The other night, as I reclined in the University Club in Princes Street, gazing fondly on the eccentric but adorable features of my confrères and belles-soeurs in Slightly Foxed, a society composed of the city’s leading bibliomaniacs, it occurred to me not only that this was the shimmering apex of literary life in Auckland, but also that mingling with one’s fellow readers is far preferable to intercourse with authors. Not that the two categories are wholly distinct, of course. Some writers have been known to read. Many bibliophiles possess secret self-penned manuscripts (naive novels, callow memoirs, unlicked odes and the like), which they fetch occasionally from remote drawers and sigh over.
There are a few writers, I concede, who are pleasant enough on an individual basis, provided one pretends to admire their effluvia, or at least refrains from saying one doesn’t. There are even a few bearable duets, like Greg and Jenny, Robert and Anne, Elspeth and Maurice. But my heart sinks and my stomach turns at the thought of confronting a whole quartet of scribblers. Octets are beyond human endurance. Orchestras are synonymous with hell.
‘A writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent,’ that rather solitary poet Philip Larkin warned an English antiquarian book fair 20 years ago, ‘for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory.’ To this admirably frank observation I would add that whenever writers assemble in large numbers (ie more than three) there’s an atmosphere – or, more accurately, a miasma – of dissatisfaction. The air at conferences and book launches is often so heavy with rancour that my first thought on entering is to leave immediately and go somewhere else. Anywhere else. McDonald’s, Georgie Pie, the movies, the bench alongside the gaunt busker who plays lugubrious tunes on a white plastic recorder outside Smith and Caughey’s.
Alas, those authors huddled in tight, frowning and mutually hostile clusters round the complimentary casks of Woodhill claret and cans of Dominion Bitter at the launch of one of their foes’ creation are not happy people, and their unhappiness takes many forms. They’re dissatisfied with negligent publishers, accident-prone printers, impercipient critics and an ungrateful public. But primarily, I believe, they’re dissatisfied with the sheer fact of one another’s existence.
How many literary geniuses can a small nation like New Zealand sustain at one time? Three? Seven? Just the one? Estimates vary, but I’ve never heard anyone propose more than a dozen. Yet I’m on nodding or twitching terms with at least five dozen New Zealand writers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more I’m yet to encounter. All but a handful will be consigned to oblivion by posterity, and probably even their coevals. To come at the matter from a more oblique angle, Colombia and Peru are populous countries that must have their share of pushy, fame-seeking literati. But how many Colombian authors can you name besides Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How many Peruvians have you read besides Mario Vargas Llosa?
Some try even harder than others to preserve a twinkling veneer of humility, but all 60 of the writers I nod to are ambitious animals. If the allocation is only one genius per country, they want to be the one. Consequently, they’re unable to view the success of their peers with perfect equanimity. Many New Zealand writers (not quite my full five dozen, but pretty close) have told me over the last seven years that Keri Hulme doesn’t put together good enough sentences to merit her international acclaim.
Southerners might want to object at this point that my outlook has become warped, paranoid and leprous because I live in Auckland, the mecca of the self-aggrandising shysters, the black and calloused heart of commerce, the City of Sales. ‘To be sure,’ they might argue, ‘Stead, Shadbolt, Curnow, Smithyman, Ireland, Morrissey and the rest of that splenetic, war-mongering, northern rabble eye one another venomously, but in the paradisal expanse below the Bombay Hills Kiwi inksters greet one another with nothing but warm accord and back-thumping bonhomie.’ Perhaps this is so, but frankly I doubt it. In Timaru, I suspect, literature is as red in tooth and claw as it is in Titirangi.
After all, it was Bill Manhire, an Invercargillite long resident in Wellington, who penned ‘On Originality’, probably the definitive statement of the New Zealand litterateur’s attitude to competitors. Throttle ’em, stab ’em, shoot ’em, loot their corpses. Or, as that master of concise phrasing; Lee Van Cleef, once suggested in a spaghetti western, kill ’em all and come back alone.
But I set out with the intention of singing the praises of Slightly Foxed, and I’ve strayed some distance from that happy theme. Joss Campbell and Michael O’Brien founded the group about two and a half years ago. A shared enthusiasm for single malt whisky initially brought these two together, but they soon felt obliged to say something between gulps besides ‘Ah!’ Since Campbell is a bookseller and O’Brien is a bookbinder, the printed word seemed an appropriate subject for conversation. Not that their tastes in texts are identical. O’Brien is a devotee of the Powys brothers. Campbell is a fastidious collector of Allen Curnow’s productions. But the nature of their obsessions mattered little compared with the fact that both were obsessed. While differing in their objects of desire, they were united in a common love for the texture, odour and overall aura of fine editions and antiquarian tomes.
Tolerance of one another’s peculiarities has remained the hallmark of Slightly Foxed, even though a score of members now attend the fortnightly meetings in the University Club. No two members like the same things, but no voices are raised in anger and no blood is spilt. The Muslim method of evangelism by the sword is discouraged in favour of a gentler mode of persuasion through the example of one’s radiating bliss.
If the perusal of Wolf Solent gives Michael O’Brien such pleasure and if the contemplation of An Abominable Temper makes Joss Campbell smile, perhaps these books are worth a try.
Writers have a professional obligation to resent one another, since it would be shameful of them to waste good paper when existing books are perfectly satisfactory. There’s no reason why readers can’t peacefully co-exist, however. Except in universities, where the denizens of English departments strive for the most ingenious interpretation of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ or Pericles, Prince of Tyre, or in the unhinged minds of a few hacks desperate to win the Reviewer of the Year Award, reading is not a competitive sport. Even in a small nation like New Zealand, there’s room for several thousand browsers and delvers. I wish everybody happy reading over Christmas and suggest to writers that they find separate bays to bathe in and do not congregate acrimoniously on the same sand.