The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (AUP, $75)
This must be one of the worst jobs in the world: making an anthology of New Zealand literature. You will be criticised for who is in and who is out. It would be bad enough with an anthology of fiction or of poetry or of non-fiction or of drama, but this book covers all four genres.
Or so it claims. The back cover says: “In fiction and non-fiction, letters and speeches, stories and song, the editors unearth the diverse voices of the New Zealand imagination. And for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.”
This is an AUP book so it looks beautiful and has immaculate editing and typography. It weighs two kilograms. Solid. There are not one but two ribbon bookmarks bound in – classy, and very useful in a reference book. The publisher has done a fantastic job. What about the contents?
For an anthology there is a huge amount of work getting permissions –and even more work in not getting permissions. I have no idea whether the editors or the publisher had to perform these negotiations but clearly they were arduous – and how frustrating that they were unsuccessful with Janet Frame, Vincent O’Sullivan and Alan Duff. In Frame’s case, the Listener tells us that the editors wanted to use “some poems and extracts from Frame’s novel and autobiographies [...] But the trust would only agree to their using complete short stories, poems or non-fiction from the In Her Own Words collection”.
O’Sullivan is for me our greatest living writer: poet, novelist, playwright, biographer, editor of Mansfield and a fine anthologist (if you ever see a copy of the Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Writing Since 1945 he co-edited with Mac Jackson, grab it). But he refused permission for any of his work to be included. He told the Listener that:
There are some wonderful things in this anthology […] But it is also narrow and prescriptive. To be in the crowd scenes for the spectacle of the new tablets brought down from Mt Kelburn did not much interest me.That last sentence is classic O’Sullivan and shows what loss to the book he is. I don’t yet know why Alan Duff refused permission but I bet his objection was like the Frame trust’s: that he thought the proposed selection didn’t show him at his best.
Whatever the difficulties in the negotiations, an anthology of New Zealand literature that doesn’t include these three writers does not present “what’s worth reading”. Imagine a book on New Zealand art without McCahon, Hotere and Hanly.
There are other omissions. Andrew Stone in the Herald cites Judith Binney, Peter Bland, Laurence Fearnley, Charlotte Grimshaw, Bruce Jesson, Stephanie Johnson, Michael King, Shonagh Koea, Ngaio Marsh, James McNeish, Sarah Quigley, Anne Salmond, Tina Shaw and Chad Taylor.
Paula Green in Metro (not online) adds Kirsty Gunn, Kelly Ana Morey, Carl Nixon, Claudia Orange, Bob Orr and Vivienne Plumb.
Nicholas Reid adds Richard Reeve and David Howard.
And I would add: Graham Billing, William Brandt, David Burton, John Cranna, Joy Cowley, Martin Edmond, James George, AK Grant, Jack Lasenby and Jo Randerson.
Not that all of the above ought as of right to be in an anthology of New Zealand literature, just that they are all candidates and looking at who and what is in, one wonders why they are not. But as Steven Wright says, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
The editors did not have infinite space and had to make their selection. They explain in their introduction their reasoning for their inclusions and exclusions. But the introduction is nonsense, such nonsense as only an academic could write. For example:
For the settler, authoring place becomes more difficult once you have unloaded your piano and your copies of Ossian and Wordsworth on the beach and you look around.That is the stupidest sentence I have read all year. Leaving aside the question of whether “authoring” is a word, who in the 1840s would have had a copy of Ossian? My wife’s forebears arrived in 1841 in Wellington, and a year later my forebears arrived in Auckland: there were wharves. No early settler could have brought a piano, not even for ready money – those ships were tiny with little room for the passengers let alone their possessions. Just because a piano was landed at Karekare in a film does not mean that this happened. The editors are specialists in early New Zealand writing so must know better. Perhaps this is their little joke.
But what of their selections? Some of the earliest writers never came here – looking at you, Bronte, Browning, Headley and Seward – and EG Wakefield’s piece was written in an English prison. It’s not a bad idea to show the fantasies people had of New Zealand but is this the place? No. Do these fantasies say anything about New Zealand? No. Have they anything to do with NZ literature? No. This is “distance looks our way” stuff, and didn’t we stop caring about that decades ago? Fine to include this material in a book about the cultural cringe, but not here.
Other odd inclusions: the Treaty of Waitangi, the Mazengarb report, Captain Cook’s journal – none of these was intended as literature. Nor were the Edmonds Cookbook of 1914 or the Yates Gardening Guide of 1897 – each of these selections is presented as a “found poem” which is sheer self-indulgence on the editors’ part. If these texts are there because of their historical significance, their making a difference, isn’t there a case for Donna Awatere’s Maori Sovereignty?
More travesties: a poem by Wystan Curnow and a “prose poem” by Len Lye. There is room for three poems each by Anne French and Anna Jackson but only for two by Brian Turner and none by Peter Bland.
Which brings us back to exclusions. Poenamo by John Logan Campbell (reissued last month by Godwit) is lively and amusing about trading with Ngati Whatua and is one of the best accounts of early Auckland. Its absence is baffling.
Another startling non-fiction omission is Dick Scott, whose 1954 The Parihaka Story (expanded in 1975 as Ask That Mountain) was hugely influential on Pakehas’ understanding of land rights and race relations. Contrast this with the Auckland Star columnist Hori who presumably is included to show how beastly Pakehas could be about Maoris. Why include this while excluding Scott and Roderick Finlayson who was perhaps the first Pakeha to write fiction sympathetic about Maoris? How does this fit with the claim of “Aotearoa’s major writing”? Many of our non-academic historians are over-rated, not least by themselves, but Scott and Michael King were serious literary writers. They should be here.
Numbers: there are 1050 pages of selections, plus introduction and end-matter (author biographies, index etc) to make 1164 pages in all. The last decade or so takes up 128 pages, an eighth of the total available space. In a book that opens with material from the 18th century, that is an odd foreshortening. The 1950s get 100 pages; the 70s get 80. The most recent piece is an extract from Hamish Clayton’s 2011 novel Wulf; the introduction quotes Tina Makereti ’s essay “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman walk into a Pa” from Sport 40 earlier this year. Both are outstanding and I also like the five pages from Dylan Horrocks’s graphic novel Hicksville, published here in 2010. (Fun fact: Hamish Clayton’s MA thesis was on Hicksville; Dylan’s dad Roger edits books about Len Lye. New Zealand: land of two degrees of separation.)
Complaints about too many VUP and AUP authors may reflect selection bias, but their dominance is unavoidable in an anthology that includes a lot of recent poetry. For fiction it is less clear-cut. Many distinctive voices from other publishers are missing. A writer friend who is in the anthology so is not whingeing observes:
If you count the last 90 entries i.e. the 21st century, 74 are writers published exclusively by AUP or VUP. There are about 2 Huia, 3 Penguin, 1 Steele Roberts, 1 Random House.In fiction, there have been grizzles about Charlotte Grimshaw being excluded but I can’t see it matters much about people who started publishing in the last decade or two – yes, Grimshaw is good as are Fearnley, Morey, Taylor and others, but it is too soon to tell who will last. Picking so many current writers is a hostage to fortune, as this Paleofuture article shows: it gives a list of authors whom readers of Colophon, a “magazine for book collectors”, thought in 1936 would be “the ten authors whose works would be considered classics in the year 2000”.
What is at least as interesting as who is in and who is out is what is in – that is, the pieces chosen to represent the writer. Keith Sinclair in as a poet, not as an historian. The two Louis Johnson poems are from the 50s but most admirers regard his late work as his best. Authors aren’t necessarily the best judges of what is their best work, but I know several who feel misrepresented by early work but agreed to be in because it’s better in than out.
Strangest of all, non-fiction peters out: there are only two examples from the 1990s (Geoff Park and Peter Wells) and one from the 2000s (Harry Ricketts). This is odd – did we really stop writing interesting non-fiction 20 years ago? No. Two words: Martin Edmond.
Poetry and fiction dominate the last two decades, which is one reason for the preponderance of AUP and VUP authors, since those two houses dominate poetry. But it is odd to have the final pages so dominated by them.
This may be the last printed anthology of its kind – e-books and university course packs are easier to organise with different versions for different courses. The idea of a large hardback with poetry, fiction and non-fiction (and a tiny bit of drama) from several centuries is probably out-dated. Digital lets publishers and course designers slice and dice by genre, century, decade even. The master copy of the next anthology will have the full contents but what students see will be just a fraction of that. This is not a bad thing – it makes it affordable for the students, and the authors will get paid. Authors and trusts will be more permissive about permissions with a less prescriptive selection. Digital is a disruptive technology – three cheers for that – so a book like this is a dinosaur. We will not see its like again.
Finally, drama. This is fiendishly difficult to show in extracts, especially alongside works of poetry and fiction which were written to stand alone. It is simply inadequate to have only 20 pages in total from five playwrights: Mason, Shadbolt, McGee, Grace-Smith and Rajan. Why no Roger Hall? The opening line from Glide Time would be apt: “Wellington, I hate you!”
So here is Leo Kottke performing Ry Cooder’s “Available Space”: