Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The AUP Anthology of NZ Literature #9

This has been a long series since my first post reviewing the book in December 2012 somewhat negatively (quote unquote: of a line in the introduction I wrote, “That is the stupidest sentence I have read all year”). The previous entry was in March 2013 celebrating its big win in the awards for the Most Beautiful Book Australia and New Zealand.

On 4 December Pamela Gordon, a trustee of the Janet Frame estate, posted on the Slightly Framous blog explaining at length why there was nothing from Frame in the book – which was one of my criticisms of it, along with the absence of other major writers such as Vincent O’Sullivan and Alan Duff in an anthology of New Zealand literature that had room for material from the Yates Gardening Guide and the  Edmonds Cookbook.

Her post is in response to a paper by the book’s co-editor Jane Stafford in the latest issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature about why Frame’s work was missing. Stafford’s paper is here (billed as a $19 download but it’s easy to sign up and read it online for free). It is a spirited defence of the anthologists’ actions and well worth reading. Best bit about difficult living authors: “And old scores and a long memory were a factor in at least one case.” I bet.

Pamela has adifferent story to tell. She writes:
Quite apart from their desires for the rest of their project, the editors of the AUP anthology had constructed a flawed and unbalanced de facto ‘canon’ of Frame’s work, that we the estate knew from our wider experience of non-academic publishing was likely to be extracted from much of the rest of the anthology, especially internationally, where Frame is one of the few New Zealand literary names known, and where reprints of her work can command market prices. The publisher was seeking international digital rights along with carte blanche for the formulation of subsets of material from within the anthology for unstated purposes and within undeclared contexts. We could not allow this inadequate Frame corpus of over 12,000 words, weighted heavily towards her early career, to represent Frame’s output over her entire career. At that stage our concern was not with the major flaw at the heart of the AUP Anthology, later identified by numerous critics: that the book which claimed on its cover to offer the best New Zealand writing (‘our guide to what’s worth reading – and why’), was in fact not selected with the ‘best’ work in mind, but rather selected because they were the best pieces to showcase [the editors’ view of] New Zealand’s sociological and historical makeup. Our concern was as it should be (by definition) for a responsible literary estate, to agree on an appropriate and high quality and representative range of Frame’s best work. We did attempt to be generous and flexible but this was not appreciated. The editors did not seem to want Frame in all her glory – they wanted her as a muted and submissive wallpaper ‘to add lustre’ to the new generation (consisting largely of staff and alumni from their own university) – but not to challenge or outshine it. […]
A knowledgeable and sensitive editor would have been aware of these historical (and still valid) issues but Stafford and Williams didn’t know or care about the deficiencies of the Frame canon they had gathered together to present to the international literary and educational community as a representation of what was ‘worth reading’ of her work. They seemed to expect the authors and estates at the other end of their own decisions to quietly sign their assent without demur: ‘the overwhelming majority of authors and estates responded positively and in a business-like manner – that is, they signed the permissions form and returned it promptly.’ Although there was quite an outcry after publication when some authors and copyright holders regretted the eccentric context their work had been set within, and several of them have privately contacted the Frame trustees to praise our stand and to say that if they had known the agenda of the anthology (or in some cases, if they had not already ceded their authority to some publisher who rubber-stamped the excerpt without even notifying the author or estate), they too would have withheld permission.

This is a tricky area. As a literary trustee you have a duty to maximise the writer’s exposure to as wide an audience as possible; at the same time you have to preserve their reputation without suppressing the truth. It’s a balancing act. When I was on the Frank Sargeson Trust someone asked permission to publish some terrrible early poems by Sargeson that would have seen him mocked (not just for the line about “gay brown squirrels” in a London park): we said no. Scholars can still see them but not general readers.

In the present case it’s even trickier: the difference of opinion was about the selection of published work. The Frame Trust thought that the anthologists’ selection – which would come with all the authority of Auckland University Press – would present a skewed view of her work not just to New Zealand students but also to overseas readers. So, no.

Reading both Stafford and Gordon is fascinating. I know which side I’m on.


Ian Richards said...

My own experience of dealing with the Frame estate (over writing the introduction for the Random House-published 'Prizes: Selected Stories') was so very unhappy and, I thought, bizarre, that I don't have to read Jane Stafford to know whose side I'm on.

Pamela Gordon said...

The fact that Ian Richards already knows which side he’s on concerning a debate without having read all the evidence from either party is probably the reason that he suffered during the editing process of what I recall as his rather sloppily written draft introduction to the selected Frame stories. It seemed he was so confident of his own knowledge of Frame’s work – and her life - that he had not bothered to check his facts and had presented the publisher with an unkempt piece studded with bibliographic and biographical errors. The piece also needed a lot of fixing to make it suitable for purpose. Most professional writers are grateful for this polishing that must take place to make any text ready for commercial release, let alone for a major title that went on to be published in several countries and has also been translated. The fact-checking and editing that goes on within a major publishing house may seem brutal to a writer not accustomed to it. In blaming the Frame estate for what was clearly an embarrassing experience he is again showing the tendency to make unfounded claims that unfortunately marred his essay. His draft was edited by Harriet Allan of Random House and it was she who dealt with him over the fine details of that process, not the Frame estate. She did report back to us and consult with us over some of those things in his essay that were clearly problematic to her before she even came to us for comment.
For anyone who would like to read the Frame estate’s full response to Jane Stafford’s NZJL paper, here is the link: http://slightlyframous.blogspot.co.nz/2014/12/canon-fodder.html

Stephanie said...

I may be called a pedant by some for my comment, but shouldn't the phrase be 'cannon-fodder'?

Stephen Stratford said...

Heh. Stick your head over the parapet at your peril.