Complaint against Creative New Zealand funding is upheld
You don’t want to piss off Paula Morris. The award-winning novelist and tireless advocate of New Zealand writing was genuinely not amused earlier this year when Creative New Zealand rejected her application for funding on behalf of the New Zealand Academy of Literature. She demanded to see how the evaluators scored her application. She then filed a complaint and was given the opportunity to reapply; and on Friday, the request for $17,000 was approved. She took to the Twitter machine to proclaim the decision with the kind of withering and provocative remark that hardly any other writer in the country would dare to make in public. It called for an interview, conducted by email on Sunday evening.
You wrote on the Twitter machine: “Glad ANZL has funding again after the biased and ignorant assessment last time. BTW my complaint was confirmed. It’s a very interesting approach. Is this some kind of trial by Twitter, in which you judge the assessors guilty of pure stupidity?
I myself have been a CNZ assessor and know that we are required to give “generous and comprehensive feedback”, as well as to fully understand and apply the assessment criteria. After ANZL’s application to Creative NZ earlier this year, I asked to see the reviews and ratings and then submitted a detailed complaint. I argued that these comments “revealed bias, reliance on assumptions and appalling ignorance of the literature industry”, giving specific examples and asking CNZ to institute more robust training for reviewers. , including basing assessments on provided evidence rather than guesswork, unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence. , personal feelings or assumptions. Incidentally, CNZ’s response was to agree that there was evidence of assumption and bias in both assessments. Despite our low score in the round in question, ANZL was able to apply again in the next round – a modest request for CA$17,000 for exams, which was funded.
Why did you describe your reviewers as “biased, ignorant”?
I don’t know the names of the two individual reviewers, but I hope they’re on Twitter, noting my disdain. I have no grudge against CNZ itself: these decisions are made by the external assessors, many of whom – perhaps even most – in the Literature category are writers. But I want CNZ to be more thorough and proactive in managing reviews and review boards, rather than letting reviewers spout bullshit or give punitive ratings without citing evidence to back up their decisions.
Going back for a second, what is really going on with funding requests?
EEach assessor assigns 4 marks and series of comments: out of 7 for the “idea” part of the application; out of 7 for “sustainability” (which includes budget, schedule and staff); “strategic result” out of 3; and “program objective” out of 3. So if an applicant does not list a specific program objective in the given list, as I have seen some applications neglect to do, they will get a zero out of 3 – why some applications pass. (Sometimes I wonder if that’s what happened when sport was turned down for funding and Fergus [Barrowman, publisher at Te Herenga Waka University Press] complained in the media about a small error in the application.) *There are guidelines for reviewers for assigning particular marks in each range. So, for example, if an evaluator writes that all is well with budget and people, but only gives a 4/7 for viability, that’s a problem: it suggests that the evaluator is not justified in awarding the lowest rating, or did not bother to explain the reasoning.
*Fergus Barrowman posted a clarification on the Twitter machine this morning: “There was no error in the sport application; the CNZ staff member who was the sole assessor didn’t know bookstores got a trade discount, so he claimed the budget didn’t match.”
Everyone gets turned down by CNZ, sometimes multiple times – a well-known author recently took to social media to express how infuriating and undermining it is. The complaint process worked for you; what kind of hoops do you have to jump through?
The complaint process was simple: request in writing to read the comments and notes, then submit a letter. In the meantime, in a separate process, I also had helpful discussions with CNZ Literature Advisors on how ANZL might resubmit and frame a new application.
Getting turned down by CNZ: Yes, this happens all the time, because there are a lot of applicants and not enough money. My first application to them, to write my second novel, Hibiscus Coast, was refused. This was after I won the Adam Award as well as Best First Fiction Book at the Montana NZ Book Awards for Beauty queen. I phoned the counselor at the time and she was like, “Well, you might just be a flash in the pan.”
During the same funding cycle, grants were awarded to other emerging writers who never published the funded books. That’s how it goes. Evaluators decide based on written samples and this will always be subjective.
What are ANZL’s readership figures? And why does it deserve CNZ funding?
For organizations such as festivals, publishers, informed magazine sites, etc., the decision should be based on the evidence provided and the case argued. You ask if ANZL deserves funding, but my concern is, have we presented a well-argued case that honestly and thoroughly represented what we do? And then, did the evaluators review all of the evidence provided, including references, statistics, and examples, and approach them without bias, assumptions, or lazy thinking? I have no expectation of success, just the integrity of the process. None of us are eligible for funding.
Speaking as a former reviewer: My advice to all writers, even established ones, is to include a writing sample from the project you are applying for. Without it, you can’t get the grades you’ll need to get funded. Additionally, if you claim anything in your application, such as an interest from an agent, publisher, or film company, you must include evidence such as letters or emails. Speaking as a fellow writer: Please do not apply for funding from CNZ for a new project if you have not written or published the last project for which you received funding. And if, like me, you work for a university that pays you 40% of your salary for research and writing, don’t apply for writing grants unless they cover unpaid leave. When I (successfully) applied for funding for the A clear dawn anthology, it was to pay the contributing authors and my co-editor Alison Wong, not to pay myself.
Is there something wrong with the CNZ funding model? What are your thoughts on using anonymous reviewers?
Interesting questions. When I was evaluating, I imagined it wasn’t anonymous, so I could be sure that everything I wrote (and said in discussions) could stand up to scrutiny. At the University of Auckland, our internal and external reviewers at Masters level are anonymous, which I suspect protects reviewers from unfair whistleblowing if a student is unhappy with feedback or grades – although at the doctoral level, examiners are appointed. All the literary scenes everywhere are small and petty, so maybe CNZ couldn’t find reviewers if the process wasn’t anonymous: there would be too much revenge. However, anonymity requires reviewers to be scrupulously fair and thorough, and not just talk bullshit (see above).
As well as receiving money from ANZL in this last funding round, Kete secured $75,000 and ReadingRoom received the same amount earlier this year. There are also other expenditures for New Zealand writing journal/media infrastructure. Isn’t it out of control? The actual authors – the people who create books – are overlooked in favor of review sites (Subway currently advertises for an art publisher, paid for by CNZ; I guess the salary is around $80,000!) and various assorted quangos (e.g. this quangocentric vacuum, the Coalition for Books) that talk about people who make books. Where will it all end for God’s sake?
Hmm. CNZ supports the entire literature industry, not just writers. After we write our books, we need them to be published and revised; we would like to appear at festivals and other events, and be interviewed and discussed in reports. I think more organizations and publishers should be Kahikatea clients of CNZ, i.e. part of a separate multi-year funding program, rather than having to scrap it with writers and smaller initiatives during funding rounds. For example, Otago, Te Herenga Waka and Auckland University Presses are all customers of Kahikatea, but Massey University Press is not. The Pantograph Punch is funded as a Kahikatea organization in literature, although their literary coverage is minimal compared to ReadingRoom, Kete or the ANZL, all of which must apply in general funding rounds. Word Christchurch is in the Kahikatea program but Verb Wellington is not.
There is only one literature organization in CNZ’s Totara list of 23 clients, the Māori Literature Trust, which receives over $100,000 a year. (Toi Māori, who funds the Te Ha Māori writers network, among many other things in other art forms, is also a client of Totara, currently receiving around $800,000 a year.)
Maybe this whole Kahikatea/Totara program needs to be re-evaluated per art form. In literature, if all organizations and publishers moved into a separate funding pool, allowing for longer-term planning and budgeting, it would make more sense. Alternatively, an individual writer may face, for example, Lit Crawl in Wellington, National Poetry Day and Cuba Press in a given funding round. These organizations can present complete and well-argued cases and obtain well-deserved funding. But that means there’s less for other literature candidates, especially writers whose work sample may appeal to one reviewer but not another.
Finally – in a matter related to funding, The big idea published an interesting story last week about older people leaving arts organizations, such as CNZ Senior Director Cath Cardiff, a 22-year-old veteran. Do you have any concerns about this?
People quit their jobs all the time: maybe others should quit too. We need new challenges or to rethink our lives, and organizations need new perspectives.
Sure, I’d love to be queen for a day at CNZ, but they probably think I’m complaining too much.
The New Zealand Literature Academy publishes reviews, interviews and other stories about New Zealand books. It has over 100 members and a select elite of 15 Fellows, aged writers “with significant work and distinguished careers”: 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.