Books on the box: a conversation

A conversation between 2 librarians on their first session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Books on the Box (a panel discussion about TV book programmes, featuring Hamish Keith, Hermione Lee and Colin Hogg, and chaired by Noelle McCarthy).

Donna: Well that was a riproaring and fighting start. What was your favourite bit?

Joyce: Noelle’s shoes – her two tone shoezies were fab (editors note: they were pink and gold and very high) but the vibrant green earrings were plain wrong.

Donna: Fashion aside, I liked Hamish Keith’s fighting spirit, defence of the elderly and hatred for people meters. They all seemed to agree that book and arts coverage on tv is in a pretty bad way and the advertising buck is king.

Joyce: I enjoyed Colin Hogg’s more laid back attitude. He’s accepting of the status quo but positive that

digital channel options will gives the arts another forum (albeit embryonic at this stage). He is currently in talks to produce a book show on Channel 6 and already presents Talk Talk on the arts.

Donna: The audience for this talk was thin but enthusiastic and included some of their targets – the programmers at TVNZ.

Joyce: Hermione Lee described herself as the moa bird – she presented Book Four on Channel 4 back in the olden days (from 1982).

Donna: She had some wicked guests man – John Fowles, Angela Carter, Roald Dahl, Umberto Eco, and even Dick Francis and Len Deighton so not just high brow.

Joyce: Don’t forget Norman Mailer, Iris Murdoch, Peter Carey, Alice Walker, Germaine Greer and Milan Kundera.

Donna: That’s hot! I wonder if there is still footage of those interviews around, maybe on youtube?

Joyce: All the panellists lamented the loss of the non-commercial channel and despaired at the downward spiral and dumbing down. Now instead of Channel Four hosting The book show, Lee tells us that the channel has Big Brother, Gordon Ramsay and recently promoted “wank week”. But there were no real answers to the dearth of quality mainstream programming for the arts in New Zealand. Hamish Keith thought we should pick up our pitchforks and head to the Beehive in protest. Colin Hogg in a characteristically laconic way said “tune into digital”.

Donna: Hamish was a fiesty gentleman. I liked how he said the making of “The Big Picture” was thwarted constantly by Taniwha Dumb and Taniwha Dismal. And the conversation turned to Talking heads (not the David Byrne band). Hermione thought “There’s something sexy about the talking head” – if the author is interesting enough it can be a fascinating thing to watch. You get to see their thought process in action and dig deeper in a longer interview format. Milan Kundera was interviewed in French with subtitles and this could have been alienatingly artsy but he came out with gems like “if you have tears in your eyes (when you’re writing ) you can’t see clearly”. Hermione is quite quotable – she also said that “Thinking is sexy”.

Joyce: She hit the nail on the head when she said books only become big news once a year in the UK when the Man Booker Prize rolls in. Any other arts coverage within the mainstream media is reported as a quirky or end of programme joke story.

Donna: Hamish Keith said something about the whole winning thing becomes a story … like Lloyd Jones. It becomes a sports story like he is a racehorse or the All Blacks.

Joyce: It becomes a NZ pride thing, not about literary merit.

Donna: Hamish also raised the point that various surveys put reading at the top of NZers recreational activities so why doesn’t tv capture that? I hate how the news always has so much sports news when I only care about Formula One and not everything else. How come the arts and books don’t get such good coverage when more people are supposedly interested in them?

Joyce: (arching a sceptical eyebrow) Do you think people are truthful when they say they read?

Donna: Maybe they are counting reading the newspaper?

Joyce: Well Colin Hogg thinks tv should be like a newspaper – your headlines, sports, arts, international news etc – something for everyone. But the writing’s on the wall – it won’t all be on the same mainstream channel.

Donna: No they talked about “hiving” arts things off, sort of ghettoizing them so they all hang out on some channel by themselves … it kind of separate the arts from other entertainment.

Joyce: And yet how many books have fuelled movies and tv shows?

Donna: Is there a quote or a final impression you’d like to give? I’d say Hamish Keith saying “Throw away your people meters what have you got to lose”. And you?

Joyce: “Don’t hold out on me Doris”

10 thoughts on “Books on the box: a conversation

  1. becks 14 May 2008 / 10:10 pm

    Thanks for your interesting post. The description of the audience “thin but enthusiastic” is enlightening. Do you think most of the TV audience just don’t care anymore and have given up on seeing their interest in books, writing and publishing reflected on NZ TV? Maybe those who are left to encourage books on telly are a passionate hardcore crowd ready to take risks and throw away peoplemeters … perhaps with the exception of laconic eyebrows Colin . I hope his show does well but I’d be more likely to read a blog like this than watch a book show on digital tv – because I don’t have digital tv…
    have fun in Auckland…

  2. Amy 15 May 2008 / 9:24 am

    What did Hamish Keith mean when he was talking about ‘people meters’?

  3. Erin 15 May 2008 / 9:39 am

    All this is very interesting, but could you please find out who designed Noelle’s shoes?

  4. Donna 15 May 2008 / 9:41 am

    Thanks Becks – I think you are possibly right, it feels like people have given up a bit and are turning to blogs, book clubs and other forum to talk about books. I also discussed with Joyce that sometimes NZ arts programmes are just too busy trying to be cool and hip.

    Amy – “people meters” are boxes that are installed on certain people’s tvs to see what they watch. TV ratings etc come from those figures. Hamish said there are only about 428 in the country – and that no-one over 55 has them so that age group is entirely unrepresented.

  5. Donna 15 May 2008 / 9:43 am

    Erin – hopefully we’ll see Noelle out and about. I should have taken a photo! Next time …

  6. Amy 15 May 2008 / 1:30 pm

    Thanks Donna. That wasn’t one of my guesses. I am really surprised that the retirement-age demographic isn’t represented because the folks of that age that I know are avid and critical TV watchers.

  7. Donna 15 May 2008 / 2:40 pm

    Exactly. Hamish suggested this group is ignored because advertisers aren’t interested in them as they have already made their major life purchases but as not all ads are for big purchase items I wonder if that is it

  8. mingle76 15 May 2008 / 3:15 pm

    I find it a little odd that the retirement-age demographic is ‘ignored’ as they still purchase for themselves, as well as for other generations (esp. their kids and grandkids), and they often have a savvy take on purchasing, that is, they will purchase less often, but perhaps spend (significantly) more on quality products.

    And in terms of purchasing artwork, as well as other collectibles, they’ve got a damn good eye for quality and long-term investment.

  9. becks 15 May 2008 / 4:07 pm

    Interesting to read your posts and thinking about Noelle’s shoes – if this session had been televised we’d all have been able to see them… !

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