Rules of the game, Chris Else

Great Sporting Moments 
ed Damien Wilkins
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864735154

Great Sporting Moments tempted me to do the unthinkable – review a book without actually reading it. This was not because I thought the contents would be bad – I expected (and found) the opposite – but rather because the most interesting thing about this anthology is not what it contains but what it represents. The phenomenon that is Sport, embedded as it is in the literary nexus around Victoria University Press and the International Institute of Modern Letters, is arguably the most important new facet of our literary scene in the last 15 or 20 years. If we are to understand writing in New Zealand, we need to understand this.

The first thing that strikes you about Sport is, of course, the name – a whimsical choice, it seems. Yet, if we take it at face value and not as a joke, it suggests an identification with what is commonly thought to be the core of our popular culture, the activity in which New Zealanders are supposed to take most pride. Perhaps, even at the start, its creators were taking themselves very seriously and deflecting our attention from the fact. Think of the progression Landfall, Islands, Sport. There seems a calculated dissonance in the last word in the series, a difference which implies a conscious positioning in relation to a tradition. Note that the book celebrates 16 years of Sport and that, in 1962, Charles Brasch marked the first 15 years of Landfall with a comparable anthology. Sport is competition, pure and simple.

Curiously, though, the magazine arrived without a manifesto. There were to be no theories or agendas. Only “good writing”. This is a phrase that bothers me a little. It seems to imply that literary taste is something absolute and independent of fashion or social values, of geography or history. It suggests either a claim to a superior judgement or else critical naivety. Which operates here? Great Sporting Moments provides no answer.

Take the cover, for example. The title evokes the popular heroics of gold medals and international victories. The illustration, by contrast, depicts a puny pre-adolescent striking an exaggerated strong-man pose – typical New Zealand self-deprecation, perhaps, although it is not clear whether this arises from cultural cringe or a wish to avoid accusations of arrogance.

Most anthologies begin with an introduction that at least makes some attempt to discuss the principles of selection and why certain things have been left out. Not so with Wilkins’. He tells us how the magazine was established and who its early supporters and contributors were. The tone is chatty, casual, anecdotal. It gives the impression of a group of friends having fun, doing their thing and happening along the way to establish what the back cover describes with some justice as “New Zealand’s leading literary journal”.

Yet, if there are no principles of selection, how were the contents chosen? On no other basis than that Wilkins “like[s] this stuff the most”. We might be tempted to ask why Wilkins’ taste should be the basis for deciding what is best in Sport. One answer is that he is an insider, one of the founding editors and currently a teacher at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Given that the people around Sport know what good writing is, he ought to be the ideal person for the job. Even so, I feel we have a right to know what the rules are. Are we talking sprints or field events? Swimming or soccer?

There is another puzzle – the order of the contents. The blurb and publication notice say the anthology represents “the story of [a] time – a time of unprecedented growth in New Zealand literature” and that it defines “the most exciting and creative era in New Zealand’s literary history”. This is arguably correct but if documenting a slice of history is part of the book’s purpose, why are the contributions arranged alphabetically by author? It is as if, not content with eschewing critical principles, Wilkins also wants to avoid any picture of change or development. Sport, it seems, just is – a monument to the immutable values of good writing.

Well, perverse creature that I am, I decided not to read the book from start to finish, beginning with Barbara Anderson and working my way through to Fay Zwicky. Instead, I went to the trouble of listing the contents in chronological order and reading them that way. Some curious statistics emerged. (And what is sport without statistics?)

First, there is a heavy bias towards later published work. Around half of the contributions come from the first 20 issues of the magazine; the remaining half from the second 12. More than 10 per cent are from the last two issues. In addition, of the six established overseas writers whose work is chosen – people like Les Murray and August Kleinzhaler – half of them were published in the magazine’s first four years and only one in the last four. It seems that Wilkins has little liking for much of the stuff by New Zealanders published in those early years and has padded out his selection with some foreign writers. Perhaps that early stuff really wasn’t much good or perhaps Wilkins’ taste has changed or perhaps, Heaven forefend, there has been a change in literary fashion. It would be interesting to know his thoughts on this.

Here’s another statistic, even more curious. There are 23 pieces of fiction in the anthology. Seventeen – almost three-quarters – are written in the first person. This bias is even more marked when looked at historically. From the first 14 years of Sport there are only two third-person narratives compared to 17 first-person narratives. In the last two years, by complete contrast, there are four narratives in the third-person and none in the first. Why such a shift? If it is not mere coincidence, it seems to raise questions about the magazine’s selection criteria or fiction writers’ practice or, again, the basis for Wilkins’ judgement.

Of course, the very notion of good writing is replete with ambiguity. It might mean a piece of work that demonstrates all the literary virtues, whatever they might be, or a piece that demonstrates some of them to a marked degree or merely a piece that is interesting in a literary context. The problem is demonstrated by Elizabeth Knox’s contribution Afraid, which relates what the book’s accompanying flyer describes as “an infernal encounter in Venice”.

The early part of this piece is Knox at her very best – a sharp, evocative, impressionistic account of a journey through Italy that seems close to memoir. Suddenly, in the second half, the pace, style and tone changes. There is a bland conversation with a mysterious stranger that morphs into an alternative life of Jesus, a tale that, in its details, seems to have little relevance to what has gone before. Overall the piece seems unbalanced. It is interesting, though, especially in the broader context of Knox’s more recent work with its references to angels and vampires.

A concern with literary and cultural contexts runs through the 13 or so non-fiction pieces in the collection. More than half are interesting because they throw light on some of our best writers, like Owen Marshall and Bill Pearson, or on the world of writing and of books, such as Margaret Mahy’s thoughts on story and Nigel Cox’s moving tribute to Alan Preston. Other pieces – for example, Laurence Fearnley on Jeff Thomson and his corrugated iron Holden and Samara McDowell describing Jonathan Crayford and the Wellington music scene – establish links to a wider culture; one that, for the most part, is local, middle-class and Pakeha. This aspect of Sport deserves some comment, too, but Wilkins refrains. If taste is merely personal, there is no room for political or social judgement considerations.

None of this is to say that the collection isn’t worth reading. There is some splendid poetry and some excellent fiction. Most of the old guard and the young guns are represented, from C K Stead and Allen Curnow to Catherine Chidgey and William Brandt. The coverage is so thorough that I began to wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to demonstrate the magazine’s significance.

Even so, I found plenty to like. I felt the best, to pick just half a dozen pieces, came from Forbes Williams, Dinah Hawken, Bill Manhire, Emily Perkins, Geoff Cochrane, and Tusiata Avia. At the end, though, I was no nearer understanding the Sport phenomenon and I kept coming back to that self-deprecating cover and the chatty introduction. What is the game here? What are the rules? Is it all disingenuous or merely naive? I suspected the former. I suspected that there was an agenda here, which, successful though it has been, is not the only agenda possible. I wanted it articulated. Instead, I got a picture of a few good guys doing their thing.

 

Chris Else is a Wellington writer.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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