The quality question, Chris Else

The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature
Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (eds)
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869405892

I have a conflict of interest here: I am one of those writers with a substantial body of published work who is not included in this anthology. Here I am in company that comprises the likes of Peter Bland, Martin Edmond, Barbara Else, Laurence Fearnley, Charlotte Grimshaw, Russell Haley, Roger Hall, Stuart Hoar, David Howard, Stephanie Johnson, Michael King, Shonagh Koea, James McNeish, Margaret Mahy, Bob Orr, Jenny Pattrick, Sarah Quigley, Charlotte Randall and Philip Temple.

I assume that, like me, none of these was considered, given that Alan Duff, Janet Frame and Vincent O’Sullivan, who were considered but whose work does not appear for various reasons, are specifically mentioned in the introduction. Doubtless you will have one of three reactions to at least some of these absentees: surprise (“You mean she’s not there?”), scorn (“Why should he be there?”) or maybe puzzlement (“Who’s that?”). As other reviews have demonstrated, it is hard to set aside these reactions and judge this book with any objectivity.

The word “literature” is as slippery as warm butter. In an inclusive sense, it refers to all those texts that represent or reflect the culture of a particular group of people – the books that were read by children in the 19th century, for example. In another, more exclusive sense, it covers only fiction and poetry and, possibly, drama, and only the good stuff, the best. Or perhaps, even, the best of the best. It is this second sense that prevents the term “literary fiction” from being a pleonasm. There are other meanings, also, but it is the tension between these two that makes reviewing an anthology so tricky. What sort of butter are we dealing with? Salted or unsalted? Should we be asking how good these pieces are or how well they reflect the literary culture that produced them?

A rule of thumb might be that the bigger the anthology and the wider its historical scope the more representative it is trying to be. Well, to give you an idea, this particular block of butter measures 24.2 x 18.2 x 6.2 cms and weighs 2.035 kgs on the scales at Countdown. It contains around 370 pieces by just under 200 writers and is divided into 11 sections arranged more or less chronologically. There is a fair historical spread with almost 200 pages devoted to the period before 1920, another 280 up to 1960 and roughly 100 pages per decade after that, with an extra dollop (160 pages) for the period since 2000.

True, there is no writing for children (except an excerpt from The 10pm Question), only four pieces of drama, and 90 per cent of the non-fiction was written before 1950. The examples of popular writing offered seem to consist of tokens that contrast with the mainstream: Barry Crump, Fred Dagg and the racist “Hori”, whose columns blotted the pages of the Auckland Star during the 1960s. Still, the list of contributors to any anthology, like the Mayan calendar, has to stop somewhere and within these broad constraints, the selection does have the appearance of a balanced survey.

Of course, if you are trying to exemplify a literary culture you first have to objectify it and, in the process, develop some sort of thesis, which the selection then illustrates. You might also end up with an agenda – the need to rehabilitate certain writers at the exclusion of others, for example. Such matters are discussed in the 16-page introduction, with its measured tone of objectivity, and in the short essays which introduce each section. The book has a pedagogical air, as if it were intended primarily as a stage-one text, but why not?  A little structuring adds coherence to the selection and, after all, academics without their theses are like footballers without their shorts: side-lined, self-conscious and exposed to the good-natured ribbing of the spectators. It would be easy then to take the introduction at face value when it says “Our purpose is not to present a canonical view of New Zealand Literature. Rather we seek to register the work in its time, allowing for the different ways in which it has been seen.”

So far so representative, all the way down to the last sentence of the blurb on the back cover, which reads “And for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.” Whoa. We weren’t supposed to be talking quality, were we?

Compare this anthology with another: Great Sporting Moments (2005), edited by Damien Wilkins. This pat of butter is distinctly salty, as shown by its subtitle: The Best of Sport Magazine 1988-2004. There are no trends explicated, no theses offered. The contents are arranged alphabetically by author and the introduction claims that the criterion for Wilkins’s choice is just that he “like(s) this stuff the most”. No attempt to be representative here. On the contrary, Wilkins seems to be denying any basis for literary judgement other than personal preference. On such a view, Stafford’s and Williams’s careful deliberations are a waste of time.

For several years I was the writers’ representative on the Montana New Zealand Book Awards Management Committee. Despite some public controversy over judges’ decisions, the committee’s annual review of the awards always resulted in a reassuring consensus that the winners were books of the finest quality. If, however, any particular decision was ever questioned, the collective response was always “Well, it’s all just subjective really, isn’t it?” There’s a paradox here. How can we be confident that a process that is essentially subjective will result in the identification of the best books? One answer is that we can’t; the whole business is just a lottery. That’s not the way most people see it, though. If it were, there would be no point to any kind of award. We may as well just draw the winners out of a hat.

What in fact happens is that the system implicitly divides the population into two groups: those who are qualified to be judges (Group A) and those who aren’t (Group B). The assumption is that the taste of the A-listers will guide them towards subjective decisions that the reading public, most of whom are B-listers, will accept as authoritative. And who decides who the A-listers are? Well, the management committee, all of whom are A-listers themselves. What we have here, unpalatable as it may sound to New Zealand ears, is a literary elite.

Of course, Group A is not a gelatinous mass but a seething cauldron of interests. There are groups within groups, and alliances, allegiances and internecine feuds, but in general a literary elite – group or sub-group – has two characteristics: firstly, a base of common and, often, shared experience that results in a distinctive literary taste and out of which grow personal relationships and, secondly, open or grudging recognition by outsiders that the group has some kind of authority. It’s all a matter of status, which derives in part from being a member of the group and in part from where you stand within the group in relation to other members.

Human beings are very sensitive to such social dynamics, for what might well be biological reasons. We know instinctively who is in and who is out. There is nothing an elite recognises more quickly than a parvenu or work that is passé, and no anxiety is more nagging than the suspicion that your status has been compromised by, for example, a bad review or not being invited to this literary festival or being excluded from that anthology. Not all members are writers; publishers, reviewers, critics, friends, relatives, and persons of no great judgement who have nevertheless managed to acquire an air of cultural authority all play their part. The group doesn’t always agree about what is good either. In general, it’s the disagreements among themselves that the in-crowd tends to notice and the agreements that outsiders see. Around the fringes are a great many admirers and wannabes who see what the elite approves and consume it avidly. Thus the taste of a few becomes fashion among the many.

It would be wrong to think of the group’s taste as entirely arbitrary. Some literary values are universal or, at least, broadly accepted. Nevertheless exclusions are made and preferences formed on grounds that are not strictly literary. For example, in its formative years the group establishes its own exclusiveness by rejecting the prevailing taste in the culture around it. It might prefer irony to lyricism, fantasy to realism, the dramatic dimension of fiction to the poetic and so on. There are also moral questions and implicit assumptions about human nature and society. Forty years ago, D H Lawrence was hailed as a great writer and taught in stage one English courses; now no one reads him. Lawrence has his faults, some of them egregious, but our disinclination to forgive those faults when we are prepared to forgive the faults of a writer like Dickens, say, is not necessarily a straightforward literary matter.

Such ambiguities around the question of quality, combined with the personal relationships at work within the elite group, reinforce the disgruntlement of those who feel excluded. From the outside looking in, the established A-listers seem to be engaging in conscious nepotism. For the most part, this is not so. If the writers whose work you like best are people you know, then there is no difference between choosing the best and choosing your friends and acquaintances. Or, to express the same point in the negative, why should you deliberately consider work you don’t like merely because you don’t happen to know the author?

It is these social dynamics that make Wilkins’s introduction disingenuous. When he describes how he and Fergus and Elizabeth dreamed up Sport, with some help from Nigel and encouragement from Bill, it all sounds like a bunch of high-spirited youngsters having a bit of a lark. Maybe it was back then in 1988 but 16 years later things had changed. No doubt Wilkins was conscious of Sport’s new status and was deliberately trying to avoid any claim to literary authority. Unfortunately, “liking this stuff the most” is only a basis for judgement in a conversation between insiders. To an outsider, it sounds suspiciously like the claim to authority he was trying to avoid and, what’s worst, arrogance.

In a sense, the history of a literature is the history of its elites. Stafford and Williams fail to acknowledge this. They take little account of the group dynamics of New Zealand writing. For example, they make no mention of Christchurch as a cultural centre in the 1930s and 40s, or Auckland University in the late 60s, or the influence of Hodder and Stoughton’s fiction publishing in the 80s. To read their analysis is to get the impression of a literary culture free of influences and geographic differences. It is as if the trends come up through the groundwater.

It’s noteworthy, though, that just over 50 per cent of the items in the anthology that represent the last 20 years (the years of Sport, incidentally) are by writers who have a close association with the International Institute of Modern Letters, the Victoria University English Department or Victoria University Press. The proportion for the last 10 years is even higher: almost two-thirds. Admirers of these institutions and their special place in our literature will say “Yes, of course. What’s wrong with that?” Insiders, on the other hand, may well deny, at least publicly, that the group exists at all; suggesting that the institute and the department and the press are quite separate entities and don’t really have that much to do with one another. Then there are the disgruntled who feel resigned or aggrieved or envious or just plain furious, depending on their temperament. These people have no comeback. The elite is the elite. Any objection is sour grapes.


Chris Else is a Lower Hutt writer.


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Posted in Literature and Review
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