Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand prose
Second edition, University of Otago Press (distrib John McIndoe Ltd, Dunedin), 1991, $39.95
Lawrence Jones has been writing about New Zealand fiction for at least twenty-five years now, and has established a reputation as a thorough and careful reader, whose comments are based upon scrupulous explorations, and whose breadth tells us of assiduity and complete commitment to his discipline. The record of these judgments is in the published reviews, commentaries and surveys, and critical comment upon a substantial proportion of the contemporary prose fiction of this country. Several options must have appeared to him at the time he decided to draw together his ideas and present us with his overview. He could have begun afresh, without direct recourse to his past criticism, distilling his responses into a new study, or he could have written the survey to end all surveys. Terry Sturm commissioned the second of those two possible options when he asked Jones to write the chapter on prose fiction for The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Jones himself may still decide at a later point to write ‘the book’. It matters here only that he chose some four years ago to draw together his substantial body of writing and to weld it into a collection of essays.
Barbed Wire and Mirrors, first published by the University of Otago Press in 1987, soon went out of print, and now a new, more attractively presented edition makes its welcome appearance. The cryptic title directs us to the two traditions that Jones traces through our twentieth-century fiction, the realist one of ‘barbed wire and cowpats’ and the impressionistic one of ‘mirrors and interiors’. These two, or rather perhaps a twinned tradition, require of the commentator some flexibility of approach and a degree of critical pragmatism if critic and reader alike are not going to find themselves disabled by the theory that should be helping them towards their ultimate goal of better understanding the literature. Jones’s ongoing scepticism of theoretical rigidity and extremism is, therefore, one of the book’s important qualities. The author’s preface cites the aphorism about the critic being someone who carries on his education in public, and this process is made apparent to us as Jones collects more than thirty essays, commentaries and extracts that record his professional progress, while at the same time he evaluates his position in a number of introductory and explanatory interpolations. This interwoven commentary allows him to wear his heart on his sleeve. Few volumes of criticism have been so honestly presented.
W S Broughton is Senior Lecturer in the English Department of Massey University.