Elizabeth Caffin and Andrew Mason – The Deepening Stream

The Deepening Stream cover

The Deepening Stream: A History of the New Zealand Literary Fund
by Elizabeth Caffin and Andrew Mason.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
RRP: $40.
Hb, 304pp.
ISBN: 9781776560363.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime.


The Deepening Stream: A History of the New Zealand Literary Fund is edited by Elizabeth Caffin and Andrew Mason. Caffin has written on fiction, poetry and the history of New Zealand publishing and is a former director of the Auckland University Press. Mason was an editor and writer who worked with many of New Zealand’s most significant writers. He was literary editor of the New Zealand Listener from 1981 to 1991. The New Zealand Literary Fund was a small amount of money dispensed over forty years to hundreds of writers and publishers. This largesse laid the foundation of the literary culture of New Zealand.

The Deepening Stream spans 58 years of the work of the trust – a diverse collection of essays on topics as various as funding for writers, chairpersons, writers and publishers. The book features personalities from poets and chairpersons to politicians. It charts the growing confidence of New Zealand writers and the infrastructure supporting them and gives vivid pictures of individual writers, fledgling publications and magazines. What defines them all is the editor’s unflinching observations of human behaviour and the pitfalls of funding. The essays can be dramatic, hopeful, disappointed or a whole gamut in between.  The lean, but sometimes difficult prose has the power to anger, amuse and inspire. Wisdom and insight permeate every page.

The first chapter, ‘An Idea Takes Root’ [1936-1947], focuses on the beginnings of the Fund:

On Monday, 27 November 1944, as the Allies liberated Strasbourg and heavy air raids began on Tokyo, the New Zealand Minister of Internal Affairs, W. E. Perry, prepared to receive a deputation from the local centre of PEN, the international writers’ delegation.

Charles Brasch noted that only four of the nine members had some professional connection with letters, and only one of these four was a practising writer. “The Advisory Committee was given no formal brief, and was left to devise its own policies and priorities at its first meeting, in July 1947.”

‘A Delicate and Difficult Task’ [1947-1951], takes in the post-war years when “writers were returning to their pens, publishers were refreshed by the enthusiasm and experience of key figures now back at their desks.” At the first meeting of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee, held in Wellington on 10 July, 1947, “the members discussed at length PEN’s extended 1946 proposal”, which eventually was formulated as a policy to submit to the government.

‘Ignorant Non-Entities?’ [1952-1955], states that Professor Ian Gordon, aged 43, was elected to the chair of the Literary Fund Advisory committee. He was the youngest of the three chairmen to date.

Under his brisk chairmanship, the advisory committee began to focus more on literature and creative writing, especially poetry, relegating historical works to second place in its aims and disposing quickly of applications beyond its scope.

‘Stability, with Interruptions’ [1955-1964], is about the maintenance of good relations with both writers and politicians, under the guidance of Ian Gordon.

Professor Gordon was energetic, enthusiastic and an experienced administrator; he was not a cloistered academic and he had an instinctive political sense, maintaining good relations with both writers and politicians.

By Christmas Eve, 1962, it was announced that the Literary Fund would come under a new body: The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. But the merger did not occur for several years, as “relations between the two funding organisations would vary from wary to uneasy to tense, and would be subject to lobbying and pressure from all quarters.”

In ‘“A Civilised and Civilising Institution’ or ‘An Establishment of Neglect’?” [1964-1974], Andrew Sharp had in 1966 been secretary of the committee for 11 years. “His departure coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Literary Fund. Fittingly, his final task was to write a history of the Fund.” After Professor Gordon’s retirement from Victoria University, he was refused reappointment to the chair of the Literary Fund Advisory Committee.

In ‘A New Order’ [1974-1982], “C. K. Stead – 42 years old, professor of English at the University of Auckland, novelist, poet and critic, articulate, outspoken and charming but often controversial”, was appointed as the new chairman.

Stead’s tenure was brief but active and confident. He immediately pressed for more funding. Just as swiftly, Henry May picked up the ball and ran with it straight to Cabinet, recommending an increase in the government allocation from $15,000 to $25,000 for 1974/75, $35,000 for 1975/76 and $45,000 for 1976/77. He stressed the popularity of literature and its “value to our international image” and in two well-worn tactics, drew pointed comparisons with literature funding in Australia and with the funds now given to the other art forms. By the August meeting the money was in the bag.

By the ‘Last Days of the Literary Fund’ [1974-1982], Professor Terry Sturm became the next chair. He was passionate about the growth and development of literature:

With the New Zealand writer always at the centre of his attention as the chair, he went to great pains to listen to writers and to argue for their interests. Meetings were always long: he was very thorough and he allowed every voice to be heard. But his fair-mindedness meant he was highly respected by the bureaucrats as well as by the writers.

‘Into the Arts Council’ [1984-1994], reveals that these were

… years of constant activity, reading, correspondence, decision-making, discussing, but all the while a dramatic change, “the biggest change in the nature of administration of literature since government patronage began in 1946”, was unfolding.

As it says in ‘Dénouement’:

A New Zealand writer who is committed first and foremost to financial success must pursue an international audience; the market in New Zealand is simply not large enough to sustain a writer consistently over a career.

Although many writers were academics and some made a living from other kinds of writing jobs, such as in radio, television, journalism or as librarians, none of these jobs allowed extended periods of time for producing serious works of fiction.

The end of the Fund came as a result of the major sector reforms carried out by the Fourth Labour Government from 1984. Thanks to Lotto, more funding was provided for literature during the transition. However the loss of a funding agency dedicated to writers and writing, under a group of experts, was to be regretted.

The editors of The Deeping Stream tell the stories of the Fund as unobtrusively as possible. They are open to all the factuality of their accounts. Much of the story of what happens behind the scenes of funding literary projects may be known to the participants, but there will be many to whom these insights will be unfamiliar. The topics of the book have been well-researched and put into a social and historical context. The book is organised in such a way that it is easy to dip into a particular chapter to discover the theme one is interested in. The Fund was extremely important in shaping the national identity of poets, writers, publishers and the literary culture of the years 1936-1994.

The connections between the people are interesting in themselves, and their importance to the Literary Fund challenged them to develop their ideas and inspire each other to greater heights. Without them and their work, many writers might be in a different position today. If so difficult a subject can be called ‘fascinating’, this book lives up to the occasion.

Patricia PrimePatricia Prime, a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).

First published takahe 87
August 2016