Writing in a Tangled Time

We are living through a strange and rare period of history, a very unsettled time. Previously when I experienced a major change to the culture, it had its origin in the arts, such as my discovery (as a teenager) of modernism, or the ‘New American Poetry’ of the 1960s, or French cultural theory in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today the drivers of change are political, technological, and medical, but they are having a major influence on our cultural lives.  For better or worse, they have created the new situation in which we now live and write, and it is important to pin down what makes this period different from any we have known.

I am not suggesting that when we write we need to document the world in a realist or polemical way. But none of us lives by words alone, and in various ways the state of the world seeps into our thoughts, our moods, our dreams, and our writing. Many of us have become obsessed with the news. We breathe the air of the age, and that is a dangerous inhalation when we are being stalked by a virus.

Most of the issues involved are already well-known but I find it odd that they are seldom discussed as a group. We live in the midst of a particular field of forces, and each of the pressures is hard to deal with because of the complex ways they interact. The first of three major global problems is the pandemic. To date (December 2021), nearly five and a half million lives have been lost around the world because of COVID-19. That is according to government records, but The Economist estimates the actual total to be around 20 million – equivalent to almost four times the total population of New Zealand.[i] The virus infects about 50 million additional people across the world every 90 days. 

The second crisis is of course global warming, already causing droughts, floods, cyclones and forest fires, and starting to inundate the islands of the Pacific. It is a growing threat to biodiversity. According to the Ministry for the Environment, New Zealand already has around 4000 species including birds and reptiles which are threatened or at risk of becoming extinct.

The third global problem is the troubled state of the political environment, coming at a time when united world action is crucial. There is a worse-than-usual conjunction of ultra-nationalistic, self-interested, influential political figures, including Trump in the USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines, Ortega in Nicaragua, Lukashenko in Belarus, Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar, Erdogan in Turkey, Johnson in England, Morrison in Australia, Putin in Russia, Morawiecki in Poland, Xi Jiping in China, Netanyahu in Israel, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Assad in Syria, and a number of others. That is an extraordinary rogues’ gallery, even by the low standards that history has set.  Amnesty International estimates that 26 million people have been driven from their homes and are now living in desperate straits as refugees, half of them children. Many low-income countries lack adequate vaccine supplies. The United States political system is so polarised that it is close to meltdown, while China has become an Orwellian dystopia, and there is growing tension between those two countries.

Granted, there may be writers who think that these crises hold some benefits for our literary scene. An exceptional period of history should serve as a stimulus. We can feel lucky to be securely located in New Zealand since our isolation has ceased to be a drawback and is now a great advantage.  To be living in interesting times should remedy the fact that our literature has so often been low-keyed and inconsequential. After all, it seems no coincidence that an upsurge of modern writing began in our country during one of its darkest periods, the 1930s Great Depression and the Second World War.

But we need to be careful with that optimistic view because it resembles the old myth that artists work best when starving in a garret. Even garrets are costly to rent these days, and la vie de bohème is hard for an artist to combine with mid-life developments such as starting a family. Meanwhile, New Zealand writers face a particular set of local problems which have grown since the millennium. Making a living was already difficult, but writers are now one of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic. Lockdown has meant losing the day jobs on which many have depended, traditional options such as freelance writing, publishing, casual teaching, café and bookshop work, and so on. Those options were already shrinking in 2016 when Gordon McLauchlan commented: ‘I brought up a family on freelancing in newspapers and television, but no one could do that now.’[ii]

Any COVID deaths are tragic, but compared with the policies of the power-hungry politicians mentioned earlier, our government has done well to maintain such a low COVID death rate (currently a total of 51).  But when it comes to looking after the arts, the government has been much less attentive than European countries. One bizarre example was its refusal to include books and magazines in the list of essential items during the two Level 4 lockdowns.  On 25 October 2021, Radio NZ quoted publisher Nicola Legat: ‘New Zealand is the only country in the English speaking world to forbid the sale of books to consumers under Covid restrictions. It was not permissible for a bookshop owner to go into their shop and fulfil online orders, that was just absolutely verboten, you could not go into your place of business.’ Although it became possible for shops to post books to online buyers in Level 3, the damage had been done, as Legat explained: ‘With books unavailable at level 4 and not freely available in shops at level 3, people are more likely to turn to Amazon and the Book Depository to order them. I feel that Amazon and the Book Depository are not the friends of the New Zealand book eco-system, they take trade from our bookshops, we need bookshops.” [iii]

Equally startling were the grants made in 2021 by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage supposedly to help our literary culture to weather the pandemic. Steve Braunias described one example: ‘A start-up headed by an American wedding celebrant with close to zero knowledge of New Zealand literature has been given a massive $500,000 grant from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to “help Aotearoa audiences access books.” The grant…has stunned leading figures in the New Zealand books trade.’’[iv]  Braunias explained that this ‘recommendations site [Narrative Muse] presents itself as a matchmaker, a kind of Tinder app that seeks to put together people with the books they’d like to read.’ Consumers are directed not to local bookshops, however, but to overseas websites such as Amazon. Asked about New Zealand writers, the head of the company [Brough Johnson] could cite only one local novel and could not recall the surname of its author.

When governments and local councils have agreed to support the arts, they have generally done so on the basis of creating jobs or promoting tourism. During the pandemic, another conception of art has come to the fore. Creative NZ, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and the government have been treating art as community therapy, with particular emphasis on ‘youth’ and ‘minority groups.’ That approach is clear from their grants which in many cases have focused on amateur community projects that would not normally be regarded as art. They are certainly a valuable type of activity, but limiting art to social therapy is like restricting science to applied science. It means that little funding is left for experienced artists, especially those doing experimental work. The pandemic has highlighted the fact that the government’s lack of understanding of the arts is one of its weakest aspects, but that is no surprise if we recall its earlier policy of down-sizing arts teaching in both secondary and tertiary education, or its involvement in 2020 in an attempt to get rid of Radio NZ Concert

Aggressive commercialism

Our country’s private sector presents serious problems of a structural kind. Writers have long felt like outsiders to the marketplace, driven into a corner by commercialism and populism. Those trends have been gathering strength since the 1980s, fostered by Rogernomics and by technology that allowed off-shore corporations to operate globally. The more aggressive nature of contemporary capitalism has been demonstrated by the wave of mergers and restructuring that has led to most overseas publishers and bookstore chains closing their New Zealand branches. Corporations are interested in revenue, profit, and audience size, and not in the local culture. Promoting populist material, they have fostered the view that complex or experimental writing – what some would call ‘high culture’ – should not be taken seriously but mocked as snobbish and pretentious. Such anti-elitism (or anti-intellectualism) is widespread in social media, and work that is complex and challenging has become an endangered species. Coverage of the arts has almost entirely disappeared from TVNZ, leaving us with only the memory of series like Kaleidoscope which ran weekly from 1976 to 1989, or the in-depth documentaries of Work of Art (1993 to 1999).  The arts also receive little attention from newspapers, in contrast to their extensive daily coverage of sport and popular culture.

This neglect of serious art, or the marginalising of it because it is seen as an esoteric activity, has created a problem for the artists and cultural theorists who have been seeking in recent decades to deconstruct elitist conceptions of art. Their intellectual project was motivated not by commercialism but by the aim of enlarging taste or an interest in using popular material as an ironic source. But the general culture has plunged so far down-market that there now needs to be a rescue operation for complex, specialised forms of art.

Such is the current state of our semiotic environment – the everyday culture of words, images, and music in which we live and in which art is made and consumed. Its condition is as salient as the state of the natural environment, and it deserves a similar guardianship. Our semiotic environment can still draw from many positive sources, such as libraries, galleries, independent bookshops, small publishers and creative websites, but meanwhile the mainstream is overflowing with the verbal pollution of advertising hype, celebrity gossip, and angry social media. That may be grist to the mill for a writer, but over time the local environment can become stifling. The last decade has induced a greater sense of claustrophobia, of alienation. During the pandemic we lost some of the favourite ingredients of our semiotic environment such as music gigs and concerts, plays, readings, book launches, festivals, art exhibitions, and café conversations. The influence of social media has grown during the lockdowns and the pandemic has given rise to a surge of troll behaviour.

Dangerous misinformation is another trend that is encouraging intellectual arts culture to rethink its priorities. Since the rise of theory in the 1970s and ‘80s, much energy has been spent challenging all truth claims and expert discourses, to the point where none seems able to retain its authority. But the situation today creates an urgent need for the return of concepts such as truth and reality in whatever versions are possible. To eschew realism is not necessarily a rejection of truth since writers may be searching for new ways to grasp it. They can champion a sense of reality while remaining aware of its complexity and evolving nature. Literary imagination operates differently from the lies created by Trump, Q Anon or the anti-vaxxers. Tools such as deconstruction should still be valued, but the global rise of misinformation calls for tactics that are more direct.

A related change of attitude involves moderating the suspicion of science expressed by many writers. The cultural community was troubled by the fact that governments began to shift resources in education away from the arts and humanities in favour of science and the other STEM subjects. Also, post-modern theorists questioned the ways in which science was a social construction, a discourse which claimed to be authoritative.  Critiques often blurred the distinction between pure scientific research and applied science (practical use which could involve corporate capitalism or national self-interest). But the fight against COVID-19 has proved the value of scientific research and shown us the shocking ways in which overseas politicians – such as Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro – have put big business and their own political interests ahead of scientific advice. We have also learned that some New Zealanders lack a clear understanding of how science works, because what they imagine to be in-depth research consists of visiting the websites of anti-vaccination conspiracists. The last few decades have been remarkably productive for science – in fields such as genomics, neuroscience, and astronomy – so it is not surprising that the arts have taken an increasing interest.

Another change has been a desire by some artists to fine-tune tone. In recent decades, irony has become a dominant mood for all the arts. The world still provides many opportunities for cynicism and black comedy, and to adopt a more direct, ‘serious’ approach can be disconcerting because it seems too linear for a tangled world. Ironic knowingness has, however, become such a familiar mode that it lacks urgency and bite.

A digital mixed bag

Some other changes to our current semiotic environment need to be acknowledged. Older readers are lucky to be the last generation to have experienced both yesterday’s analogue and today’s digital culture, but one consequence has been a broadening of the generation gap. There is much millennial talk of oldies and their ‘stale boomer literature.’ Any applicant for a job who is over 50 is assumed to be out-of-touch. Our culture has always been obsessed with ‘new talent,’ as though we were never satisfied with the mid-career artists we already had, and that tendency to ageism has now been accelerated by technological change.

From an analogue perspective, the digital age has been a mixed bag. It provides us with a rich array of texts, but it has encouraged the speed-up of reading in order to cope with the flood of incoming material. The new style of multi-tasking and top-gear reading is poorly suited to the challenges posed by intricate, ambitious forms of writing. The situation also tends to encourage rushed work and superficial editing. Commitment to a complex sense of the big picture is rare in an age of tweets, sound bites, and Facebook posts. In economic terms, the digital world is dominated by large corporations which have compromised the utopian hopes once held for the internet. It still serves as a good launching pad for amateur activity, but on-line activities are difficult to monetize. E-book returns for writers are smaller than print royalties, and most musicians now receive much less income from streaming services such as Spotify than from the sale of records. With respect to self-publishing, Nick Morgan wrote in 2013 in the American business magazine Forbes: ‘Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 [e-books] published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe…. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out.’’[v] By 2018, the annual number of new books had risen to 1,680,000.[vi] Such numbers may be interpreted as a sign of health, but it means that hardly anyone can hope to make a living as an author.

Not all the distinctive features of our time are digitally related. A major issue is the way Identity politics has largely replaced class politics, which was broadly concerned with inequality rather than with personal aspects such as self-image or ‘verbal microagressions.’ The older style of politics, which was shared by many writers, had scope to engage with the problems associated with ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, but it also kept a close eye on class issues and was committed to the left-wing strategy of the united front. Issues of identity now dominate discussion. This intense, personal emphasis has certainly helped to inspire a great deal of recent fiction, theatre and film; but it has the drawback of tending to narrow the horizons of political thought to a single group. At times there is also an impulse to simplify the complex nature of personal identity, or to romanticise ethnic differences, or to overwork identity as a single factor. Such an approach has the potential to backfire, as shown by the ways in which pro-white racism in the United States now packages itself as a form of identity politics.[vii] 

In the basement

This essay has sought to sum up many problems that threaten our cultural environment. An exceptional writer or artist can emerge unexpectedly at any time from any culture, but today they must launch their career in a particularly difficult political and economic context. I like Arnold Kling’s image of writers under siege: ‘The barbarians sack the city, and the carriers of the dying culture repair to their basements to write.’ There has always been ‘underground’ writing, and ironically we are often confined to our quarters because of COVID lockdowns. Writers are among the groups least bothered by being stuck at a desk or a computer, but as people who deal in conflicts. they are going to be very aware of the problems that exist beyond their basements.

Some of those problems are beyond our control such as the continuing spread of the Delta and Omicron variants, especially in low-income countries, and the failure of politicians at the COP conferences to take necessary actions against climate change. As a ‘wake-up call’ to the human race, the Doomsday Clock of the Atomic Scientists group, which was set at 17 minutes from midnight thirty years ago, is now only 100 seconds away from catastrophe. This may remind us of poets writing in apocalyptic times such as the approach of World War II – for example, W H Auden’s lines in ‘September 1, 1939’:

               As the clever hopes expire
	       Of a low dishonest decade:
	       Waves of anger and fear
               Circulate over the bright
               And darkened lands of the earth,
               Obsessing our private lives.

Auden saw his only power as having ‘a voice / To undo the folded lie,’ and he imagined that those still able to ‘show an affirming flame’ would continue to communicate from their basements:

              Yet, dotted everywhere,
              Ironic points of light
              Flash out wherever the Just
              Exchange their messages.  

That activity resembles today’s internet. But is it any more effective today than it was then?

Focusing back on New Zealand, it is a striking aspect of our local situation that we have not yet suffered to the same degree as most other countries of the world from climate disasters, the COVID pandemic, political turmoil, authoritarian government, or the flood of misinformation. I don’t want to minimise the local deaths that have occurred, or Auckland’s 107 day lockdown, or the financial hit to many businesses, or the floods and fires of 2021, or the campaigns of charlatans such as Brian Tamaki – but thanks to the closing of borders, our experience has, in comparative terms, been profoundly different. New Zealand culture has meanwhile shown an upsurge of nationalism in celebrating its ‘team of five million.’ That creates an odd situation for writers and artists since their awareness of the troubled world at large is not confined to the limited perspective of local media.

 I have long believed that the key motto for a New Zealand writer is to ‘Think global and act local.’ The best of our literature has kept in touch with overseas innovations but has also in some ways reflected the local experience of its author. At times our writing has lost its balance by shifting too far to one side or the other – to parochialism (dominated by newbies who have not read widely), or to the imitation of popular genre material (by wannabes determined to create the next Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey). The current situation has favoured writing at both ends of the spectrum – an inward-looking, locked-down approach, and an international style focused on mass market genres. The challenge for New Zealand writers will be to find methods of linking the local with the global in ways that are more ambitious, experimental and distinctive.

Of course we also need to be active politically in our vicinity. We are all conducting our own individual response, of one sort or another, to the environmental crisis, to the pandemic, and to the local politics. Such responses do not necessarily involve writing. But there are certainly many cultural problems in our environment – the cultural problems I have tried to log in this essay – which do call for a literary response (and this magazine provides one valuable new channel for that activity).

There are commentators who see the current turmoil as an opportunity to rebuild our culture. For example, Andrew Barnes in the Herald writes: ‘A period of conflict and privation – which a pandemic is, a global war of another kind – prompts us to revisit and question all our pre-conceived ideas about how we live, what we want, and how we are governed.’[viii] An optimistic view can see vaccinations, booster shots, and vaccine passports returning us to a more familiar way of life and helping to cool some of the current social tensions. A new digital infrastructure may get bedded down in ways which allow more serious artists to ‘exchange their messages,’ attract larger audiences, and make a living. And the arts, always unpredictable, may suddenly challenge neglect and populism by initiating a creative renaissance. Of course, all that is merely speculation. Still, if 2020-21 taught us anything it is that the future can hold radical surprises.


[i] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ and https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/coronavirus-excess-deaths-estimates

[ii] Gordon McLauchlan, Email to the author, 25 July 2016.

[iii] ‘Nicola Legat on Covid-19’s effect on publishing,’ Radio NZ, 25 October 2021 

(https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/labourday/audio/2018817723/nicola-legat-on-covid-19-s-effect-on-publishing); and ‘Nicola Legat on the poleaxing of New Zealand books,’ The Spinoff, 18 September 2021 (https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/18-09-2021/nicola-legat-on-the-poleaxing-of-new-zealand-books/)

[iv] Braunias, op. cit. Also see André Chumko, ‘Book industry shocked at $500,000 grant for unknown literary project,’ Stuff, 19 October 2021 (https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/126723896/book-industry-shocked-at-500000-grant-for-unknown-literary-project)

[v] ‘Thinking of Self-Publishing Your Book in 2013? Here’s What You Need to Know,’ Forbes, 8 January 2013 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2013/01/08/thinking-of-self-publishing-your-book-in-2013-heres-what-you-need-to-know/#11548b514bb8)

[vi] Jim Millot, ‘Number of self-published titles jumped 40% in 2018,’ Publishers Weekly; 15 October 2019 (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/81473-number-of-self-published-titles-jumped-40-in-2018.html)

[vii] See for example Ashley Jardine, White Identity Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2019, and John McWhorter, Woke Politics, Penguin Random House, 2021.

[viii] Andrew Barnes, ‘How many deaths is our freedom worth,’ NZ Herald, 17 November 2021, p.A32.