Vanessa York & Andrew Forsberg, ed.: pander OS 2.0
Going West Five Years On
Going West Books & Writers 2004: Between the Lines: A Tribute to Michael King. Titirangi War Memorial Hall (September 3-19th)
Having just presented a session at this year’s Going West Festival (or at least MC’d a launch hosted by the Festival – a slight distinction there), it seems an opportune moment to revisit the old Pander review of the 1999 Festival. The thing’s rather been haunting me, I must confess – sitting like an unexploded time bomb on Andrew Forsberg’s site.
There seem to be two major issues to discuss: the first is cowardice, the second truth.
The Pander anonymous review convention attracted a lot of criticism during its brief life. I modelled it on the old Times Literary Supplement tradition of unsigned reviews, though one could certainly object that the magisterial, ex cathedra character of the TLS had nothing in common with the insolent cheek of the Pander.
Was it cowardly? Just a device for getting out of putting your name where your mouth was? Not in intention, no. I just felt that too much of our criticism was based on such-and-such-a-name reviewing such-and-such-another-name, which tended to focus attention solely on the personal relations of the two (in New Zealand, everyone knows each other – depressingly true, still). “You give me a nice review or I’ll get my revenge later” is always the unspoken threat.
One thing that seemed to confirm me in my stand was that people would occasionally go to great lengths to ascertain who had written a particular review in the magazine, and then, when they did find out, discover that the name meant nothing to them at all. I wanted to focus attention of the content of our criticism, not on who it was by.
I still think that we live in an almost claustrophobically small Arts community, and an unusually thin-skinned one, also. Depressingly few people here appear to acknowledge that negative commentary could ever be worthwhile or useful to them – let alone to the public. There’s money involved! There’s a reputation! There’s a livelihood!
It’s always unpleasant to receive bad reviews, of course. I realise that. Having had a few myself, I’m a lot more sympathetic now to people who objected to the tone rather than the content of Pander reviewing. I do think (now) that we allowed ourselves too much latitude there. I’d still defend each of the reviews we printed individually, but I can see that printing them anonymously made us look like a group of smash-&-grab thugs. That’s one reason why we phased out the convention in the second full year of the magazine’s run, in fact. I should stress that no single contributor ever requested that their contributions appear anonymously – that was an editorial decision, made by me, and endorsed (at least initially) by the other editors.
Negativity is not really the issue, though – neither is tone. You have to be at least prepared to be negative to be an effective reviewer. Sarcasm is also appropriate in some contexts – deflating grandiloquent self-importance, for instance. What is not acceptable, under any circumstances, is ad hominem criticism, focussing on the creator rather than the work under discussion.
Obviously the two overlap: works (and events) come out with a nametag attached. It’s only sensible to cross-reference them with other works issued under the same nametag. The moment, however, you start slagging someone off rather than talking about their work, you’re in trouble. It’s a fine line, and I hope we were always on the right side of it. I think we were, but some of our critics clearly think we were not.
I’d be much more careful now than I was then, much more considerate of the need to persuade rather than hector readers, but it’s not as if this issue of criticising the work rather than the person didn’t continually arise in preparing copy for the magazine (and, latterly, the website). Up to you to judge, really. I’d like to think we were always on the side of the angels, but we certainly sailed pretty close to the wind at times.
One of those times was with the Going West review, which appeared on the website rather than in the magazine for reasons of space (otherwise it’d have graduated from wrapping fish’n’chips to the landfill by now, and thus be out of my hair).
Was it true? Would I say the same things now? Do I (in short) repent?
It still seems strange to me that people apparently didn’t notice how much I was guying myself in writing the review that way (perhaps there anonymity didn’t serve our cause). I thought the prologue made it quite obvious that this was an envious would-be littérateur venting steam, rather than a balanced, magisterial analysis. I said as much, in fact.
You may, of course, believe that that invalidates the piece altogether, but personally I’ve always believed in stating a bias in advance, rather than trying to imply that it doesn’t exist at all. I was puzzled to find that I wasn’t enjoying the Festival, and wanted to put my finger on why. I certainly didn’t mean that everyone would have the same reactions, or see it the same way. I tried to quiz as many people as possible to find out how they felt about it all along the way, in fact.
I guess my substantive criticisms came down to two things (both illustrated by numerous examples):
- I felt that the festival was organised to pay excessive deference to names, and to minimise effective participation from the floor. That’s one reason I quoted so many asides from the paying audience, and mentioned the prompt suppression of the (quite interesting) Michael King question, among others. Interesting issues were coming up, and they weren’t being explored (I felt) because of a lack of flexibility in the structure.
I think now that I was wrong to attribute this so unequivocally to the setup of the Festival, and (particularly) to the nametag arrangement. Festivals on this scale are vastly complicated to run, and I suspect that indifferent chairing of some of the various sessions, a timid, non-interventionist audience, and a venue with a raised stage and school-assembly seating all conspired to rob the discussion of liveliness.
- I thought that the choice of topics to discuss, and people to present the sessions, was too safe and predictable, and lacked a really cutting-edge sense of what was going on in New Zealand writing (a re-rediscovery of Ronald Hugh Morriesson, for example).
I still think that’s true, but it’s a criticism that applies so widely that it seems pointless to attribute it solely to the organisers and participants in Going West. Within a limited budget, and a limited number of eminent presenters to call upon, I’d now feel more disposed to accentuate the positive, the good things which were undoubtedly there.
So, yes, I do repent a little of some of my churlish remarks (perhaps I’ve just sold out to The Man in the meantime). I think I was too rude about the organisers and not sufficiently critical of the participants (and the audience – including myself).
The main point I’d make, five years on, is that it’s pointless to criticise a smorgasbord as if it were intended to be a banquet. One doesn’t have to go to everything, and a case of indigestion is bound to result from the attempt.
I still feel that the atmosphere of the Festival is a little too hierarchical, but I’m not quite so sure how that could be addressed. More q & a, perhaps? What was most encouraging about the sessions I attended this year was that pertinent questions were far more welcome, and indeed some speakers seemed to be practically gagging for a good question from the floor.
Power to the people is still my watchword, as it was in 1999, but I think now that until we get better audiences we won’t get better Literary Festivals. It cuts both ways, of course. You’ve got to interest people to drag them in.
Literature’s still largely equated with solitary vice in New Zealand, though. When questioned whether or not they write, people tend to put on a hangdog expression before they guiltily confess to the dog-eared novel, or memoir, or portfolio of poems in the bottom drawer. I’d like us to be bolder both as writers and readers. Festivals like Going West can certainly be seen as barometers in charting this process, but for now I’d just like to stress how lucky we are to have them – and their organisers – at all.
[Available at: http://www.thepander.co.nz/literature/articles/jross200409.php]