AWF15: Stop tweeting…commit! With Jolisa Gracewood, Russell Brown and Simon Wilson, chaired by Janet Wilson

This was my penultimate session at what has been a scintillating and immensely exciting Auckland Writers Festival. For the ideas discussed, the questions asked (though mainly by the chairs) and the people met.three_col_Russell_Brown

The moot for this discussion, which involved Russell Brown (aka the editor of Public Address, pictured left), Jolisa Gracewood (aka @nzdodo) and Simon Wilson (editor of Metro), was ‘is long-form writing dying in New Zealand because all of the writers have gone to the echo chamber that is twitter?’

Simon Wilson began the discussion by talking about his editorial in Metro in 2013 which raised some hackles and made some feathers fly, called ‘Stop Tweeting and Do some work.’ He made his argument, stating that twitter can be such a time-suck that it stops you doing a) what you ought to be doing and b) what you want to be doing, and cited the black hole of twitter debates. He made the point that print media is dying, because young people don’t have the attention span. Later on he noted a study of online behaviour which proves that people’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 5 seconds when deciding what to read.

It is, as Simon Wilson states, hard to get people to pay something to read something; no matter your interest, you can get good, and professional writing free, on your phone. Simon sees Twitter as good for spreading truths, but notes that not only is this not the only way to do so, we have to fight for writing, to keep it. He says, to encourage people back to media, “long form writing needs to become intensely entertaining, and by the best writers.” And it’s not that he doesn’t think writers should tweet – but he thinks that they should write. The challenge is this: twitter is easy, writing is hard. More writers need to choose hard.

Russell Brown runs Public Address, New Zealand’s most popular long form blog, which is helped by voluntary subscriptions, rather than web advertising. He believes writing on the internet has been a boon for the written word. Before 1995, nobody who wasn’t a professional was writing for an audience – the internet obliges you to write, and sharpens your communication skills. “Twitter suits people who can write well,” he said, “It is not easy to be cohesive and relevant in 140 characters.”

The heart of the dilemma for people who write is: if you want to make a living out of your writing, you must be in print. And to write for a publication is to stick to their word limits, and be paid what they pay. A lot of publications won’t publish long-form writing – a column is 6-800 words; while the internet is infinite. Russell says the best paying freelance long-form gig in town is writing for the NZ Drug foundation’s magazine – they pay 80c a word; but they aren’t trying to make money from it.

wilson_simonSimon (right) mainly uses freelancers, and says that long-form writing in particular has to be sharp. The hook has to be in the first paragraph, if it isn’t, he will push the piece aside for one that is. At the comment from Russell that we are all suffering now a degree of ADD, due to the plethora of digital options, Jolisa argues that this has all happened before – while the likes of Oscar Wilde didn’t have twitter, they had coffee shops, parties, pamphleting.

Russell finds that on his blog Public Address, it is possible to keep people on the page: just have long pages. While 350 words is said to be optimal for blogs, long form is certainly possible, and certainly desirable tackling topics like those that Public Address does.

Russell points out that just because something has appeared on the internet, it is not valueless. Likewise, if it has appeared in print, it is good to repeat it digitally, as Metro does with some of their columns. Russell believes that Metro does in the right way.

The panel agreed on the whole that the standard of columns at the moment in NZ is gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlanderpoor, and Jolisa (added that a lot of magazines and papers in New Zealand don’t sound like NZ. She asked, why are we not putting bloggers into magazines? There are great voices online, she says, and this is why around 50% of Tell You What was sourced online. At the chair’s question about whether twitter starts the creative process, Jolisa says maybe, but it depends on who you follow. Simon Wilson adds that being clever on twitter may give you the ability to do other things, the dopamine hit from a twitter success gives you enough joy of recognition to stop you wanting to write longer forms.

Simon says that good non-fiction writing has literary qualities, and that people haven’t giving up writing and reading, but it needs to remain commercially viable. Alongside this is public funding – Pantograph Punch, for instance, is funded by Creative NZ.

This session gave me a lot of food for thought. I run twitter and facebook accounts on behalf of Booksellers NZ, as well as our website and this blog. Twitter for me, is a way to connect with the wider world, and find long pieces that I may otherwise not be aware of. It acts as a catalyst to further reading. And this was a very good discussion to attend as my experience of the festival drew to a close.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

My animals and other family, by Susanna Andrew

When I was small I avoided non-fiction the way other children avoided vegetables. I skipped the history in the School Journal and went straight to the fiction bar. In my reading habits, I was fact-averse. There was, however, one non-fiction book that I swallowed whole: The World of Pets.

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I was given it for my birthday when I was eight years old. It was a large, hefty book with full-colour plates and chapter headings such as How to Care for Mice, Keeping Guinea Pigs and Which Breed of Cat Is For You? I loved its grave and factual tone. There were animals in that book that I could only dream of having – cats with pedigrees, silky rabbits, chubby hamsters, voles, and even chestnut horses with long manes. My animal-loving obsession was tolerated by my family. They nicknamed me Daktari, and banned all pets inside the house.daktari

Perhaps it was being the youngest of eight siblings that made me want to be the boss of others, but it was true that whatever was able to be caught and brought up in a cage, I had at some stage tried to be the master of. As Seamus Heaney put it, “I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied /specks to range on window-sills at home,..and wait and watch until, the fattening dots burst into nimble -/swimming tadpoles”.

I bred mice in different colours in a four-storey cage built by the caretaker at the school my mother taught in. The cage allowed me to partition off floors and separate the babies from the males, who sometimes ate them. I also owned a cat, some goldfish and an axolotl. I kept guinea pigs named Wilbur (but of course) and Charlotte – and all of their offspring. I had an aviary which housed ring-necked doves, quails and finches. I managed this whole animal kingdom alone, with the book as my guide.

possumOne day, the caretaker at my mother’s school arrived in her class with an orphaned baby possum and my mother brought it home for me. It was a tiny pet furball, the cutest thing imaginable, and it clung to me. Whenever I picked it up it climbed up on to my head and sat spreadeagled in my hair. One morning I woke to find the possum was missing from its cage. I remember crying in the morn-ing before school.

There was no chapter in The World of Pets titled How To Look After Your Pet Possum. It could only have contained the unhelpful sentence ‘It doesn’t belong to you’. The writing in that book was prosaic and encyclopaedic but at the age of eight it gave me my fictional life: Hamster Trainer, Rabbit Keeper, Horse Owner.

Susanna Andrew is co-editor with Jolisa Gracewood of Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015 published by Auckland University Press RRP $30.00 ISBN 9781869408244

gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander

Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, image copyright Marti Friedlander

 

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015, Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew

Available in bookstores from 17 November 2014cv_tell_you_what_2015

There is no law stating that you must compare fiction writing with non-fiction writing when discussing a volume of the latter, but there could be, for all that it occurs. Two fantastic exponents of either and both forms, Emily Perkins and Steve Braunias, have recently weighed in (Braunias has stated his belief that ‘our most accomplished literature is history and biography’) and it is inevitable to compare the qualities, content and effects of the two forms. To resist is futile, but it’s worth trying, if only for a paragraph or two.

This collection is unique. The editors, Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, give as their inspiration that “…it had never been done before…surely we have enough great non-fiction to fill a book on a regular basis.” Concerned that much contemporary non-fiction material is ephemeral and often digitally published (think reportage, memoirs, essays, musings, blog posts), they have sought to “summon these fugitive pieces back into the light, to reveal the strength and variety of non-fiction in New Zealand right now…together on the page, these writers illuminate a moment in time.”

These qualifiers are worth commenting on. A moment in time. Yes, this is a collection drawn from a specific time period (2010-14) and centred on some aspect of life as experienced in Aotearoa: a person or an event, environment or culture, or a particular way of viewing the world. It is a time capsule, its contents informing current and future readers of what and who gathered our attention: earthquakes, the Auckland property market, Kim Dotcom, facebook and land rights, iPhones and climate change. Together on the page. Yes, and the result is coherence and context, critical for readers who can become disoriented and weary with a constant diet of decontextualised word bytes, even high quality ones. And for those who like reading off paper, this collection contains writing that otherwise may never have found its way to our eyes and minds. Bravo!

Speaking of high quality. There are writers known and unknown (to me) represented herein. There is Braunias, the godfather of the short non-fiction piece, investigating petty vandalism in the suburb of unease. There is Eleanor Catton, describing mountains: say no more. There is Elizabeth Knox, paying subtle and glorious homage to Margaret Mahy. There is also Paul Ewen, backgrounding his best friend’s one way flight home in a casket in cargo. Ashleigh Young describing the revolutionary life of a metropolitan cyclist. Gregory Kan doing compulsory National Service in Singapore. And Simon Wilson telling and retelling a piece of his family history. The quality of the writing in the collection is uniformly high, exceptional even. This suggests sound editorial judgment and a broad, deep talent base. For it takes talent to shape a history, be it personal or public, and make it compelling.

It is clear that good non-fiction writing operates on several levels and tends to resonate in multiple ways. There is the content, which may be entirely new to the reader (the realities of life for a sherpa in Nepal, the sad fate of the Society Islands snails, the anatomy of a heart murmur), or presented in a light so revealing that familiarity with the subject does not breed contempt. Then there is the delight caused by the sheer creativity that comes with the relaxation of the writer’s mind, freed as it may be from the strain of trying to invent everything and of trying to be authentic. It is authentic. When Steve Braunias casts a speculative eye over his neighbours, inventing personalities and motivations as he wonders which of them egged his house, the imagination is at its wild work. It all happened… some of it in my mind.In most, if not all of these pieces of work, the facts are interspersed with musings, the what ifs with verbatim. Holding it all together is structure.

The writers have each found rhythms and modes and tones of voice to best transmit their individual signals. Signals from the heart and mind, signals from a time and place, Aotearoa New Zealand, right about now. Vive le resistance.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2015
Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408244