For us there is only the trying, Paul Morris 

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-Fiction 2015 
Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (eds)
Auckland University Press, $30.00
ISBN 9781869408244

Greatest Hits: A Quarter Century of Journalistic Encounters and Notes from Lost Cities 
David Cohen
Mākaro Press, $35.00
ISBN 9780994106544

In their introduction, editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew ask why “doesn’t New Zealand have its own equivalent of the Best American Essays or Best Australian Essays series?” Their selection of 29 “essays” is expressly designed to address this very real lacuna. As one who has long lamented the priority given to the New Zealand short story, the short poem, and the long novel over the essay, I had high expectations for this collection. What was it that I was anticipating? If not the wisdom of Montaigne, Hazlitt, Lamb, Orwell, James, Hunter S Thompson, Hughes, Baldwin, Epstein, Ozick, E B White or, more recently, Daum, Jamison, D’Ambrosio and Zadie Smith, then at least reflective first-person narratives about experience that deeply engage the reader, not as moral fable or advice, but as dialogue, a conversation that suggestively and subtly indicates some shared and significant experience and understanding. They should, of course, also be superbly written and entertaining.

What I actually found was a mixed bag, with a number of essays published here for the second or third time, while the majority are just too short to be essays at all, and too long to be tweets, and reflect digital spaces, such as the blogosphere. Some contributions make excellent lectures, short articles, think pieces, memoirs, sketches, or seminars, but are either too didactic, too personal, or too descriptive to be considered essays. The case for an annual volume of essays, however, is reflected in the significant and contemporary themes explored here. They include a number written about Christchurch and the earthquakes, others about Kim Dotcom, ageing parents, the Auckland property market, te reo, digital overload, New Zealand iconic heroes, Aotearoa reality and myth, new New Zealanders, landscapes, family histories and diversity. Many of these do satisfy my criteria as essays: that is, they are built on personal reflection, but broaden out to embrace the readers’ experience and, just as importantly, they have a tentative, an open-ended, quality about them reflecting the “trying” of the word essay’s origins.

The most memorable pieces include Eleanor Catton’s thrice-published “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, which, while a little brief for my taste, does in a carefully crafted fashion convey her love for the land and how this was not innate, nor just happened by itself, but was carefully cultivated. She uses the word “sublime” seven times in just over five pages and then not as Longinus intended, as a characteristic of writing that impacts directly on the listener or reader, but to mean a wordless “wow” generated by nature itself.

There are also evocative narratives about Christ-church by Lara Strongman, David Haywood, Nic Low and Megan Clayton, although this subject has a very different focus, raising bioethical questions. Naomi Arnold is more accommodating than most about her mother, and Elizabeth Knox writes about her very own “Margaret Mahy”, one that will resonate with many of her readers. The volume as a whole, even if not the promised book of essays, makes for entertaining reading, with the best pieces provoking further reflection and consideration.

One of a generation of talented Hutt Valley writers who decamped to the capital, David Cohen often writes about musical, literary, academic, political, and media celebrities. Clearly fascinated by such stars, he appears equally disgusted by their frequent pretence, pettiness, egoism, lack of self-awareness, and sometimes mere ignorance. This Greatest Hits “album” comprises 52 items of published journalism drawn from nearly a quarter of a century’s work. Trenchant about his “hawking words for a living” in this “most superficial of businesses”, Cohen, having already won recognition as a distinctive voice for his intelligent and mostly deserved put-downs, has more recently been acknowledged for his informed social commentary and his writings about autism.

The pieces here manifest his wide range: literary and musical reviews and interviews; academic and political profiles; travel guides; personal experiences turned into copy; and scathing reflections on locals, especially journalists. The majority first appeared in domestic publications, mainly the New Zealand Listener and the National Business Review, although also included are articles from the Guardian, the Chronicle of Higher Education and one from the New York Times. The development of Cohen’s writing can be traced from his earliest interviews (edited question-and-answer dialogues), to the interview reduced to selected quotations set within the context of reviews, comment and other authoritative voices. While the increased sophistication allows the complexity of issues and judgements to be more easily appreciated, I missed the less mediated voices of the interviewees themselves, so evident in the slight yet revealing 1988 conversation with Joni Mitchell. But his increasingly robust prose style has benefited from this long apprenticeship and now bristles with crisp, audacious suggestiveness.

A professional pen for hire, it often feels as if no job was ever refused. Cohen, a widely read autodidact, makes every assignment his own. He riffs on his quiver of concerns (rock, journalism, nostalgia, vanity and writing), has a penchant for Jewish writers, academics, musicians and artists, is overly forgiving of outsiders and smokers, and is often simply a sheer joy to read. Even if I baulk at his doctrinaire right-wing condemnation of left-wing artists (and the left more generally), it is hard not to be amused at his decimation of Bono’s political pretensions or Dave Dobbyn’s ever-latest album marketed as reflecting a now more buoyant performer.

Many of the short pieces are perfectly formulaic, in that they start with a quotation, returning to it by way of conclusion via the body of the piece, often so condensed that it seems episodic. I would, for instance, have liked to know much more about Karl Popper and whether Anthony O’Hear’s critique that his influence on the philosophy of science, while significant, is largely historical, applies equally to his social philosophy. Or exactly what the connection is between the visual and empathy as exemplified by Temple Grandin, the animal welfare expert, designer and autist.

I delighted in the bitchy attacks on Bernard Levin (erstwhile literary hero), Thomas Friedman, Kiri Te Kawana (conducted in the third person), Noelle McCarthy, Colin Hogg, Paul Holmes and Mike McRoberts. I enjoyed even more the centenary essay on Billy Bunter’s creator and his spat with Orwell, and the thoughtful and considered essays on John Rowles and Dean Dunlop and their reflections on our changing culture. There are some annoying repetitions such as “rock and roll Leavisites”, and “three dimensional chess”. Does the former mean anything more than academics who write about rock, or the latter more than “complex”? Is the Wizard really Rush Limbaugh in medieval drag?

I have a number of more serious reservations, such as the letter to Zaoui which omits the intervention that overturned the election, resulting in a distorted view that undermines the legitimate questions Cohen demands be addressed. The materials on Māori-Jewish relationships are limited, dated, and need to include more recent sermons and political sources, and the Jewish census figures need correction. Finally, in his review of Roth’s Indignation, Cohen incorrectly refers to 1943 New Jersey as “post-industrial” and lists “Goy chicks” as one of Roth’s recurrent themes. Goy is a masculine noun and not an adjective, the feminine in Hebrew is Goya (or in Yiddish Goye or Shiksa), and the connection between Russell and the protagonist is that the contentious objector’s essay leads him to being conscripted.

Cohen is a national taonga, even if at times perplexing: he is a republican (see his essay on the royal jubilee), closet libertarian, and politically considerably to the right of centre. He is iconoclastic, critically aware of our generation’s passing, or at least ageing, and his work deserves a wide New Zealand audience. One of the best pieces, though undeveloped, is about his rediscovery of the Hutt Valley and its history which has begun to call into question the one-way street into “town”. If we had a cultural place for the essay, Cohen would make for even better reading. Perhaps Auckland University Press or another publisher should bring out a volume of New Zealand’s Best Essays to set the historical benchmark and at the same time establish an annual collection to keep up expectation and momentum.

Paul Morris is a professor in the Religious Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Essays, Media, Non-fiction and Review
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