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A Night at the Gala

Steve Braunias encounters the madding crowd of a literary gig

I suppose it might’ve been hard on family and friends, but the thought occurred at the Buddle Findlay gala night launch of New Zealand Book Month in October that the nation’s cultural life would benefit greatly if a fire broke out in the handsome, high-ceilinged room of Auckland’s Hopetoun Alpha building, and incinerated everyone. The event was excruciating and strictly humourless, a damp little bonfire of the vanities – pretty much what I expected, except worse. Where’s an arsonist when you need one?

There were maybe 200 people in scented attendance. There were TV light entertainers Wallace Chapman and Te Radar; a fat newspaper gossip columnist and her glamorous photographer did the rounds. Maggie Barry left early. TVNZ newsreader Miriama Kamo acted as MC. There was someone who takes nice photographs of nice people’s nice houses. There were the publishers, the editors and the media types, all well-heeled, polite, paying lisp service to each other.

Someone from digital television made an apposite speech about nothing much. Waiting staff passed around lovely nibbles of salmon with caviar, chicken with dipping sauce and spring rolls with a spring in their roll. Billed as the guest of honour along with fiction writer Julian Novitz – we were the lucky 2009 winners of the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship literary award – I didn’t exactly bite the hand that feeds. But throughout, I looked in vain for the obvious presence of people a bureaucrat might describe as arts providers. When I ran into Graham Beattie, blogger-in-chief of New Zealand literature, I asked him: ‘How many writers are here?’ He said, ‘Five.’ I said, ‘Name them.’ He managed four. I said, ‘That sounds about right.’

I like the company of writers. For all the media’s boring insistence that the New Zealand literary scene is rife with jealousies, envies and spats, most writers I’ve met are friendly, extremely supportive, possessed of charm and witty silliness, happiest when discussing ideas, and dying to be left alone so they can get on with writing – time isn’t money, but it’s usually precious. I figured there’d be quite a few members of the writing tribe at gala night. But they were inconspicuous by their absence. The event wasn’t about writers or writing. The event was about the event.

It was a knees-up for the trade, for the sponsors, for the cameras. Fair enough. They do the business. It was disappointing, though, to look around and realise that writers were surplus to the gala requirement. They hardly figured in the equation. They definitely couldn’t be trusted to appear anywhere near the stage. After the speeches, there was an interval – wines topped up, more salmon with caviar scoffed – and then the second act of the evening took place.

Up on stage, three actors sat behind great big hulking manual typewriters. They bashed at the keys. And then they took turns to stand up and recite excerpts from books by New Zealand authors. They shouted, they whispered, they emoted – how they emoted! They annihilated every single word.

One excerpt sounded so bad that I assumed it was by the winner of a secondary school writing contest. Another excerpt sounded so bad that I assumed it was by the winner of a primary school writing contest. But both these readings, or massacres, were written by well known and assured novelists – I’d read their chosen work, admired the precision, the force. Now, at Hopetoun Alpha, a terrible ugliness was born.

I don’t know what other people thought. I do know that the crowd began to thin, discreetly at first, until it resembled a stampede. I was grateful. Only a few people were left by the time the final reading was delivered as a duet: two blunt knives stabbing, slashing, hacking at an excerpt from one of my books. It sounded like – you don’t want to know what it sounded like.

I sloped off into the night with my fiancée and our invited guest, a New Zealand writer who now lives in England. He’s done very well for himself. As a playwright, he co-authored a smash-hit play which has been produced around the world – during Book Month, it was opening in St Petersburg. As a novelist, he has had four books published, here and overseas. His last novel sold 40,000 copies in Germany. He was about to fly to Hamburg to begin a 14-city promotional tour.

The three of us stayed up talking till 2am. Some time before then, my successful friend asked to see the first page of a novel I began writing as the Sargeson Fellow. He said his publisher in Germany always went by the first page, didn’t bother with the rest. I’d not shown anyone, not even my fiancée, anything of the work; and for the past few weeks, I’d been seriously tempted to abandon the damned thing. But I went for broke. I printed out the first two pages.

I liked his response very much. I’m going to finish this book, and it might even be good. Strange to think I made that decision on the Buddle Findlay gala night launch of New Zealand Book Month.

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This article first appeared in the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes

Steve Braunias is a multi-award-winning columnist for the Sunday Star-Times. His columns for the newspaper and other publications have been collected in Fool’s Paradise, Roosters I Have Known and Fish of the Week: Selected Columns. He is also the author of How to Watch a Bird.