Monday, February 19, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


In the Sunday Star-Times of 31 December 2017, in one of its end-of-year round-ups, the New Zealand novelist Carl Shuker was quoted as saying: “Vicious lifelong hatreds, fallings out and more minor despisings are seething all the time in New Zealand lit[erature]. They’re very real and quite hidden from the general public. And they last years. The smaller the turf the more vicious the war.

I am not as fully immersed in New Zealand’s literary world as Carl Shuker is, but with the deepest of regret I have to endorse his views. In fact the NZ Lit. scene often makes me think of that line from Macbeth:  “the nearer in blood, the nearer bloody.” The smaller the fish-tank, the more the little fish fight, and New Zealand’s literary scene is a very small fish-tank with a lot of little fish.

Everybody knows Eminent Literary Figure XYZ can’t stand Eminent Literary Figure ABC, and the feeling is mutual, with the two of them every so often taking sly pokes at each other in print. The executors of the estate of Deceased Eminent Literary Figure @&%$ are notoriously possessive and can’t stand the least word being said about their deceased asset without their approval. Pointed lawyers’ letters fly. Too often in NZ, literary feuds are connected with Academe. Why Writer A loathes Writer B is often related to which of them has gained more or less esteem from academic colleagues. Then there is the matter of poets constantly feeling snubbed by editors if they have not been represented in anthologies or have been under-represented. And poets being sniffed at because their work is published by independent presses rather than university ones. And there is the matter of novelists including caricatures of real people in their novels, and then affecting to be surprised when the original of the caricature points it out and complains. For aught I know, there will also be writers hating other writers because he/she shagged or stole his/her girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/spouse. And there are quarrels over why ABC got a literary grant rather than XYZ. And whether a friend of the author was on the jury when an undeserving writer won a literary award. And of course there is the generational matter – younger writers complaining that older writers just don’t “get” their work and hating them for it, and vice versa. Oh Lord! The wailing of Generation X or Y or Inane or whatever it is now calling itself at Baby Boomers who obtusely refuse to recognise their genius!!!

Absolutely none of this is new in New Zealand. Back in the 1930s and 1940s there was the notorious stand-off between the “Bookmen” (Marris, A.Mulgan, Lawlor etc) and the “Nationalist” Modernists (Fairburn, Curnow, Glover, Sargeson etc.), not to mention the sneers of the boys (again Fairburn, Glover, Sargeson) at the work of the girls (Hyde, E. Duggan, etc.). Then in the 1950s there was that parochial nonsense with the Wellingtonians (Campbell, Baxter, Johnson) bitching at the Aucklanders (Curnow, Smithyman etc.).

God, how much energy and intellectual sweat were wasted on things that didn’t matter much in the first place!

But, as one Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure advised me, nothing is sure to start a literary feud faster than a bad review. Indeed, this Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure said he-or-she once reviewed a New Zealand book and it caused such a ruckus that he-or-she vowed never to review a New Zealand book ever again. Also, the matter of the small pool of talent is a factor here. In our (few) highbrow literary journals – and even in the more presentable mass-media outlets – there is only a limited number of people qualified to, or capable of, writing detailed reviews of “literary” productions. Writers reviewing other writers (and perhaps setting off literary feuds) is something that happens in all parts of the world where books are produced. But the pool of qualified reviewers in New Zealand is small to the point where somebody in one university department will end up reviewing the work of a colleague from the same department. As far as I can see, the further result of this is that most highbrow reviewing in NZ is painfully polite and tactful (read “not particularly honest”).

How do I come into all this? I am, after all, only a louse in the locks of NZ Lit. But I do know that by attempting to review books honestly and fairly, I must perforce sometimes say that said books are not the masterpieces their authors think they are. Result? Over the years I have received a few bileful letters from authors, a rather hysterical blog-posting by a literary publicist calling me “ultra-toxic”, a string of earnest e-mails from an author trying to persuade me that his-or-her novel really was brilliant after all, and one anonymous letter (I think by an aggrieved poet) calling me a “wannabe” and telling me to “pull my head in”. I emphasize that in quite a few years of book-reviewing, this has happened only very occasionally – I do not delude myself that I am that important as an opinion-maker or worthy of most writers’ notice. Besides, every time I have written a less-than-flattering review, I have received messages from other writers cheerfully endorsing the judgment I expressed. The problem here, though, is that such endorsements usually come from writers who already dislike the writer I have just honestly reviewed.

Oh dear!

Carl Shuker is quite right when he says New Zealand’s literary bitchings are [generally] “quite hidden from the general public.

Would that they stayed that way.

I take as a central tenet in reviewing that it is the book which is being reviewed, not the person who wrote it; and therefore that who is allied to whom, or who is antagonistic towards whom, should be ignored by reviewers as they make their calls. But with the proliferation of writing schools, and creative writing-courses at tertiary level, we now have more than ever the formation of literary cliques – writers who feel that they must at all costs be loyal to other writers, because they went through the same writing classes together. Besides, friends made in writing class might be useful in boosting their own works once they get published. Woe betide any outsider who offers even the most rational critique of the work of a member of the group. It is, of course, taboo to be less than enthusiastic about the work of an admired teacher of such courses, regardless of their mediocre quality. For enlightenment, make your way sometime through the wasteland of websites now in place to “discuss” (i.e. puff) the work of a particular author, or listen to podcasts ditto. Clique go the shears, boys, clique, clique, clique.

Yes, the average honest reader knows nothing of all this, and is surprised when details of literary back-biting and wrangling come to the surface. And on the whole, I think writers set aside thoughts of such things when they grit their teeth and get on with producing their serious work. Otherwise New Zealand poetry and prose would be reduced to little more than gossipy journalism.

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