Letters — Issue 21

Issue 21, December 1995

No dearth of full-length critiques

Were it not for his obvious credentials for commenting on recent literary criticism and post-colonial theory, one might think that Stuart Murray in his otherwise stimulating review (New Zealand Books 20, October) was a stranger to local critical habits when he claims there’s a dearth of book-length material on New Zealand writers.

He can’t have heard of the full-length studies of Janet Frame published in the last three years: Gina Mercer’s Subversive Fictions and Judith Dell Panny’s I Have What I Gave, with others by Marc del Rez and Susan Ash due out soon. Nor, although less relevant, of the spate of essay collections: the new edition in 1992 of Jeanne Delbaere’s collection which includes some new essays (originally under the title of Bird, Hawk and Bogey) as The Ring of Fire; Elizabeth Alley’s collection of seventieth birthday tributes, The Inward Sun; and the Journal of New Zealand Literature 11, the proceedings of the conference held on Frame at Otago University in 1992.

The Mansfield industry ‑ which produced in 1988, the centenary of her birth, studies such as Double Lives: Women in the Stories of Katherine Mansfield (1990), by Heather Murray, and Gill Boddy’s Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer ‑ continues productively. In fact the Oxford Libraries online catalogue (OLIS) lists 11 works ‑ critical studies, biographies and essays ‑ on Mansfield published in the past six years. Apart from the internationally renowned writers, New Zealand writers have been served modestly but well by the very worthwhile Oxford University Press monographs like Alan Roddick’s on Allen Curnow, Paul Day’s on John Mulgan, Dorothea Turner’s on Jane Mander, Margaret Dalziell’s on Frame and others on Frank Sargeson, Mansfield, Maurice Duggan, Ursula Bethell and Ronald Morrieson. A second set published by Longman Paul includes Gordon Ogilvie on Denis Glover, Richard Corballis on Witi Ihimaera. and Peter Smart on Sam Hunt. While none of these are exactly full-length studies, they have filled a critical gap. The Twayne series has also beefed up local criticism over the years; Paul Day’s study of Mulgan, Patrick Evans’s of Frame, Charles Doyle’s of James K Baxter, Phillip Wilson’s of William Satchell. In addition Charles Doyle has also written on RAK Mason, Dennis McEldowney and Helen Shaw (a collection of essays) on Sargeson, NFH Mcleod on Jessie McKay and the festschrift Writing a New Country celebrated the achievements of EH McCormick in 1993.

Biographies and literary biographies have recently carved out a significant niche in the market: Baxter has been the subject of studies by Frank MacKay and WH Oliver and undoubtedly theirs will not be the last word on a poet whose popular reputation shows no signs of diminishing. Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford monograph on Baxter’s work is still probably the best criticism available on him. James McNeish and Denys Trussell have published studies of ARD Fairburn, there’s Lynley Hood’s redoubtable biography of Sylvia Ashton Warner and Margaret Lewis’s of Ngaio Marsh. Just out is Michael King’s of Sargeson and about to appear are Keith Ovenden’s of Dan Davin and Ian Richards’ of Duggan. Curnow has resisted this kind of accolade so far but a collection of essays on his work, long overdue, is at present being considered.

In the case of writers who warrant a major study the biography which incorporates original materials like letters and diaries establishes some kind of “coming out” benchmark and paves the way for better informed appraisals, both critical and speculative: witness how the Frame autobiography launched a wave of critical interest in her novels. As for Murray’s other neglected writers ‑ Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme ‑ there’s no shortage of critical and auto/biographical material if one knows where to look. But is there an urgent need for full-length studies of their work before writers as long established and as extensively published as, say, Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy?

Murray’s international perspective on current critical trends in New Zealand is loftily persuasive, but there’s a case to be made for recognising the endeavours of local critical practice as well.

Janet Wilson, Oxford

 

Publisher and editor

I enjoyed for the most part Accidental Life. [Accidental Life: An attempt at an autobiography, by Phoebe Meikle, Auckland University Press, 1994] I was moved by the account of the love affair in London, the death of Phoebe’s mother, who was delicately drawn; and by a sentence on the death of my own father, Blackwood Paul; also a tribute to Millicent Hoyle and other friends.

Blackwood was the publisher; Phoebe the editor. Under Longman Paul she remained editor for an albeit distant publishing house represented by Bill Kerr in Australia. However, she says “I published” and never, “Longman Paul published”.

The private life of my parents was, along with the reading of manuscripts and entertainment of authors, absorbed by endless discussions of paper weight and quality, printing in Hong Kong versus New Zealand, point size, serif or sans-serif, baskerville or bembo or times new roman. Editing is only a facet of publishing.

The fact that Blackwood’s first book (and only his first book) was poorly produced illustrates the completeness of the subsequent marriage between Blackwood’s discernment, astuteness and vision and my mother’s sense of fitness, simplicity and elegance of design. For these qualities Phoebe gives credit. It is inaccurate to imply that Blackwood was merely a “commercial” publisher; volumes of essays and poetry done for their own sake and in small runs and without prospect of return were elaborately subsidised by more popular novels and autobiographies. Nor do I think poaching among rival publishers was as dramatic as the author implies.

There were difficulties: the cramped, windowless room, the overflow of work into the personal life. But Phoebe’s welter of negative criticism should not override my father’s achievement: his books and the high regard of those who worked with and for him in the bookshops and of the authors, his friends.

I think there was a hiatus between the autonomous business in Auckland and the small Hamilton‑ and home-based publishing firm where rules were implicit, tasks were shared, delays didn’t matter and the whole enterprise was one of fostering a local literature and informing public debate.

Just as the schoolteacher must have been dismayed by the lack of house rules (no syllabus!), so my father in asking Phoebe to be editor (a double gesture of charity and need, as I perceive) lost the opportunity of a trained editor who might have matter-of-factly built up such resources and carried on the business after his death. For someone who wanted to be part of it, difficult conditions might have been accepted with humour and grace. For someone seconded from a cherished profession it must have been hard. I was sad to see my parents reduced to shadow puppets and Paul’s Book Arcade to an amateurish theatre in the career of the editor, in Accidental Life.

My father was astringent, just, never extravagant but capable of generosity. He derided “injustice collectors”. That lesson, through gentle mockery of our “it’s not fair”, was his legacy to us children, along with care for precision and accuracy of speech.

Phoebe did not see the worth of Blackwood’s decades of correspondence with authors, printers specifications and so on. All these files were destined by my mother [Janet Paul] for the Alexander Turnbull Library; all were destroyed, a tragic loss.

My childhood associations with Phoebe were twofold: one of the box of delicious candied orange sweetmeats that came regularly at Christmas, made by the gentle Mill; the other of an alarming, awesome voice and presence in the Auckland office, black, white and red (as in the book, there were few halftones in the costume). If the voice still grates, I now remember Phoebe taking off her glasses: her eyes were shiny brown and tired and had kindness in them. I am sad she was unhappy at Paul’s and that her resentments have clouded 30 years.

Joanna Margaret Paul, Wanganui

An exhibition, Paul’s Book Arcade: Blackwood and Janet Paul, is showing at the National Library of New Zealand and runs until February.

 

Unseeded

Simon Upton’s writing is always a pleasure to read, so I was surprised to find in his review of Coates of Kaipara an odd mixture of three metaphors.

He wrote: “But the seeds of the world we have been dismantling these last 10 years were laid during the years of his greatest influence.” If he had written “foundations” instead of “seeds” I doubt that I would have paused. As it is, the first impression I got was an agglomeration of agriculture, construction (or, rather, deconstruction) and egg-laying.

John Small, Christchurch

 

Not Freed

Bill Sewell, in his review of The Erasure Tapes (New Zealand Books 19, August 1995) writes that I am a “survivor of the Freed group of the late 1960s and early 1970s”. I feel I must point out that I was never a member of the Freed group, and was not involved, published, reviewed or even mentioned (sigh) in the pages of The Word is Freed (the full title of that wonderfully useful magazine). Nor did I meet or correspond with any of the several Freed editors of successive issues, until at least 1976 when I began preparations for printing Alan Brunton’s Black and White Anthology. For those who wish to find out about the group and its context, there is a helpful article by Murray Edmond in Span No 16/17, April/October 1983 and Peter Simpson’s introduction to Alan Brunton’s recent book Slow Passes is well worth the perusal ‑ as is of course the magazine itself.

Alan Loney, Auckland

 

Duckworth in

Congratulations to New Zealand Books forgiving such full and informed coverage to the Listener women’s book festival. Your reviews of a wide range of books from the festival catalogue (not only Top Twenty titles) enhance the festival and give balance and credibility to your publication ‑ most heartening in an extraordinary year for quality writing by New Zealand women. (It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the 1996 Montana New Zealand book awards!)

Just one small correction ‑ Marilyn Duckworth was not left out as Heather Murray suggests. Her new novel Leather Wings is in the Listener Women’s Book Festival catalogue and Marilyn was one of the panelists (along with Sheridan Keith, Renée, Barbara Else and Debra Daley) in the most prestigious event at the Aotea Centre this year: Absolutely Fabulous Female Fiction.

Carole Beu, The Women’s Bookshop, Auckland

 

Correction

Fiona Kidman is not president of the New Zealand Book Council as stated in our October issue. The council does not have a president, but a chair, and Kidman was chair. But she did not seek re-election in May and the current chair is Neil Plimmer.

Editor

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