Still loathed, after all these years
Unfortunately for Farrar, the fiercely philistine inhabitants of Kiwiblog's comments boxes have taken umbrage at the gifting of sixty thousands dollars each to Belich, Kidman and Bland. A regular commenter with the rather worrying moniker 'Big Bruv' evidently considers the awards an unforgivable interference in the free market:
How the hell can anybody make a “significant contribution” to poetry?, it is only significant if enough people buy the poetry, receiving tax payer money to write crap that nobody wants to read is hardly significant...The market (people who pay for non fiction, fiction and poetry) recognise “excellence”, this is just a bunch of middle class wankers giving away my money to people who do not produce anything that the public wants to buy...This sort of rubbish just has to stop.
Another commenter contrasted the works of Belich and Bland with the mighty oeuvre of Stephen King, and concluded that:
Handouts...encourage, at the margin, all the non-Stephen Kings into the market (result: warehouses of crap, as witnessed in Europe)...Stephen King ain’t short of funds. Stephen King got to be Stephen King without any handouts. His secret is to write books that convince people to buy them in huge numbers.
It's a bit of a worry to hear about distinguished New Zealand writers and scholars hobnobbing with the country's political and legal elite, but reassuring to find a venerable forum of the people like the Kiwiblog comments thread full of hostility towards them.
Where a plumber or electrician relies on popularity, seeking as many customers as possible, the true writer should always be more interested in bewildering and angering his or her contemporaries. Socrates was put to death by his fellow Athenians for telling them home truths; numerous other intellectuals have suffered persecution for being out of tune with their times.
Any good writer should be alarmed by the thought of enjoying the esteem of his or her contemporaries. Writers who are adored by their own generations tend to be forgotten by future generations. Like Enid Blyton and Captain WE Johns before them, Stephen King and Wilbur Smith will fade from popularity in a few decades.
Many of the greatest writers have never been and never will be bestsellers, but remain in print perennially, influencing a minority of each new generation and finding their way into popular consciousness by indirect paths.
James Joyce has never been and never will be a bestselling author, but it is hard to disentangle his crowded and strange books from modern Irish consciousness. Despite or because of the fact that he exiled himself from his native land and saw his books banned there for decades, Joyce has become as much of an Irish icon as Guinness beer.
If we pick up any anthology of English poetry we can find the names of numerous writers who worked and died in disgrace or in obscurity. Blake and Hopkins were virtually unknown to their peers; Byron, Shelley, and Wilde were objects of contempt. Frank Sargeson, who virtually invented modern Pakeha literature, was persecuted by the state for his sexuality, lived for long periods on the dole and on his vegetable garden, and left a couple of dollars in his bank account.
The hostility at Kiwiblog to Belich, Kidman, and Bland suggests that, in spite of a bit of (well-deserved) public money and the odd handshake from unctuous politicians and judges, New Zealand writers remain healthily unpopular with many of their contemporaries.
Don Brash hasn't been leaving comments at Kiwiblog, but he has been thinking about reading and writing lately. After failing to lift Act's poll ratings with assaults on Maori nationalists, Brash appears to have turned his sights on that other favourite bogey of the hard right, schoolteachers. In a speech he gave at Act's Wellington regional Conference last weekend, Brash complained that New Zealand's public and integrated schools are run on 'communist' principles by teachers who are interested not in literacy but in indictrinating their charges with anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and the the doctrine of anthropogenic global warming.
I argued last month that Act's crack at Maoridom was vitiated by the way it contained contradictory messages aimed at the two contradictory parts of the party's social base. Act wanted to use libertarian arguments to dismiss the notion of a Maori collective identity in the twenty-first century, but these arguments clashed with its attempts to appeal to the ancient redneck fear of 'Maoris' in general.
Brash's speech on education seems as contradictory as his party's anti-Maori ads. He argues that we ought to be able to compare the performances of different schools, in the way we compare the performances of athletes. It is in theory be possible to do this, if all schools use similar curricula, and the same or similar examination systems.
But Brash also wants to abolish the requirement that schools which receive state funding have common curricula and similar exams. He says that parents and teachers ought to be able to set up any type of school offering any type of curriculum and exam system – 'Montessori, Steiner, Muslim, Marxist, Objectivist, or Buddhist' – without being regulated by the state that funds them. A Christian fundamentalist school would be free to teach the Book of Genesis in biology classes; a radical Steiner school would be free to dispense with the troublesome business of examinations. How can the demand for strict comparisons between schools be reconciled with the demand for the abandonment of any sort of state-sanctioned standards?
It seems to me that the contradiction in Brash's new argument stems from his usual desire to appeal to both the libertarian and socially conservative wings of his party.
To the urban, socially liberally, wealthy voters who have traditionally dominated Act, the destruction of all state regulation of education and the prospect of a plethora of educational options is very appealing. For the backward-looking redneck voters Brash is trying to win over, though, a monolithic education system is not objectionable, as long as it offers a return to the rote learning and strict discipline of 1950s and '60s schools. For these latter voters, the notion of subjecting students to identical exams and comparing schools as if they were rugby teams is very appealing.
By trying to appeal to two socially and politically contradictory groups of voters Brash has once again fashioned an incoherent and eccentric argument.