The family way, Margot Schwass

Authors’ Choice: Leading New Zealand writers choose their favourite stories – and explain why
ed Owen Marshall
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0141005297

Short short stories, postmodern short stories, short stories by young writers, women writers, gay writers … In recent years, there’s been a profusion of New Zealand short story anthologies, most making bold claims for novelty or freshness of approach. Do we really need another?

Owen Marshall, the editor of this latest collection from Penguin, admits to having asked himself the same question. But in deciding the nation’s bookshelves could stand the weight of another anthology, he decided also to rewrite the editor’s job description. Not only (one suspects) has he made his own role distinctly more palatable: he has also produced an anthology that feels genuinely fresh.

The Oxford University Press short stories series, which began with Dan Davin’s 1953 collection (originally published as part of OUP’s World’s Classics series), set the mould for many New Zealand anthologies. Such collections rest on sober principles of literary quality, breadth and variety – as interpreted by their successive editors – and a sense of obligation to be somehow representative of New Zealand short fiction published in the given period.

In such anthologies, the editor’s role spans both the choice of authors and the selection of a (usually lone) representative story – whether the most typical, topical, suitable in terms of length or simply the one the editor likes best. To deal with this burden of omnipotence, editors can rely only upon “[an] ear for the true notes in fiction, and for the false ones”, in the words of C K Stead, editor of the second volume in the OUP series. Inevitably though, that editorial ear is often not admired by all. Accusations of selective hearing are not uncommon from readers whose favourite stories have been spurned or by authors who didn’t make the cut.

Rather than assuming the mantle of omnipotent arbiter of literary quality, Marshall has adopted more of a facilitator’s role, confining his task to the selection of 24 suitable authors (a not inconsiderable challenge in itself, and one upon which less successful anthologies have foundered). This done, he stands back and leaves the stage free for his writers, inviting them not only to select their own favourite story but also to provide a short explanation of why they chose it.

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These authorial statements precede the stories – to my mind, a somewhat debatable decision as their placement means they cannot fail to condition the reader’s reactions. In including these statements, Marshall’s explicit intention is to allow the authors to “share candidly the special significance a piece of writing has in their lives” and thus create a context that “enriches the story itself”. Might it not be
more enriching to discover the story’s “significance” after encountering the story itself ?

Nonetheless, the authors’ explanations for their choices make illuminating reading. There’s unabashed affection for a neglected favourite (“it’s been sitting there with its hand up and has never been chosen before,” writes Patricia Grace of “The Day of The Egg”). There’s nostalgia for the circumstances of a story’s composition – Catherine Chidgey and Carl Nixon both recall entering their first writing competition; the germ of Linda Burgess’ story came to her during her mother’s funeral. For some writers (Albert Wendt and C K Stead among them), their choice expresses perennial personal and political concerns. Very often, there’s an enduring and slightly distanced fascination with the central characters (Christine Johnston, Keri Hulme, Norman Bilbrough). Peter Wells, clearly irritated at being perpetually pigeon-holed as a “gay writer”, chooses a menacing story of violence, betrayal and loss in an overtly foreign setting that resists any attempt at an autobiographical reading.

The concept of a self-selecting anthology with personal authorial statements is of course anathema to those who proclaim the death of the author. But it’s an approach that I found both liberating and intriguing. Above all, it invites us to think about the way fiction occupies both public and personal domains.

Traditionally, the placing of a story in an “official” anthology of New Zealand writing fixes it firmly in the public domain. It is to be read as a kind of literary artefact – a product which says something about New Zealand and its fictional tradition, about the literary camp to which its author has been assigned, about current trends in the short story, or even about race relations, sexual politics or any manner of peripheral issues.

In becoming part of a collection, a story’s initial genesis becomes of less interest than its context. How does it connect or contrast with the other stories in the anthology? What voices does it echo, what terrain does it revisit? The story is now part of a continuum of other fictions, just one component in a literary landscape the editor has assembled according to his or her particular vision.

The anthologised story is a boat cut free from its moorings, public property, a fostered-out child whose progress the author can only watch from afar.

Owen Marshall’s approach, and especially the authors’ introductory comments, remind us of the private genesis of the short story. Here we are invited to see the short story less as polished artefact than as the product of a creator. Many authors indeed allude to their chosen stories as children – sources of vexation, delight and quiet pride. Elsewhere, the chosen story is described as a window into the past or as a declaration of self and beliefs. Only rarely does an author allude to particular literary qualities – about the nearest we get is an acknowledgement that a particular story “works”, “[coming] together in concept and construction to make a complete whole”, as Rowan Metcalfe says in her introductory comments.

Of course, by standing back as an editor, Owen Marshall has not removed subjectivity from the anthology: he has simply relocated it. And inevitably, the authors’ choices won’t please everyone – Marshall himself admits to the “pang” of disappointment when authors did not contribute his own personal favourites.

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I found myself, almost in equal measure, feeling dissatisfied with the offerings from writers whose work I have elsewhere enjoyed immensely (Marshall himself, Witi Ihimaera) and finding unexpected pleasures in stories from writers I had never previously read (Christine Johnston, John Cranna) or had failed to connect with (Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme).

The authors’ introductory statements play a big part not only in shaping such responses but also in understanding them. On the one hand, they may suggest possibilities and satisfactions which the story itself does not deliver; conversely, they can signal new qualities or points of entry into a story which ultimately enrich the reading.

Owen Marshall’s introduction, for example, talks fondly of Tucker and Neville – the central characters in his story “Heating the World” – as embodiments of the rural New Zealand men he knew in his youth. He acknowledges wryly that he sees something of himself in Tucker too. But, lacking the author’s personal reference points, I found this likeable and well-told story less than compelling – certainly, there’s none of the bite and energy of stories like “The Paper Parcel” and especially the monstrous “The Rule of Jenny Pen”.

Conversely, Keri Hulme’s introduction to “Nightsong for the Shining Cuckoo” – published under a pseudonym more than 20 years ago – shone a new beam into her sometimes opaque fiction. Hulme tells of how her characters Francis, Bird and Charlie stayed with her for years, eventually becoming “the penumbra – the soul, wairua” of Bait. With this sense of the characters’ enduring grip on their author in mind, the sheer force of this lyrical, muscular story of maimed urban outcasts is unmissable.

By leaving authors to select their own stories, Owen Marshall has largely sidestepped accusations of poor or unrepresentative story selections. But, inevitably, his choice of writers will not satisfy all. His selection criterion – “ability in the short story form, not in fiction overall” – has left more than a few casualties along the way.

For me, Lloyd Jones, Janet Frame and Bill Manhire were disappointing absentees – Frame especially, since she has herself acknowledged an unease with the way private fictional worlds become public commodities on publication. Like Peter Wells, she too has suffered at the hands of those who insist on reading her stories as autobiography. Frame’s choice of a favourite story, and a comment about its “special significance” in her life, would have been an intriguing addition.

From a position of some scepticism about this anthology – was the authors’ choice device something of a gimmick? Is there any point in adding to the abundance of New Zealand short story collections? – I found myself warming to Marshall’s democratic approach. It acknowledges something very fundamental, if unfashionable, about the processes of writing and reading fiction. Because, however much a story may be plumbed for meaning as a linguistic construct or metafiction or ideological discourse, it is also a medium through which a private dialogue takes place between two individuals, writer and reader. This anthology reminds us that a story is the creation of a particular individual with a particular history, outlook and set of values – and not just an orphaned piece of text.

 

Margot Schwass is a Wellington writer. editor and publications consultant.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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