Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anthology of New Zealand Literature. Edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Auckland University Press, RRP $75).

The New Zealand Herald and others make a lot noise about this "Doorstop anthology of Kiwi writing", especially about what's being talked about - what's missing, not what's present. And, to be honest, I find that a stupid and immature debate. Who wants yet another facsimile of the "Oxford Companion to New Zealand's Well Trodden Path To Self Flagellation"?

I am bored to death with our literature of unease, our need to discover 'Self' and our scramble for 'Identity'. I'm also sick of the commercial implications. It's still happening. The Hobbit, for example, was hi-jacked to become a massive promotion for New Zealand Tourism. How did that happen? I thought it was a little quirky tale from a retiring English Professor!

Anyway - 'We', the people, know who we are. We don't need a film about magical faeries and frolicking gnomes in capes banging on about our wondrous landscape to highlight that once again. We know we are the greatest and we live in the best place in the world. Every Steinlager commercial on telly has affirmed that since the year 'dot'.

Commercialism and national identity have been racing away for decades. Yet it seems the academics are still puffing up the hill, sweating away in their brown cardigans, walk shorts and tweed jackets, trying to catch up! Ask any publisher today and they will tell you: New Zealand Literature is about us. Not looking in, not looking out - but looking 'at'. 'At' ourselves; 'at' what we do; 'at' what we say. And this is what this Anthology is all about - the business of getting to it.

We open up at Charles Heaphy, recording an interview with Te Horeta, who witnessed James Cook's arrival in 1769, and we close at Andrew Johnston in 2007 (his poem Sol). From just last year there is an extract from Hamish Clayton's 2011 debut novel "Wulf".

Despite some omissions, credited to difficult estates, unfinished contractual obligations and the like, the editors have still managed to tick off works by most of the big names of New Zealand literature. What is great is to see many of the earlier documents reprinted here - the 1835 Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi - but also whimsical flourishes - baking hints from the Edmonds Sure to Rise cookery book or an entry on soil from the Yates' 1897 Gardening Guide. For the historian in me I find his stuff to be much more interesting than Mulgan banging on about being alone n the bush or John A Lee picking fights with the early Tories and dispelling the myth that thre is no poverty in Godzone. I like the emphasis on the ordinary and the day-to-day, because this is the identity we know and we remember. And we want! It's where our real identity is at!

And credit should be given to Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Victoria University English lecturers/husband and wife) for their decisions to stretch beyond the printed word, including five black-and-white illustrated pages from cartoonist Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville, for example. Coming across the strip is both a revelation and an acknowledgement that finally this is an accepted artform in the dusty halls of academia. We down here at street level have devoured Horrock's work for years. But up in the ivory towers, I wonder, what have they thought to do with this? It's good to see his acerbic, dry wit appear in the chapter drawn from the 1990s - a section the editors oddly call "playful" - "where the real and the fantastic collapse in on one another". Hmm. My memory of the 1990's was a turbulent time, where protest was high, thinking was radical and the electronic age was becoming part of our lives.

Through out this book you will find songs, book extracts, letters, journal entries, fiction, non-fiction and poetry - all laid out thematically, like the 1990's in decades, as if these were borders of intellectualism. Like a tourist bus travelling chugging around the greater and lesser known literal landmarks the sections provide a beacon for the gaze, and by their very subtitles define the thinking behind the curation of each. The 1950's, for example, is full of post-war identity, the labour struggles, the introduction of serious home baking, and the embrace of art and poetry.

What is missing in the Tiki tour is Janet Frame, Alan Duff and Vincent O'Sullivan. Duff declined - perhaps over exposed, or not wanting to be sampled, like a wine or a new yoghurt flavour. In Frame's case, her estate trust, which owns copyright and the AUP could not reach agreement on "how to represent Frame's work". That would make sense, and given that she's virtually every where, I don't miss her.

There are one or two omissions that were the editor's choice - and I have to quibble these, if only because their work is just as worthy. However space and time for permissions may have hindered this and they well could be included in a companion version down the line?

Poet Peter Bland, who I studied at Uni is a rare treat not to be savoured. He may fade to the obscurity of second hand book shops if someone doesn't collect him quickly. His observations on Wellington, in particular will be missed. I was also bemused to see Charlotte Grimshaw left out - is she not worthy, despite being a more commercial success. Do we still shun the populist writers in favour of the artists? And what of Dame Anne Salmond, Judith Binney and or Ngaio Marsh? Populist they are, too but their contribution to the New Zealand psyche is far beyond any others here. Still by focussing on some of the more obscure we get a nice mix, because these omissions have had plenty of time in the sun already - so in a way, they are overexposed.

I did find it odd that Michael King didn't make the cut, nor does Roderick Finlayson, who engaged with Maori issues 50 years before King wrote about a bicultural land. You would expect the selections have stirred vigorous discussion in literary and publishing circles, as much for the inclusions as the omissions.

It should be noted that the word "anthology" refers to 'a collection of songs or musical compositions issued in one album' (Oxford Dictionary). Not 'the definitive collection' - just a collection. So when we challenge the editorial choices, remember that it's just one collection, in the same way your collection on your book shelf is a 'collection'. And do we challenge you for not having Janey frame on Michael King on those shelves? Perhaps we should.

The other word revisiting is 'literature'. Oxford defines it as: " written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit" I wonder how much of this anthology is worthy of artistic merit? And who decides that. In this case it's to Jane Stafford and Mark Williams.

You may also be interested to know that it's origins emerge from late Middle English (in the sense 'knowledge of books'): via French from Latin literature, from littera (i.e. letter). That is, a description of leters, on a page, compiled to make sense, I guess. So literature is virtually anything. In this day and age, we should probably start to think about literature as also blogs, online articles, online poetry (of which there is plenty to find).

Finally the words "New Zealand". I started this review by challenging the sense of identity that traditional collections focus on. And I wonder how, in the future, such anthologies would work. With e-books, self published works, and the borderless world we are moving towards, how can we claim anything is actually a possession or product of New Zealand. Just as we argue that an actr who's made himself famous overseas belongs to New Zealand because he was born here, how can we claim our literature to be a possession or product on New Zealand? One has many times argued that Katherine Mansfield, who did her best stuff abroad, cannot be a New Zealand writer simply because she was born in Thorndon and lived in Karori! She may have written extensively about living here but she had to leave to trigger the inspirations. Modern Kiwis often leave and write about things that have nothing to do with New Zealand. Nicky Pelligrino, another omission (perhaps because she writes lo-brow romantic airport novels) never writes about home, always about her ancestral home Italy. If she were included what would the criteria be?

In other news, Dunedin-based Philip Temple (winner of the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for non-fiction) has taken issue with this anthology's dust jacket claim that "for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what's worth reading and why". He feels it weighs too heavily towards graduates of Bill Manhire's Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Bill, whose retiring this year should be proud of that, though, as he's worked slavishly for 40 years to get literature, particularly poetry, to the rock'n'roll status it enjoys today. Take a walk around Wellington Harbour, those poems floating around the rocks could never have happened even 15 years ago. Now we look to our poets for comments on every aspect of life. The respect is growing. Bill needs his credit noted here at least.

Temple does have one point that there is plenty of terrific writing about mountaineering and sport that's been left out. I suspect this is not deliberate but simply that the editors' sphere of knowledge simply didn't extend that wide. Also thin on the ground is writing about music. Grant Smithies and Colin Hogg are absent, Simon Sweetman and other reviewers like Tom Cardy won't appear either. In fact anything journalistic is left off the table. Journalism is the populist vote and this rabble must be ignored in favour of the hight arts.

The AUP publishers have said, in their defence that this anthology will create a "conversation…Great anthologies offer just one path into a country's literature - they are 'a knife through time' as the editors say. Lose the knife, include all your friends, and you'll produce a handy doorstop but not a great book."

"At 1200 pages, this anthology is a big old waka with 'a multifarious collection of crew and passengers', as the editors write. But it's just one rather interesting, illuminating path through New Zealand writing. There are other paths and people should take them." That's the usual response when choices are challenged. Read another way, it says "if you don't like it - make your own book!." In the Ipod-Kindle world of tomorrow, where individual songs, poems and novels can be randomly picked'n'mixed with a door stop like this still hold its value. I wonder.

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