Where’s there’s a swill there’s a way in – or how to deal with rejection, expose bias and secure $17,000 for book reviews

Newsroom has alerted the Point of Order Trough Monitor to happenings involving a trough from which the swill – according to an aggrieved applicant – has not been impartially distributed.

The Newsroom report is headed Writer wins ‘bias’ complaint and says a writer’s complaint against Creative New Zealand funding has been upheld.

This should give cause for  a thorough examination of the trough’s  administration, because Creative NZ seems to have acknowledged there was a bias in the way some oinkers were favoured and others nudged to the back of he queue.

Furthermore, Newsroom draws attention to state funding bypassing the people who create books in favour of organisations that talk about the people who create books.

But Creative NZ should already be the subject of a thorough examination by a government which claims to be careful with its fiscal management after the Taxpayers’ Union (not for the first time) early this month exposed bizarre handouts of public money in a report  headed You Funded A Ballet Called ‘The Sl*Tcracker’

This showed taxpayers are forking out for sex worker exhibitions, ‘dismantling e-waste for fun’, pictionary, queer and trans drawing classes, interpretive dance, music courses for womxn and femmes, a ballet called ‘The Sl*tcracker’, and a literal clown show.

Readers who click here can view the full list, adding up to more than $400,000 in Wellington alone.

Further dismay is generated by Taxpayers’ Union reports here and here.

Fair to say, Kiwi gamblers also help provide slops for an array of Creative New Zealand’s troughs.

The arts-funding agency says:

Our main source of revenue continues to come from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, which distributes the profits of Lotto NZ. In a normal year, around two-thirds of our revenue comes from the Lottery Grants Board, with one-third coming from the Government.

Overall, Creative New Zealand’s revenue for the 2022/23 financial year is forecast to be approximately $51 million at this time. The actual revenue we work with fluctuates quite a lot depending on the available contribution from lotteries.

This overall revenue includes baseline funding of $16.689 million investment from the Government.

So what’s the fuss that Newsroom has publicised?

It’s a grievance raised by Paula Morris, described as an award-winning novelist, short story writer and essayist who has been awarded numerous residencies and fellowships.

Morris also is convenor of the Master in Creative Writing programme at the University of Auckland, where she is an Associate Professor.

The university provided her with funding to found the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

Morris is a writer best not riled when grants are being awarded.

Newsroom reports:

You don’t want to make Paula Morris angry. The award-winning novelist and tireless advocate for New Zealand writing was really not amused earlier this year when Creative New Zealand rejected her funding application on behalf of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

She demanded to see how the assessors had marked her application. She then laid a complaint, and was allowed the opportunity to reapply; and on Friday, the application for $17,000 was approved.

She took to the Twitter machine to proclaim the decision along with the kind of withering and provocative remark that pretty much no other writer in the country would dare to make in public. This called for an interview, conducted over email on Sunday evening.

In her interview with  Newsroom (via email), Morris said she had been a Creative NZ assessor and knew of a requirement to give “generous, comprehensive feedback”, as well as understand and apply the assessment criteria well.

After the Academy of New Zealand Literature’s applied to Creative NZ earlier this year, she asked to see the assessments and scores, then submitted a detailed complaint.

She argued that the comments “revealed bias, reliance on assumptions and a dismaying ignorance of the literature sector” and gave specific examples while asking Creative NZ to institute more robust training for assessors — including basing assessments on evidence supplied rather than conjecture, unsupported anecdotal evidence, personal feelings or assumptions.

Creative NZ, she said, agreed there was some evidence of assumption and bias in the two assessments.

Presumably as a consequence:

Despite our low score in the round in question, the ANZL was able to apply again the next round—a modest request of c$17,000 for reviews, which was funded.

Newsroom asked a question which Point of Order was bursting to ask:

Why did you describe your assessors as “biased, ignorant”?

We are not so sure we are much the wiser on the strength of Morris’s published response:

I don’t know the names of the two individual assessors, but I hope they’re on Twitter, noting my scorn. I have no hard feelings towards CNZ itself: these decisions are made by the external assessors, many of whom—maybe even most—in the Literature category are writers. But I do want CNZ to be more thorough and proactive in managing assessments and assessment panels, rather than let assessors spout crap or give punitive marks without citing evidence to support their decisions.

Further on, Newsroom asked another question that fascinated Point of Order:

What are ANZL’s readership figures? And, why does it deserve CNZ funding?

Morris‘s reply (devoid of readership numbers) suggests her concern essentially is with the grant-awarding process:

For organisations like festivals, publishers, lit magazine sites, etc, the decision has to be based on evidence supplied and the argued case. You ask if the ANZL deserves funding, but my concern is: did we present a well-argued case that represented what we do honestly and thoroughly? And then, did the assessors examine all the provided evidence, including references, statistics and examples, and approach it without bias, assumptions or lazy thinking? I have no expectations of success, just of integrity of process. None of us are entitled to funding.

Newsroom noted that as well as the Academy of New Zealand Literature being given money in this latest funding round, Kete got $75,000, and ReadingRoom was awarded the same figure earlier this year.

Kete is an independent website devoted to helping readers discover the latest in books in New Zealand.  It is an initiative of the Coalition for Books which began with support from Creative New Zealand.

ReadingRoom is Newsroom’s books section, edited by Steve Braunias.

There’s other spending, too, on the review/media infrastructure of New Zealand writing.

Newsroom asked:

Isn’t it getting out of hand? Actual authors – the people who create books – are being overlooked in favour of review sites (Metro is right now advertising for an arts editor, to be paid for by CNZ; I gather the salary is about $80,000!) and various assorted quangos (eg that quangocentric void, The Coalition for Books) that talk about the people who create books. Where will it all end for God’s sake?

Morris seemed untroubled by this.

Creative NZ supports the whole literature sector, not just writers, she said.

“After we’ve written our books, we need them to be published and reviewed; we would like to appear at festivals and other events, and be interviewed and discussed in features.”

But she did suggest that in literature, it would make more sense for all organisations and publishers to be moved into a separate funding pool, allowing longer-term planning and budgeting.

“Otherwise an individual writer may be up against, say, Lit Crawl in Wellington, National Poetry Day and the Cuba Press in any given funding round. Those organisations may present comprehensive, well-argued cases and be awarded well-deserved funding. But it means there’s less for other literature applicants, especially writers whose work sample may appeal to one assessor but not to another.”

This was not the first time Paula Morris has aired her objections to arts funding decisions which bothered her.

Newstalk ZB in October last year posted an item  headed Shock in the literary community over $500,000 grant to website.

Narrative Muse has been given the cash from the $374 million Cultural Sector Innovation Fund.

The site promises to match people’s personalities with stories in book, TV and movie form.

When a customer buys through links on the site, it may earn an affiliate commission.

Author Paula Morris told Andrew Dickens everyone’s shocked.

“Why isn’t Creative New Zealand involved in this process? Why is it people at the Ministry who are doing directly?”

The Academy of New Zealand Literature which Paul Morris founded with the help of a $130,000 grant from the University of Auckland publishes reviews, interviews, and other stories about New Zealand books.

It has over 100 members and 15 Fellows: Fleur Adcock, Marilyn Duckworth, Alan Duff, Fiona Farrell, Maurice Gee, Witi Ihimaera, Kevin Ireland, Lloyd Jones, Dame Fiona Kidman, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, CK  Stead and Albert Wendt.

It aims to support writers of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, by helping them promote their work, raise their profiles and make contact with international writing festival directors.

According to this Stuff report at the time it was launched:

It also aims to place the University of Auckland at the centre of the literary conversation in this country, a position that has arguably long been held by Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.

In addition to running master classes, seminars and a writers’ residency programme, the academy will maintain a website featuring fresh writing and news. Local writers and their work will be celebrated via lengthy features in the style of The Paris Review

As to the bias in Creative NZ funding  which Morris finds so disagreeable, Point of Order wonders if it isn’t more glaring than her experience suggests.

The bias is a racial one, evidenced in the results of the round 6 of awards published this month: 

The 61 grants totalling $2,709,712 have been offered to support projects broken down as follows:

  • General Arts: 39 projects totalling $1,341,828 were supported. $5,230,479 was requested by 162 applicants.
  • Ngā toi Māori: 12 projects totalling $744,447 were supported. $1,071,408 was requested by 18 applicants.
  • Pacific Arts: 10 projects totalling $623,438 were supported. $1,279,378 was requested by 22 applicants.

This means 66 per cent of Maori applicants were successful and secured 27 per cent of the total funding.

Pacific Arts applicants had a 45 per cent success rate and were granted 23 per cent of the funding.

Only 24 per cent of general arts applicants (which may well have included Maori and Pacific artists) were successful and secured just under half of the funding.

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