Authors and Writers

If you didn’t get a chance to attend this year’s Janet Frame Memorial Lecture at Te Papa, you can read it here   There was also an extract in the Listener and it’s being discussed on Leafsalon here

Greg O’Brien had some very interesting things to say about the difference between a writer (someone who writes) and an author (someone whose work is published) and cited Janet Frame as someone who retired at 65 from being an author (ie from being published) but continued throughout her life to be a writer.  I like this distinction.  I’ve always thought of writing as a verb: something I do, rather than an identity: “being a writer” (a noun, something a person is).  It is the process or activity of writing that’s important.  You only stop being a writer if you stop writing.

Greg also talked about the marketplace – he prefers to see literature as a laboratory.  I particularly liked the following:

“Literature is not a track event. Everyone is not running in the same direction—nor should they be. If literature is a race then it is one where, when the starting gun is fired, the participants run off each in their own direction. It is only arts funders and prize-givers who line writers up on some invented racetrack, facing the same ribbon.”

This reminds me of the philosophers’ football match in a Monty Python sketch, where, as soon as the whistle blows, the philosophers wander off away from the ball, to contemplate it all. 

A couple of days ago, at my poetry group, we were lamenting the limited range of poetry publishers in New Zealand relative to the seemingly vast numbers of poets seeking publication and the fact that some of our few publishers are booked up several years in advance or buried under huge piles of unread manuscripts (with frustratingly long response rates as a result).  More small presses would be lovely, but poetry is hardly going to pay the mortgage.  In the meantime, that track event continues, each of us meandering off in our own little directions, atomising our verbal structures (I was very chuffed to get a passing mention in Greg’s lecture).  Here’s to the laboratory!



  1. The difficulty I have with Greg O’Brien’s marketplace vs laboratory distinction is that it ignores the economic reality faced by writers who need income from writing to fully or partly pay the rent and put food on the table.

    Scientists working in laboratories may appear to be independent, but they are in reality supported by a structure which encompasses technicians and cleaners and receptionists and sponsors, all of whose labour and capital frees the scientists up to do science. Similarly, writers find it easier to take a ‘laboratory’ approach to their writing when they are paid, housed and supported by a network of public and academic literary patronage. It’s good that the patronage exists, but I object to those who are its beneficiaries looking down their noses at those who are not: and I think, for all the virtues of Greg’s speech (and for giving a namecheck to you, Janis – good on himfor that!) there is an element of this snobbery in the position Greg takes.

  2. Fair point about scientists lacking complete independence – research is often driven by the priorities of businesses or governments (and why shouldn’t the public have a say in what gets funded?) rather than purely by the interests of scientists.

    But I suspect that even without the support of public and academic literary patronage, there’s still plenty of experimentation going on in writing.

    Hmm, I can feel an experiment coming on – take one group of writers and house them in a comfortable hotel with room service and put a second group in a cold garret with bread & water and a few children to mind… Now if only I can persuade FoRST to fund it…

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