How on earth can this be justified?
A start-up headed by an American wedding celebrant with close to zero knowledge of New Zealand literature has been given a massive $500,000 grant from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to “help Aotearoa audiences access books”.
The grant was announced on Friday, and has stunned leading figures in the New Zealand books trade. In interviews with ReadingRoom, all expressed various states of anger, concern and bafflement – and view it as a waste of a significant amount of public money.
Anger, concern and battlement are understandable reactions and the view that this is a significant waste of public money is valid.
Recommendations site Narrative Muse presents itself as a matchmaker, a kind of Tinder app that seeks to put together people with the books they’d like to read. It’s been floating around since 2016 and is headed by US-born Brough Johnson, who has worked in New Zealand as a film editor (Power Rangers, Westside) and wedding and civil union celebrant (“As a storyteller, I love working with couples to sculpt their special tale and find the perfect rituals that suit them”). Almost no one in New Zealand writing has ever heard of Narrative Muse – a position of ignorance matched by Johnson’s knowledge of New Zealand writing. Asked yesterday to name one local book or author, she said, “Um – if I’m honest I’ve never been any good at naming any authors on the spot. So obviously there’s the obvious one, which is Auē, which is by Becky, and I’m forgetting Becky’s surname right now.”
“I’m aghast,” said author Paula Morris, at the government windfall given to Narrative Muse. Morris sits on numerous boards in New Zealand literature, such as the Māori Literature Trust and the New Zealand Book Awards Trust. “I looked at the site, because I’d never heard of it, and it’s essentially what Amazon is doing already, which is if you like this you’ll like this as well. Why is half a million dollars going into that?” . . .
Amazon isn’t the only on-line book seller that does this. When I’ve bought books from Fishpond and Book Depository they also tell me if I like that book, I might like several others.
It’s a service offered by any good bookshop and I get similar advice from friends who are readers.
None of these need any public money.
The $500,000 funding is part of the Government’s $374 million Covid recovery package for the arts sector. Something called the the Cultural Sector Innovation Fund was allocated $60 million over three years “to support innovative projects that improve the sustainability and resilience of the sector”. Successful applicants needed to find “new ways to add value to the economy, particularly through digital exports”. . .
How does funding a site which ignores New Zealand publishers and pushes readers to international booksellers rather than local ones do that?
How could anyone think this grant was the best way to help Aotearoa audiences access books and that this was acceptable use of scarce public funds?