ReadingRoom

Why Creative New Zealand killed New Zealand Books

ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias receives some flimsy answers from Creative New Zealand about its decision to kill the distinguished journal, New Zealand Books.

And so now we know the reason Creative New Zealand killed off the distinguished literary journal New Zealand Books is that a panel reported to senior arts majordomo Cath Cardiff that they couldn't easily find it in bookstores, and had concerns the reviewers weren't diverse enough.

Cardiff, a former dance administrator, then put the journal to the sword in her capacity as "decision-maker".

Peppercorn Press publishers closed New Zealand Books late last year after it missed out on funding from Creative New Zealand. A petition was presented to Jacinda Ardern but she did nothing about it in line with her passive role as part-time arts minister.

ReadingRoom got stuck into Creative New Zealand, and asked 10 questions demanding to know why the journal was killed.

Creative New Zealand have directly responded to my questions in a letter sent by someone called David Pannett, who has the important position (so many capitals!) of Senior Manager, Strategy & Engagement. He sent through a few flimsy reasons explaining why Creative New Zealand declined the funding application from New Zealand Books; the surprise decision effectively ended the quarterly journal after nearly 30 years of devoting itself to serious, long-form reviews of New Zealand writing, and had positioned itself as the local equivalent of the London Review of Books, albeit nowhere near as good.

"We acknowledge that members of the literary community want to understand why Peppercorn Press was declined," wrote Pannett. "Our funding decisions are carefully considered...Applications were assessed by external peer assessors and subsequently discussed by a panel, before recommendations were made to the decision-maker (in this case, Senior Manager Arts Development Services, Cath Cardiff)." So many capitals!

He continued, "Creative New Zealand did not cut funding to New Zealand Review of Books  – Peppercorn Press made an application to the highly competitive, contestable Arts Grants round which was unfortunately unsuccessful."

Marvellous sentence! Translation: it didn't kill New Zealand Books, New Zealand Books just sort of ("unfortunately") died.

And then Pannett got down to it. Chugging on capitals ("Literature", "Panel"), he wrote, "As a whole, the Literature panel considered this a very worthy application however, they did comment on two elements.

"The first was regarding diversity. The Panel acknowledged that while Peppercorn Press’ coverage of projects is okay, the actual writers contributing to the publication could be more diverse, along with the team behind it also. The panel noted that while Peppercorn Press positions itself as a publication of record, it would be beneficial to reassess this to understand what it means when that record is written by a limited group of people.

"The second element was regarding sustainability. The Panel did acknowledge that the team managing the publication are volunteers. However, they do note that the distribution of the project is not particularly broad reach and not often visible in stores. It was encouraged that Peppercorn Press consider working on evolving a more commercial imperative and to diversify its income. This would allow them to be more self-sustaining in the long-term as it was noted that Peppercorn Press have received Creative New Zealand funding for a significant amount of time."

Oh what balls. New Zealand Books was a key and crucial part of the infrastructure of New Zealand literature. More than any other review section in the mainstream media, it covered a wide range of New Zealand writing, and commissioned the best writers and thinkers in the country to respond at length to serious books which would otherwise have been totally ignored. It's the mandate of Creative New Zealand to support and sustain a high-quality project of this stature.

Pannett added, "Creative New Zealand regrets that it was not in contact with Peppercorn Press prior to the official letter communicating the outcome of their application. However, we have since met with the Peppercorn Press board to discuss the outcome of their application and their future options. They have been offered support to make another application in the next Arts Grants round."

I asked New Zealand Books co-editor Harry Ricketts to comment on the Creative New Zealand letter. He replied, "My co-editor Louise O'Brien and I wonder if there may be more here than meets the eye."

Which doesn't really say anything, really. But anyway: so is New Zealand Books dead, or not? Will it make another application  to Creative New Zealand? Is there any chance it will return?

I received an email just before Christmas from Sue Hirst, chairperson of the Peppercorn Press Trust. She wrote,
"After 29 years of publishing New Zealand Books, the Peppercorn Press published its last issue following an unsuccessful grant application to Creative New Zealand. The journal has played an important role in New Zealand’s reading and writing culture. In the light of the significant response the editors and Peppercorn Press board members invite you to participate in a discussion to see if a phoenix might rise. The session will consider what is wanted in this space and how it might be achieved."

The discussion will be held on February 14, at the Stout Research Centre in Wellington. ReadingRoom will do its best to attend, and afterwards might call in for a cup of tea - sorry, A Cup of Tea - at Creative New Zealand.

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