Monday, December 17, 2012

Something New

This week’s posting of Reid’s Reader is the last for 2012. We are taking a Christmas break. The next posting will appear on Monday 14 January 2013.

“THE AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE” edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Auckland University Press, $NZ75)

            It is my proud boast as a reviewer that I do not review books without first reading them from cover to cover. I know this may sound a dead obvious thing to say but – without getting too snarky or quoting review-and-verse – I know that it is not a boast that all reviewers can make, and especially not reviewers in our newspapers. There, I have more than once encountered “reviews” written by people who have clearly not got beyond the given book’s blurb.

            Having made this pompous statement, I now have to admit clearly that while I have examined The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature closely and carefully, I have not literally read it from cover to cover.

I have two excuses.

The first excuse is that a capacious anthology of New Zealand’s English-language literature inevitably contains much that I have already read, and in the three weeks that I mulled over this volume, I simply noted the presence of many things I knew well or had read previously, and moved on. (The volume also contains much that I had never met before, and that duly impressed or surprised me.)

The second excuse is that I do not think this book is designed to be read in sequence and page by page. It is designed more for reference.

            So what sort of beast is The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature?

It is a hard-back volume 1162 pages in length. It is therefore a heavy volume that will likely sit on the shelf as a work for occasional and studious reference, rather than be dandled familiarly on the reader’s knee or snuggled up to as a bedside book. I suspect that it will live mainly in libraries and academic institutions.

The blurb on the back of the dust-cover declares that it will “for years to come… be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.”

Oh hubris of the blurb-writer!” I at once think, and line up a number of arguments against this proposition.

But before I start getting censorious, I think it’s fair to consider how the husband-and-wife editors, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams of Victoria University of Wellington, see their work.

With admirable clarity, they set out the underlying principles in their Introduction. They write at length of attempts to “create” New Zealand in literary terms. Referring especially to Allen Curnow’s influential 1945 and 1960 anthologies of New Zealand poetry, they note:

            “The nationalist story of moving away from a shameful Englishness towards a gratifyingly independent New Zealandness is one that has become firmly fixed in our sense of our own history. Curnow is the most authoritative instance of this effort of literary renovation…” (Pg.3)

This leads Stafford and Williams to re-state things they suggested in their seminal book Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006). They react against the “nationalist” myth that New Zealand literature of merit was first invented in 1930s. When they refer to Quentin Pope’s 1929 anthology Kowhai Gold as having been “perhaps excessively” despised by later critics, they are acknowledging that interesting things were being anthologised before the generation of Fairburn, Curnow, Sargeson and Glover got to work. Hence at least part of this anthology’s aim is to recover what was estimable in New Zealand’s Pakeha “settlement” and “colonial” periods.

In broadly chronological fashion, the anthology is divided into eleven sections, taking us from first contact of Maori and Pakeha to the present day. It is “a history of literature in English in this country since contact” (Pg.15). It is admirable that the editors include much that would now be regarded as ideologically unacceptable, or somehow dodgy in terms of attitudes (including one of “Hori’s” patronising “humour” columns from the old Auckland Star.) They are aware that all writers live in an historical context, and no context (including the present) makes assumptions or expresses attitudes that are definitive and unassailable. Thus they say:

This anthology is not intended to congratulate New Zealanders in the twenty-first century on having arrived at last at an authentic identity as a people. We have resisted the narrative in which Kiwis as tolerant and open postcolonial citizens look back in horror at their racist and sexist past.” (Pg.11)

Amen and bravo to that.

Yet I am bound to mention that well over two-thirds of this anthology consists of things written since the Second World War (post-war sections begin on Page 384). Indeed, nearly three-quarters consists of things written since the 1930s. Perhaps there is still something to be said for the literary myth of the 1930s, after all?  The 1930s did seem to kick-start something.

The editors note inevitably how New Zealand’s writing community has changed in the last 60-odd years. Though no writing in the Maori language is included, the anthology accommodates the huge impact of the Maori Renaissance. Women now make up a greater proportion of published New Zealand writers than before, and Pacific and other ethnic communities are now part of the literary scene. The contents acknowledge these facts. Stafford and Williams also make the excellent point that a great part of New Zealand literature has always been, and continues to be, produced by people who are not part of a bicultural or multicultural dialogue; but who are in effect outsiders, largely drawing on world literature generated outside New Zealand.

In sum, this is an inclusive anthology whose perspective is mainly historical and contextual.

But there is a big problem with this approach. Are things included because they are of literary merit (however that may be defined) or because they are representative of their age? Is this primarily an anthology for historians and sociologists looking for illustrative literary texts? Or is it for critics and general readers seeking a selection of what is aesthetically “best” in New Zealand writing? The editors go for the historical view, saying  “our purpose is not to present a canonical view of New Zealand literature. Rather we seek to register the work in its time, allowing for the different ways in which it has been seen.” (Pg.16) They have already remarked that “in this anthology we have mixed the canonical and the popular” (Pg.4) Oh dear! This does create problems. It’s one thing to mix the intellectual and highbrow with the demotic and populist - Charles Brasch with Barry Crump, let’s say. But one then wonders what good writing has been excluded to make nods to the populist stuff.

Okay. That’s enough on the anthology’s theoretical underpinnings. What of the contents themselves?

The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature inevitably contains much that absolutely must appear in a credible historical anthology of New Zealand literature – Samuel Butler, Blanche Baughan, William Satchell, Jessie Mackey, Thomas Bracken, Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, R.A.K.Mason, Ursula Bethell, Pat Lawlor, John A.Lee, John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, A.R.D.Fairburn, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, James K.Baxter, Alistair Campbell, M.K.Joseph, Ruth Dallas, Dan Davin, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ian Cross, Bruce Mason, Marilyn Duckworth, Hone Tuwhare, David Ballantyne, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, C.K.Stead, Fleur Adcock, Alan Brunton, Kendrick Smithyman, Sam Hunt, Elizabeth Smither. You get the picture. And that is only a minority of those who are represented before we get to the 1980s and the (inevitably more contestable) selections for the last three decades.

There are the oddities and surprises: Translations into English of letters that Wiremu Tamihana and Wiremu Te Rangikaheke wrote to the press in the 1860s. A section from Yates’ gardening guide. John Ward writing about the prophet Te Whiti in the 1880s. A selection from the Mazengarb Report on juvenile morals in 1954. Part of Erik Schwimmer’s judge’s report for a literary and art competition in 1961. John Clarke’s (“Fred Dagg’s” ) gumboot song from 1976.

Yes, of course this is all a feast. You would be churlish indeed not to enjoy its range.  You will get the general drift and development of New Zealand writing from reading this anthology – or at least New Zealand writing until the last few decades.

But there is also the very real problem of absences and exclusions. I have already read three reviews of, or author-interview articles on, this volume (in the NZ Listener, Metro and the Sunday Star-Times) that make greater or lesser noises about the notable absences. There is no Vincent O’Sullivan because, apparently, he chose not to be included. There is no Janet Frame because of the editors’ inability to reach an agreement with the trustees of her estate. These are two glaring omissions, severely compromising the anthology’s ability to present New Zealand literature to those (especially overseas readers) who do not already know their way around it. When and if this book goes into a second edition, I hope the editors will be able to amend this.

At this point I could list a whole range of others missing in action. What, no Michael King? What, no James McNeish? What, no Bill Sewell? Okay, they’re not the greatest of literary figures, but they are more “representative” of their times than some who are included, and if an “historical” basis for selections is being commended, then they should have found a place. And (pardon my audacity) I would also suggest the anthologists’ awareness of what is going on in poetry now may be more limited than they realize. Richard Reeve is New Zealand’s most gifted younger lyric poet. He’s not here. If you are seeking a modern meditation on pioneer adjustments to New Zealand, nobody has done it better than David Howard in his mighty poem “The Word Went Round”. Neither he nor it is here. And what of the prolific Mark Pirie? And for that matter, what of the reliable veteran Alistair Paterson? Without Sewell, Reeve, Howard, Pirie and Paterson, the anthology’s record of poetry in the last forty years is both skewed and maimed.

I could, as others have done, add many more of the omitted. But to push on with this line of reasoning would be to ignore the obvious fact that an anthology is, after all, a selection. By its very nature it reflects the anthologists’ tastes. By its very nature it is exclusive. Still. What exclusions! And, dare I say it, what inclusions as well!

In the end, I sense a sort of academic game here, where the editors pretend they are not canon-making when in fact that is what they are inevitably trying to do, nods to populist and demotic writing notwithstanding.

This brings me back to the comment on the back cover, which says that this anthology will  “for years to come… be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.” No. Sorry. I do not believe this. Not only is the statement a flat contradiction of what the editors argue in the Introduction; but it also ignores the unwieldy weight of the tome, which will tend to confine it to institutions and library reference shelves. And even if an accessible e-book version is in the works, the anthology’s selections and omissions are too contentious not to make it subject for frequent comment and criticism. If this aspires to be a “guide” to what is worth reading, then for years people will be lining up to point out its defects.
            By the way, I am absolutely delighted that my good mate Iain Sharp gets a look-in with his love poem to his good mate Joy. But I’m not sure that even this pleasure reconciles me to the absence of O’Sullivan, Frame, Reeve and co.


  1. Don't all anthologies become less definitive the more contempory the material? And yet strangely, I often enjoy older anthologies because of their mixing the forgotten authors with the evergreens.

  2. The elephant in the room: in a book of 1,149 pages representing New Zealand literature, only 20 of those pages represent dramatic writing in Aotearoa. Apparently, in the editors' view, small single selections from Bruce Mason, Maurice Shadbolt, Greg McGee, Briar Grace-Smith, and Jacob Rajan have been considered sufficient to suffice.

    It is difficult to know whether to take this as straightforward ignorance and lack of reading on the editors' part, or whether the choices and the glaring mountain of omissions of the work of playwrights signifies something more dismissive. As an Associate-Professor in Drama at the University of Auckland, home of this book, I find it deeply disturbing in cultural and educational terms for schools and universities, for the theatre industry and for the substantial audiences who have attended for years and continue to attend performances of local work.

    One thing that can be noted is that this serious omission virtually repeats that of an earlier literary reference-style work, Patrick Evans's History of New Zealand Literature, in which he failed to even mention dramatic writing. In a culture that eulogises Shakespeare as its greatest writer, this does have its sad comic aspect.

    From a literary critical perspective a good case could be made for the growth of dramatic writing in Aotearoa in the last 30 years being the most significant of all modes and genres. In the light of this possibility and the present vigorous state of dramatic writing, I am at a loss to comprehend why the anthology is so lacking in its presence.

    Murray Edmond

    1. Thank you very much for your forthright and accurate comment, Murray. It pricks my conscience that I did not think to mention this aspect in the review. Perhaps it says something about my own over-emphasis on poetry and prose when I think of literature, but I would certainly have thought harder had I been compiling an anthology.