History as editorial cunning, Vincent O’Sullivan

The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature
Terry Sturm (ed),
Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1991, $69.95

To take up a 750-page book about hundreds of other books one has read only a fraction of, and to persist to the end with a sense of vaguely familial duty, might be construed as a mildly unnatural act. One isn’t even likely to go off and start catching up with all that reading. There is a sense indeed of gratitude to have expert assurance that most of what one missed is not, with only one lifetime, regrettably missed. While in most cases, I suspect, the views one takes to the History are not likely to be substantially modified, however, many gaps of various dimensions are filled in. So is this finally a superior reference book, an elaborate run through of genre and period until one arrives at John Thomson’s vastly admirable bibliography?

Fortunately, and very decidedly, it is rather more than that. It is a volume of impressive editorial cunning, a wide-ranging survey of course, but one that attempts to locate the qualities of particular writers within these larger contours of ‘New Zealand writing’. There is a striking balance between the certainty that yes, any text responds to the fashions and available modes of its time; but yes, again, the stronger the text, the more it is not confined by such constraints. Sturm’s eleven authors offer an extensiveness in looking at New Zealand literature which simply has not existed before. And ‘literature’ has been interpreted in the most generous way. It is a history that takes in children’s fiction and drama as much as poetry, that attends to middle-brow ephemera as it does to the monuments of ‘high-culture’. (Or the reverse, one might occasionally argue.) Not least among its interests is that as much as with any of the texts under discussion, the History itself reeks, one might say, of encoded agendas and privileged assumptions. It is already a candidate for the scrutiny the volume so insists on bringing to bear on other texts.

I had very much looked forward to Peter Gibbons’s chapter on non-fiction, on the strength of his stimulating contribution over a decade ago in W H Oliver’s Oxford History of New Zealand. The breadth however that one so admired then has since come in for some pretty considerable revision. Although Gibbons can make fine particular observations on Pember Reeves say, or on Cresswell and Sargeson and Frame, a large part of his chapter exemplifies what the American historian Don Akenson considered the almost paralysing mind-set of so much contemporary New Zealand thinking – the move from quite properly regarding the Treaty of Waitangi and race relations as central to national life, towards that further step of not being able to consider anything much except in that framework. Gibbons, like an eager constable, polices non-fiction writing for offensive behaviour. Few escape his accusing tap. From Manning through to Michael King, there is a stream of indictments. There is correspondingly little realisation that to condescend from our own perspective is not necessarily an instrument of enlightenment. of course much of our writing is prejudiced and ill-informed. This is rightly to be deplored. Yet there is quite a lot else worth remarking in these authors which Gibbons’s discourse for the moment cannot accommodate.

To note omissions in such broad enterprises is perhaps too easy a thing to do. Yet since to remark the quality of prose and the ends to which language is put are recognised by Gibbons as part of his brief, it seems a pity there is no mention of Rutherford’s expository clarity, of Ronald Syme’s mandarin wit; nothing of James Bertram and Geoffrey Cox carrying journalism that further distance into ‘literature’; or most surprisingly, Mansfield’s New Zealand notebooks as the country’s fullest record of an emerging feminine voice.

I moved on to Lawrence Jones’s chapter on the novel with what I gather was the apprehension of many readers. How could he deal convincingly with the most massive aspect of the History, do justice to its sheer numbers, say anything of critical value when space must so constrain him? To me this chapter is the major achievement of the volume. Jones hasn’t only touched on every even mildly significant novel. He has made concise and considered remarks on dozens of authors. He is judicious on what prevents Mander, Satchell, Devanney and Hyde being as impressive as we might hope, yet his deft summary of their importance and strengths strikes me as very much hitting the mark. You will take from this chapter a knowledge of what kinds of fiction appealed at any one period, how the novelists themselves considered their craft, how social force and political conscience defined, encouraged, or limited so much of our writing. There are excellent accounts of Gee and Frame, there is no playing favourites, no pushing academic barrows. Realism happens to be far and away the most consistent mode our fiction so far has worked in and Jones makes us realise how inseparable, for better or worse, that is from the prevailing New Zealand ethos.

Lydia Wevers astutely chose quite a different method to deal with the short story. Her interest is in types of stories, in implications and assumptions of textual groupings rather than in any attempt to cover the field as Jones has done. Although her chapter avoids the problems associated with aesthetic judgements, and is anxious too to avoid any whiff of the canonical, there is nevertheless the always implicit certainty that she is concerned with ‘significant’ stories. What she offers is the evolution of a genre over a hundred or so years, but with contemporary theoretical bearings confidently enough in hand for her to skim by such traditional matters as form, iconic metaphor, naturalism, and the linguistic individuality of writers, and give her attention to gender perceptions, marginality, and race. This allows her to open fresh and provokingly new categories, and occasionally to close some fairly essential doors. How would one know that Duggan is of quite another order from any of his contemporaries?

The discussion of poetry is divided into two discrete sections. Mac Jackson takes on what might be thought the far less exciting period, from the first colonial rhymes until 1945. He writes in such energetically intelligent prose, that those dim figures of Victorian New Zealand quite engage us in their solemnities and sentimentality. But Jackson is excellent too at tracking down those poems that nudge language out of its expected grooves, that begin to suggest how poetry here need not be quite the same as poetry anywhere else. Arthur Adams comes through as a rich if thwarted talent, Blanche Baughan as a less constrained mind than we may have thought. The surprise in this section is the reassessment of Bethell ahead of Mason. And Jackson’s brief discussion of two very recent poems by way of limbering up for engagement with his earlier poets intensifies one’s regret that the most subtle and open-minded commentator on New Zealand poetry steps down for Auckland’s dutiful daughter.

Elizabeth Caffin’s chapter is lively, confident, political in a purely literary way. Her basic view is that ‘romantic’ and ‘modernist’ are two quite distinct poetic camps, and although good poets may flourish in the first, excellent ones are likely to exist only in the second. This is because the first kind are more apparently interested in feeling than thinking, draw on an inherited language, and probably employ traditional forms; the second are more aware of language qua language, are more thoughtfully playful (or vice versa) and less confined by expectation. Well they’re neat labels, certainly, and critical tidiness is clearly as distinctively a Caffin quality as subtlety is a Jacksonian. It allows her, for example, to relegate a number of poets ‘outside the prevailing fashion’, as if she is declaring something more significant perhaps than her own presuppositions. In rather an old-fashioned way, women poets are put into separate groupings, and poets like Adcock, Ireland, Turner, Michael Jackson, who tend to give not much of a cuss for whether they’re inside or outside the approved corrals, get rather poor marks for not standing in line.

The simple paradigm she operates within doesn’t, fortunatelyprevent Caffin making some just and convincing assessments. She is very good on Curnow’s magnitude and depth. I haven’t read anything as succinct on Wedde and Manhire and Campbell. But her championing Kendrick Smithyman as exemplar of poetic practice is bizarre. Smithyman has written fine and complex poems. He has also snagged on the banal more than most New Zealand poets, and Caffin’s obscure phrase on his ability to ‘provoke syntax into meaning’ touches what others have read as rebarbative clutter. And at times there is a comic obviousness to her alignments. A deliberative and deft allusiveness in M K Joseph is, predictably, ‘a talent for imitation’. C K Stead’s less subtle penchant for picking up other writers’ traces is, predictably, ‘a powerful sense of the texts [that] have gone before’There is no necessary reason, I suppose, why a critic shouldn’t aim at being an auctioneer at the same time.

The History concludes with the editor’s stimulating account of popular fiction, that vast hinterland of stereotype and market viabilityand Denis McEldowney’s briskly informative account of ‘Publishing, Patronage, and Literary Magazines’. One finally admires the scale of the enterprise, as well as the numerous occasions where one is stimulated or informed. And even to be reminded at times of what one doesn’t agree with can carry its own distinctive frisson.


Vincent O’Sullivan is a fiction writer, playwright and poet, and lives in Wellington.


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