Colin James: Short and suite
“The association of short stories with New Zealand writing is as axiomatic and as much of a cultural cliché as pavlova with kiwifruit.” So Lydia Wevers begins a discussion of “The short New Zealand story” in a recent issue of Southerly, a Sydney-based literary periodical.
It is not only axiomatic (though Chinese gooseberries might be a better historical fit for the axiom than kiwifruit). It furnishes a conundrum for which, Wevers says, “there still does not seem to be much of a hypothesis”. Why short stories and not novels?
“Many editors become rather defensive, as if there is something mildly disgraceful about our preference for the short story,” Wevers continues, “Are we guilty of laziness? Can’t we stick to it long enough to become novelists? Do we produce only enough talent to fill the eggcup of a short story and not the brimming bucket of a novel?”
Quoting Vincent O’Sullivan and Mac Jackson referring to the short story having, “like matagouri … a capacity for survival in times and places where larger forms are not much in evidence”, Wevers restates the issue as whether “the short story is what writers resort to when they have no money, no time and the environment is too extreme for novels”. There is an implied hierarchy in which the novel is serious and weighty ‑ respectable ‑ in a way that the short story cannot be.
It is all too easy a step from there to association of the short story with a colonial mentality: the province to Britain’s metropolitan centrality; a satellite culture forever tied to but separated from the imperial progenitor. Wevers notes an argument by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism published last year that the novel, rising contemporaneously with European imperialism, is its product: “Of all the major literary forms the novel is the most recent, its emergence the most datable, its occurrence the most western, its normative pattern of social authority the most structured; imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible to read one without in some way dealing with the other.”
There, conveniently, is the explanation. We could not write novels while a colony ‑ or could do so only if we wrote from the imperial centre or with the centre’s mentality. The next step is deliciously seductive: we have been writing novels in the past two decades; ergo, we have emerged into post-colonialism.
But that won’t do. New Zealanders still write lots of short stories. Major writers choose to write short stories. In some cases, they are better at short stories than novels: Vincent O’Sullivan’s elegant and at times enchanting and intriguing, but in totality unsatisfying, first novel, Let the River Run, has, in its mode of characterisation, the feel of a short story.
O’Sullivan’s venture into the novel in a sense encapsulates Wevers’ conundrum. It is as if to prove we are post-colonial we must now demand of our major writers that they stick to novels. More weight literally; and more literary weight.
There is supporting evidence in some of the collections we review in this issue: attempts at fiction, if they are not successes, are perhaps better done in the short story than at the more embarrassing length of a novel.
But that won’t do, either. Writers of the weight of Patricia Grace, Owen Marshall and Fiona Kidman reviewed by Wevers in the lead article (and O’Sullivan, of course) are not diminished in the short story. They are, Wevers argues, commanding writers, major literary figures. We make no apologies for devoting a great deal of this issue to the genre.
Can the same be said for nonfiction? During the 1980s many more full books, particularly in history, biography and politics appeared. We shall review in the May issue Richard Mulgan’s new Politics in New Zealand, for example. In this issue Stephen Levine reviews Helena Catt’s and Raymond Miller’s study of recent by-elections and Tom Brooking reviews Barrie Macdonald’s life of Charles Baker.
But we also find ourselves faced with too many non-fiction anthologies. Brian Easton (himself the writer of several full-length books) reviews somewhat caustically a number of recent ventures, all with the imprimatur of a university institution. Do the collections warrant that imprimatur? Easton asks. It is time, perhaps for a rethink.
There are exceptions, that is, anthologies that nevertheless bear serious attention. An example is Sandra Coney’s excellent compendium of women’s history, Standing in the Sunshine, reviewed in this issue. Other examples are the collections produced at frequent intervals by Jonathan Boston, sometimes with collaborators, in the field of public policy and administration.
But that only serves to underline the point: Boston’s intelligent insights and perspective cry out for a full-length contribution. The deep changes in our society, its economics and its politics demand consistent, not fragmentary, treatment if we are to begin to make sense of them. Boston is among those who should lead the way.
One anthology ‑ to return to the safety of fiction ‑ which does bear examination is the tribute to Janet Frame, reviewed by Anne French. Frame, who defied Said’s dictum to write novels before the 1980s that were not metropolitan British, is undeniably a major figure in New Zealand literature. So in her field is Lauris Edmond, whose latest poetry collection is reviewed by Tom Beard.
And, to continue the theme of major figures, we print Margaret Mahy’s Shelley’s lecture from last year. This in a way also underlines the short story theme: is writing for children serious? Yes, if Mahy is the writer.
Even greater, according to John Roberts, is Jane Campion. Roberts reviews her Piano, both a masterpiece and box office hit. But, if Campion is to be taken as another example of our post-colonial state, why could we not support her? Why did she have to go to Sydney? Perhaps, if that is an example of persistent provincialism, our short story theme is apposite there, too. Vincent Ward doesn’t live here, either.
And one other collection is previewed in this issue: Writers and Readers Week at the Wellington festival. It is fun; it is furious; is it art? You get to decide.
Readers will note one new departure from normal reviewing methods in this issue. Two of the short story collections are reviewed by both Wevers and Colleen Reilly and one of the collections touched on by Reilly was reviewed in the spring issue. The South Pacific short story collection is reviewed in its own right, but also touched on by Wevers and Reilly.
This is part of our attempt to widen the context ‑ including other books in the field under review ‑ in which our reviews are situated. We do not intend to make a practice of multiplicity of reviews. But we will from time to time invite reviewers to look beyond the book under their immediate purview, which will involve some doubling-up. We trust you approve.