Babes and Biggles, Louise Wrightson

Spectacular Babies
ed Bill Manhire
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1869503775

Boys’ Own Stories: Short Stories by New Zealand Men
ed Graeme Lay
Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877178691

Five years ago, I remember jumping up and down in frustration in front of Bill Manhire and begging him to recommend a book that would explain the rules of creative writing. Manhire silently shook his head benignly from side to side. Rules weren’t on the agenda. I was a student in his 1996 Original Composition workshop – a class we called “The Last Round Up”. It was the last year Manhire would teach a part-time undergraduate writing course at Victoria University that aimed to cover as many genres as possible.

“The Last Round Up” was an apt name. Manhire’s reputation as a maverick literary cowboy was well established. He had even referred to himself as Wild Bill in “Out West”, a poem in his Milky Way Bar collection. Sarah Maxey, who was working at Unity Books, Wellington, promoted the image by tinkering with his photograph. Manhire eyeballed traffic in Willis Street from under a sombrero in the Unity window for weeks.

“The Last Round Up” evolved in 1997, into papers specialising in poetry and fiction. And, for the first time in New Zealand, Victoria offered a full-time Masters programme in original composition with Manhire as tutor. The same year, Mutes and Earthquakes: Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing Course, was published by Victoria University Press. It celebrated 22 years of creative writing workshops at Victoria and let the uninitiated in on some of the secrets. In his introduction, Manhire shared the history and content of the course. He chose work written by many of his students and outlined some of the class exercises. Mutes and Earthquakes, was a precursor to Spectacular Babies, a nifty little anthology of new writing by the ten students on Manhire’s MA class of 2000.

The book’s clever, whimsical cover happened by accident. Sarah Maxey, the book designer, had been wrestling unsuccessfully with various concepts, Frustrated, she scribbled childishly and furiously across a photograph of a wide-eyed innocent baby’s face. The scribble translated into a jaunty red moustache.

The contents of Spectacular Babies are as lively as the cover. Manhire likens them to a glimpse inside a busy kitchen or a tour around an artist’s studio. For me, reading the students’ selections is like switching stations on the radio. Ten distinctly different voices report different points of view, even when they address the same topic. The majority of the voices are clear and certain. A few have a timorous tone; others hold a fuzzy static. And, occasionally, in full flight, a confident voice hesitates or momentarily fades away.

Spectacular Babies is a mix of class exercises, extracts from portfolios and reading journals. In addition, Tim Croft has a short story that gained him entry into the course and a piece called “Socialism 1939”, which features, predictably, an edible baby. Part of the fun of the book comes from identifying which piece of writing derives from a particular class exercise. The exercises are described, but the corresponding examples are not identified in the list of contents. If the reader wants to compare the different interpretations, he or she has to pay close attention.

Manhire says in his introduction that it is the “Five Things” exercise that shows each writer’s individuality most strikingly. Tim Croft, Michael Laws and Tim Corballis chose to write prose that mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s heartbeat, a senior moment, the bone yard, a quote and the Dictionary of New Zealand Slang. Karen Anderson, who co-edited the anthology, has mixed a few of these things throughout her fluid poetry.

I wanted to read examples of “Five Things” from all the students, grouped as a separate chapter. One reason why people will buy Spectacular Babies is because they want to be part of the creative process. Comparing an exercise written by the whole class would be an invitation to the inner sanctum. It would help the reader feel the sense of community Manhire often mentions. Readers will also be looking for tips to help them with their own work. The three extracts from reading journals and an essay by Tim Corballis, “The Cure For Solitude”, confirm the hard work and analysis needed to shape a writer’s raw material into a cohesive whole.

In addition, the extracts offer intimate insights into the problem-solving which goes hand-in-hand with work in progress. Louise White’s search for “the whoop that lifts the words off the page” leads to her close scrutiny of line breaks, tone and contrast in the work of her favourite poets. Stephanie de Montalk’s pragmatic approach to resolving her uncertainty about how to define and shape her portfolio results in her thinking of the steps in writing a film script. Kate Duigan’s interest in resolving structural links and the extent to which a writer should develop characters has had a successful outcome. Victoria University Press will publish her novel Breakwater in August.

Tim Corballis will also have a book published by Victoria University Press in July. His novel Below was also his class portfolio, which won the Adam Award for the best book of the year. It’s quite touching to read about his decision to call himself a writer, and his honesty about bad work habits, loneliness and uncertainty. Take heart, folks.

The whoops, yelps, gasps and giggles in Spectacular Babies were: James McNaughton’s prose poems from his portfolio – a sequence of odd brilliant cameos; Vivienne Plumb’s tongue-in-cheek story, “Frank Goes to Writing Class”; seven variations of the spectacular baby exercise by Tim Corballis; and Stephanie de Montalk’s cool elegant poetry, and the introduction to her forthcoming memoir about a flamboyant relative, Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk.

Ian Watt, the editor at HarperCollins, is planning a further, broader, anthology of new writing. It will include work from the Manhire class again, as well as other creative writing schools around the country.

2

Tandem Press is well known for its clever marketing ploy of running writing competitions which lead to successful publishing ventures – a commercial variation on Manhire’s class exercises. With Boys’ Own Stories, Tandem restricted itself to invited contributors.

It’s a small quibble, but I’m uneasy about the title. Boys’ Own Stories is named after a British boys’ adventure magazine. The subtitle refers to stories written by men. (Graeme Lay, the editor, explains that the 18 contributors are young; ie no older than forty!). The promotional blurb on the back cover compares the publication to “dude literature”. This is an American term for fiction written by men in their 20s and 30s – “young, urban, single, unsettled and socially emasculated.” I found it more accurate to think of this anthology as “Blokes’ Own Stories”.

In his introduction, Graeme Lay points out that this is the first New Zealand all-male anthology. Lay sees it as a showcase for a minority group, who have been overshadowed by women writers for the past decade. He thinks that blokes today are more aware of women’s needs, but consequently less sure of themselves. The positive side is that blokes are more liberated emotionally and more likely to share their feelings and concerns. Lay also claims they are more inclined toward humour and satire. A healthy development, indeed.

So, do the stories represent this transition? Pretty much. The majority are concerned with the usual pastimes – killing rats to impress women, fishing with their mates, chatting up sheilas, building up their bodies, bashing each other, and getting drunk. Competition is a strong undercurrent. Ego is right up front.

Despite this, many of the stories about relationships between men are tender and honest. Bernard Steeds’ “You Make A Life” acknowledges the difference between true love and an affair. It’s one of three stories in the anthology about fathers and sons, which deal with grief and loss. “Hard Bop” by Chad Taylor, where a son visits his old dad in a rest-home, is a reminder of role reversal, and the need for patience when a parent’s memory fades. Carl Nixon has written a poignant story of the search for an absent father in “Like Wallpaper”, which weaves together loss, memory and imagination.

There are also a few digs at male stereotypes. James Brown’s “Biggles Bites a Dog” is a clever satire based on three of Captain W E Johns’ stories. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing reading as a simulated video game. “Rat up a Drainpipe” by Tim Jones is a dry road story about a Kiwi bloke in Australia surviving in the outback because he’s savvy about New Zealand’s Goods and Services Tax. The irrepressible Duncan Sarkies has written a two-page rave called “Mates”, about bonding between blokes.

From a bloke’s viewpoint, women in this anthology are shown as irrational, impressionable or deceitful. Several stories use comedy to show this, but only one succeeds. Rob O’Neill’s “What Amanda Says” is a hilarious account of a bloke trying to negotiate with three close women friends. William Brandt has written the strongest story in the book. “Rat” is a revolting tale of a heroic hunt in an old lover’s kitchen, which ends in bed and in tears.

With one exception, what’s missing from the stories is a show of real intimacy between blokes and sheilas. The exception is “Anything in Human Hands”, Zion Komene’s attempt to show that it is possible to move from a combative relationship with a woman to a commitment to a loving relationship. Perhaps the authors had the same fear of appearing “mushy” that led to Dion in Phil Kawana’s “Skunkweed Junction” keeping a photograph of his lovely Angel hidden away in a drawer.

If you’re a sheila, give a copy to a bloke. Odds are you won’t have meaningful discussion about the role of men today, but I bet you score a few memorable rat stories.

 

Louise Wrightson is the director of New Zealand Books Abroad, a mail order export book company.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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