Robert Catto Robertcatto.com

Eleanor Catton: NZ’s Braveheart? Not just yet.

I have been writing this since Thursday, recollecting and ruminating, but it has been hard keeping up since each day seems to bring another twist in the tale that has sprung from Eleanor Catton’s uncommon, but largely unremarkable remarks, made at the Jaipur Writers Festival in India.

To sum, she felt “uncomfortable” with being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand given her feelings about how our government – and she’s careful to include the Australian and Canadian governments also – are dominated by “profit-obsessed” neo-liberal politicians who “would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want.”

And something of a media furore erupted.

Here is what I wrote on this site way back when her Booker win was announced:

“Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).”
astrorant

 

And also:

I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

Lo and behold. Kinda.

Catton said her thing; in response, radio journalist Sean Plunket pushed the rhetorical boat to the limit, calling her an “ungrateful hua” and traitor” for her comments about our great country/government. And of course Catton’s remarks couldn’t go reported for even one day before Prime Minster John Key’s rebuttal had to be tacked on to them. Whenever someone says something disquieting about our country, he’s where our media go to “balance” the picture.

They’re just the two highest profile retorts. There was support as well, of course, including from those already scourged, already tarred, or with nothing to lose. And there was Twitter. But Key and Plunkett are authority figures who create a great allowable arc of attacks and uninformed comment masquerading as debate, much effectively dismissing her as a silly girl, a know-nothing writer, or fanatical Green party advocate. The unthinking dismissal of someone who is not instantly and whole-heartedly celebrating the state of our society.

catt capt 2

Such is the bloody circus that performs as our public discourse.

This is not simple “tall-poppy” or even misogyny.  I call it our New Chauvinism, actively fostered since the Clark years as a sheepskin to bring the Right back to popularity and reinvigorate the very neo-liberal power base that Catton was criticising.

Is Eleanor Catton the braveheart to challenge this status quo? I’ll asssert, Catton is not an expert on politcal economy and power structures. Not yet. That does not diminish the value of her remarks; not in the way Key’s belated comeback attempts to suggest. She is intelligent and moral, and trusts her feelings – the latter is something our society could learn to respect a lot more. Society, elections, would be a lot different if people were encouraged to trust their gut feelings of right or wrong.

For Catton, I expect if it matters to her she will inform herself and become truly dangerous very very quickly indeed.

That is an if. She hasn’t shown her courage yet. She can still step back, although she has made a clear statement that she will not, and even pressed her point with regards to the cutting of National Library services to New Zealand schools. But she has been invited to rejoin the silent folds. She can still be politic. All will be forgiven.

And she is safe to criticise, to a certain extent. There will always be publishers willing to print her. She does not “need” New Zealand. She has a global base and can live quite well and afford to lose the outraged fans thought she was so nice when she shone for them through The Luminaries.

But Catton clearly cares about New Zealand, its people, its culture, its environment. So if she wants to continue to share her ideas, make a difference, she might talk to Robyn Malcolm, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lucy Lawless for some insight on voicing values contrary to those driving our gears of power. Or Jon Stephenson, Nicky Hager. Mike Joy. Or columnists like Tapu Misa, disappeared and not published enough. Martyn Bradbury would have some interesting things to say about the double-standards at “our” Radio New Zealand – there’s no refuge there. Gareth Morgan – he was the mainstream economic golden boy once, but got sidelined once he started musing on democracy and social justice long before cat-control.

Dissident voices are heard for one day, maybe a week, but are inevitably buried beneath the myriad others that are constantly rewarded for recycling the chauvinist and neo-liberal norms; it is a career path in itself. For a glimpse of her future, Catton might chat to Germaine Greer. Or Julian Assange – the flipside of being a hua/hoor. Create a haven for truth and you get to be a rapist with no evidence of such, liberty gone, no charges, no public outcry.

Regardless of her publishing, Catton can expect to be scrutinised through the lens, as Plunkett put it, of a traitor: someone who does not celebrate the ideas dominant in NZ society with the appropriate level of “jingoistic fervor”. As if any criticism is therefore a criticism of rugby, beer, barbeques and WWI veterans – of “our” team. Which is, in the chauvinism of the current establishment, the happy, positive, winning “Team Key”. Doesn’t she want to be on our team? Isn’t she a “”winner”? The derision reserved for losers, critics and malcontents is well bedded.

This is chauvinism in action. And conscious of their own brand and image, people will be less gushing with praise for Catton because cattontwitthey know she is tainted. In award or review, they’ll find some reason to favour some other author, or novel, or point-of-view. The door is open – they’ll say that she opened the door – to scrutinise everything she writes and says for more evidence of her treachery. She may become satirised, to the point that she exists to the mainstream only as a caricature and grotesque – “elitist”, “traitor”, and the establishment favourite, “narcissist” – from behind which none of her thoughts and truths and arguments will be heard.

It’s not a dead end, nor a lost cause. Arundhati Roy has forged her own path. George Monbiot is the model of a wise, moral and intelligent person railing impotently from within the media system. Media critic Media Lens has advocated a donated fund to free thinkers, journalists and  writers to publish free of self-censorship, something I’ve personally always contended. Plus artists. Especially artists. Look at Russell Brand. Artists reach people. Especially the young.

Because of this, Catton and those like her are a threat to the status quo. They become authorities we feel we know and trust, in the same way some people feel Queen Elizabeth is a trusted member of their own family. That’s why they get torn down. They can become leaders, if they have something to say. They need to be patronised, co-opted, sullied, or stigmatised because no amount of media whitewash can drown them out. Give them too much of a start and they won’t need a masthead, nor a media-constructed image, like a Key. They just connect and connect and connect. And then…?

That’s what makes them scared.

The Booker was Catton’s start. This furore, all over a simple statement of views not proportionally reflected in our public discourse, was the first step.

Red pill, blue pill. I’m with her if she goes down the rabbit hole. So should everyone of a like mind and the courage to say it. Fund change. Form an alliance.

But I would not fault her for going the other way, either.

Book launched and firing

Thu726088bd-fcec-4a6c-906e-5df5646e40cfrsday’s been and gone, and the book is away. Photos forthcoming. There was a good turnout for the launch, despite the cutting Wellington weather that night, and fun was had, books signed and sold. Stephen said some fine things about the shenanigans between publisher and author over the last couple of years. I unloaded with my undiminished thanks, to Stephen, and particularly my wife Adele, who has been my absolute rock these past ten years, making this happen. The Sovereign Hand couldn’t have been without her.

So the book is now officially everywhere in NZ, Unity Books, Whitcoulls, etc; just ask for it by name. Also, Steam Press will deliver free of charge, and has links to all the other methods of purchase.
Print copies will be available for overseas buyers any day now through Amazon, which also hosts the Kindle version, of course.

The book and I have had good press, with another interview and a feature article going to print this week, and a public reading on the horizon next month. More details (links) when they come to hand, and I expect more reviews soon too.

Non-fiction essay: A Part Of Me

A little girl dashes into the fog. She’s barely two. It’s our local park; she knows the playground, and I’m following along; but it feels taboo, letting her so far ahead. The image of such a dearly loved figure, so small and alone in the white, framed by the bare blank trees – it strikes the eye like neglect, like I should be hovering at her shoulder, just in case. But there’s no one about to upbraid me. As I watch her joy the guilt fades, and a new dread settles instead.

Nothing reframes your conception of family like your first child. You’re saddled with a whole new package of “grown up” and it all has to fit immediately. With it comes a new appreciation for your own parents, and all parents. Whatever your feelings about kinship – those push-me/pull-you ties that tangle and constrain, that can tighten like parachutes or winch you to unearned heights – having a child cuts through that gnarly wadding, makes an incurable wound. News items you once skimmed past disinterestedly now touch with a visceral chill: the baby who died in her bed from overheating; or the one that survived, cushioned in the backpack, when her parents fell from a gondola. And the irrational fears, seeded in our congealed criminal folklore: yes, my daughter is special, why wouldn’t someone want to snatch her, look at Madeleine McCann – presumably this nightmare is looped in some collective parental consciousness.

Who we claim as family is significant. The world demands we make these divisions and we are herd creatures at heart. We impart trust on the ties of blood embellished with ideas of self-interest and shut out the rest, resulting in genocide, wars and sectarian violence at one end of the scale, to remarriage after a divorce, leaving one family for another, at the other. In the Royals we have a family that has succeeded in setting itself above all others, yet is embraced in the imagination of millions as if they also belong. It is a fundamental human inequality. We are forever making the statement: you are with me – and you are not.

This creates rules around family, divisions as real as whanau, hapu, iwi, maori, tauiwi, but they are not hard walls. The boundaries shift when we talk of the kinship of community, of a crowd united at an All Blacks game, where provincial foes become hometown heroes; or of a city humbled by disaster, its collective struggles almost incommunicable as the rest of the country ticks on. Even the act of asking for and sharing a smoke on the street expresses a familial bond.

Here is where family transcends the contest for power and resources. Where the stakes are low, family becomes just a feeling that might be extended to anyone, even everyone. I was perhaps nine when I realised something like this, on a sunny day walking home from school. It was just luck that made me white, middle-class, male; I could have been born into any body in any family, any place in the world. The thought was not paired with any religious belief, but the consequence, that I could have been born as anyone: I realised I was everyone. Or, at least, I should act as if everyone was part of me.

Naturally, this epiphany lasted five minutes on the rough-and-tumble reality of playground politics, but the inclination to embrace commonalities endures; and we have nothing less in common than all being only human. This does not necessarily suit a world weighted towards the fear of difference, to turned backs, to protecting one’s tribe. Our hearts reach out to Australians caught in flash-fires, but we say nothing of the fire that pours even more senselessly on Gaza. We have received the non-message, those people are not, could not, be ours; which is hard to take when I consider recent revelations from Iraq, more graphic photos swapped between US troops like baseball cards. Because when I see a young woman, surrounded, with blurred spots covering her mouth, I see with the eyes of a father. I know that she and all her family are now dead, and it’s left to me to demand that no family suffer such circumstances ever again.

It’s an old game. The Great Game. The dividing lines are imagined, but when acted upon become real, with real gains for a few and real tragedies for the rest. We see the fruits in the feudalism that emerges under every system of government: royal families, corporate dynasties, political parties and the frameworks that fund them. While real families, for so long the heart of the human economy, become “nice-to-haves”, a flag of political rhetoric, and an externality that is left to look after itself – debased by systems that promote individual self-interest above all else.

And that’s what I saw as my little girl ran into the mist: a desolate place where people stood around like black trees, silent, not seeing her or each other, only the heights to which they might grow, heedless of the collective cost. A vision of the future. And it seems like the only power I have to stop it is to have another child, just so my daughter won’t have to endure it alone.

This essay was written as an entry to the Sunday Star Times essay competition on “Family”, 2013.

Booker Brilliance; theme song for the day

As everyone who loves literature probably knows, Eleanor Catton was awarded the Booker Prize this week, for The Luminaries. Google has you covered for most of that coverage, or @fergusvup on twitter, or Bookman Beattie’s blog.

As mentioned previously, The Luminaries was on my must-reads before it got longlisted, but since that time I actually found the reviews themselves diverting enough for me to delay reading the actual book, allowing myself more time to digest the discourse around the novel to inform my reading.

As with 90% of most media products, 90% of “reviews” were drek – just recycled clippings of basic facts: long and physically heavy (work-out jokes), 832 pages, astrological system, intricately unfolding murder mystery, gold rush 1800s Hokitika NZ. More recent reviews, since The Luminaries made the shortlist and won (I’m thinking New York Times, and an Irish or Scottish paper? They didn’t grab me enough to bother linking) were more suggestive in terms of big themes and import: the value of love versus gold, although unsurprisingly with a novel this length and complexity, any review struggles to encapsulate this adequately. As author of a soon-to-be published long novel, I know this; we ask potential readers to take a lot on faith.

Aside from a review via dialogue from two Victoria University students, as insightful as capering Shakespearian fools, there were a troika of reviews, below, that struck me as most interesting as critiques, and it comes largely down to the novel’s design.

Now, I pity poor Catton, in one regard, because the first question it seems she ever got asked in any interview was “Wow – long book. Why?” Her response, naturally was to explain it as a product of design almost outside her control, with the astrological necessities creating constraints for her to work to and the twelve chapters diminishing by half the previous as progressed, and so on… and she is clearly satisfied and proud with how this panned out (by which I join the bad-pun brigade, sorry), and spoke on this at length. This was picked up and became the defining aspect of the novel in the press; if she did discuss any of the import or themes of the book, it was dwarfed by the coverage given to the book’s structure. The consequence being, because of our media’s blaring, echo-chamber effect,  that this intricate design became the summation of that pernicious beast, the author’s intent – the question then being, is this architecture, however perfect, all there is to The Luminaries?

For me, I think Guy Somerset raised this question in review, himself dubious of the answer; CK Stead asked it in his own way and found the novel lacking (The original title was “All that glistens”, from memory); and KIrsty Gunn did the same but came out with an emphatic affirmative of the novel’s worth.

All of which makes me think it is a question worth asking. A good critique should arm the reader with the tools – the right questions – to dig into the field of the text and find their own answers; a good review should at least tip who would be likely to enjoy a book (and not in a snarky way, or don’t review it at all).

Since winning, Catton appears to have hit out at such reviews as Stead and Somerset. Putting aside the tone taken by individuals (a hard thing to ask of any author, I admit), the impression I received across the strata of reviews was the book might well be a glory-box: beautifully, artfully made, designed to hold treasure, and bore the name “glory”, without much exploration of whether it was empty or full. Perhaps a metaphor that suits the pseudo-Victorian style… It is, of course, impossible, now, to write a 19th Century sensation novel; is it possible to even ape that mode so perfectly that the thinking of an author 150 years distant doesn’t seep through? Catton has apparently done her research, and her skills and will are formidable enough, and her design arbitrary enough, that I suspect she would be one of the few able to do it: if she chose. If she chose to crop away the modern-day, couldn’t what’s left feel somewhat hollow?

So I have enjoyed reading the reviews, puzzling over the conundrum of the post-modern Victorian sensation novel before I happily, finally purchased The Luminaries as an e-book minutes after her win, to celebrate – $20, the most expensive e-book I’ve ever purchased, but I don’t hold with the notion of any new book hovering round the price of a coffee or a hamburger. And my reader tells me I’m 9% in, and it’s a slow start, but I get the sense so far not of a glory box, but a monumental pyramid, building, aloof, but not yet sun-dazzled like Pharoah’s, and already the depths are showing, the hint of secret passages and labyrinthine twists. How many slaves laboured for how many years, for such a feat? Just one, for three years. (My own, quite different, long project, will have spanned 10.)

Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).

This is all the more important in a year the Man Booker has decided to open itself up to all UK-published works in English. In doing so it is undeniable that this institution has an agenda, a “growth” path for itself, in the corporate model, and it doesn’t appear to involve widening the platform to expose writing talent or even more cash. The only motivation seems a vain hope to aggrandise itself as the anointer of one champion of the writing world. And so not only has Catton won the Booker prize, but the Man Booker has awarded itself a dazzling young star to spearhead its charge on the USA – hoping Americans will notice. For 50,000 pounds? I’m not sure who got the better bargain.

I do know that prizes, while a lottery when you get down to it (comparing apples with oranges and bananas) are invaluable to authors at all stages of their career. The awards for my extracts were hugely motivating and gave a sense of purpose in a pursuit where you have no empirical proof of performance or improvement, not like sportsfolk, or even worth – sometimes not even once you jump that “last” hurdle, getting published. We should be making more prizes, not heading towards a unification bout between the Booker and National Book Awards.

Locally, I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

On that note, some Radiohead. (Because why wouldn’t you?)