Local practice v wider trends, Stuart Murray

Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing
Mark Williams and Michele Leggott (eds)
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869401158

Ending the Silences: Critical Essays on the Works of Maurice Shadbolt
Ralph J Crane (ed)
Hodder Moa Beckett, $24.95,
ISBN 034058839X

Journal of New Zealand Literature 12
Lawrence Jones and Heather Murray (eds)
University of Otago English Department, $15.00,
ISSN 01121227

Recently, at the Irish university at which I work we had a polite lunch for our two external examiners following the very last of the meetings to discuss the year’s marks. In conversation with one of the examiners ‑ a Coleridge expert ‑ I was told that his previous university, a place he characterised as cautious and reactionary in the extreme, used to make a habit of employing New Zealanders in the English department. Such a move, he told me, was based on the feeling that New Zealanders could be counted upon to be solid readers of the literary canon, dubious about developments in critical or cultural theory and suitably reverential about the structures of the subject’s study in the northern hemisphere.

It’s a not uncommon view of the state of New Zealand intellectual life from those abroad. The perceived homogeneity comes of course from a wider perception, one that includes more than just literature, of the nation in terms of a conservatism and perceived solidity, a scepticism of the new approach. My friend the Coleridge expert was mapping this generalisation on to another, the second being a view of English departments under siege from a shift in the critical paradigm towards cultural studies and an increasing interest in interdisciplinary work. The conversation seemed to me to crystalise a potential problem for the state of literary criticism in and about New Zealand, a legacy of perception ‑ both within and without ‑ of tensions between local practice and wider trends. The notion of metamorphosis, that even in the 1990s the value of any critical approach might only be seen when we pick up those local and special traces at the level of a very specific praxis, seems to offer all the comforts and problems of translation.

It is to these questions that Mark Williams addresses his introduction in Opening the Book. The key issue, as Williams sees it, is the relationship between the traditional hostility to intellectualism within New Zealand and the emergence of the range of theoretical approaches loosely grouped around the post-structuralism developed in the 1960s. The dominance of cultural nationalism in New Zealand criticism since the 1940s and the ability of that nationalism to hide behind a screen of common sense and liberal humanism ran straight into the importation and assimilation of new ideas on feminism and indigeneity in the 1970s and new theories of textual value in the 1980s.

Williams claims we are now in the fall‑out from this conflict: “The 1990s have not so far been marked by the emergence of arresting new literary movements, nor by struggles for dominance between competing groups or ideas. No forceful critical fads have arrived, no radical literary programmes have been announced. No significant cultural shifts have occurred, accompanied by fierce contestations. We are neither at the beginning nor at the end of a coherent and distinct phase of literary history. Rather we find ourselves in a period of consolidation.” This is contestable, as it could be argued that cultural policy study and literature’s place within it mark a particularly 1990s angle on previous critical developments, but Williams is right to point to a degree of hiatus. The effect on Opening the Book is thus to project it into this “period of consolidation”, making it a kind of marker, as was Wystan Curnow’s 1973 Essays on New Zealand Literature.

In this context, the book is always going to escape from the calls for plurality that Williams makes in his introduction. In desiring “a criticism that seeks compromise and conciliation between hardened positions”, in projecting analysis ‘that is neither parasitical on the literature it interrogates nor so indifferent to it that it has vanished into airy abstraction” and in wanting “to make sure that all the voices are allowed to speak, however uncomfortable to us what they say may be”, Williams introduces the essays as charting the scene, not pronouncing upon it. It should be added, however, that in the New Zealand context of an official biculturalism and the legacies of dualities over gender and even cities this kind of call for an eclectic criticism is not as neutral as it might seem. Even as he calls for the historicisation of the orthodoxies that have dominated New Zealand in the past, Williams advocates no specific correctives.

Nevertheless, the very choice of material in a book such as this signals what is deemed to be important. A full essay on Bill Manhire’s poetry clearly goes some way to consolidating his position as a vital writer over the last 25 years. The revisions of the 1930s and 1940s prompt new approaches on Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Frank Sargeson. Concentration on the portrayal of history in both writing and film recognises the interpenetration of codes of representation. And all the contributors wrestle with the positioning of material within the new discursive theoretical range that Williams maps out in his excellent introduction.

Some do so better than others. The worst of these pieces launch straight into the “airy abstraction” that Williams warns of. Alex Calder’s article on Allen Curnow’s poetry doesn’t so much fall between the stools of poststructuralism as gaily chuck them to all the corners of the room. Calder spends 20 pages in the happy density of a Derridean concentration on the nature of writing and textuality in Curnow’s work to emerge with the observation that the poetry functions to halt the otherwise endless flow of signification. The thrust of the essay can be contained in a paragraph and the surprise for me was that Calder, who has elucidated much about New Zealand writing, seems to care very little for the audience for this piece. The obscurity seems wilful, as if it wanted to map Curnow’s poetry in cultish language. It is exactly what a collection like this, with a view to stimulating readership and further study, doesn’t need.

The other essays on contemporary poetry also signal their unease. Alan Brunton engages in a supermarket trolley dash through developments in poetry over the last 20 years. It’s entertaining, but it appears to be nervous that the poetry may well bear a relation to the charged cultural history of the 1980s with which Brunton begins his essay. John Newton, writing on Manhire, is continually in danger of losing the sharp observations he makes in a self‑indulgent commentary that never seems to locate its own critical position. Newton mixes his own pronouns while describing Manhire’s poetic technique on pronouns, he tells us that Manhire’s poem “The Voyeur: An Imitation” is a “demanding poem ‑ requiring if not to be cherished, then at the very least to be read, and participated in” and manages to wrap himself up to the degree that he continues to find Manhire’s work vindicating his own MA thesis. It is the catalogue of these kind of comments that obscure his method.

It is Brunton’s caution over the relationship between poetic practice and recent history that is most illuminating here. The cause for the halting step is surely the recognition that the kind of poststructuralist criticism practised by Calder and Newton ‑ the implication of the critic in the criticism, the concentration on textuality and semiosis ‑ is at odds with the issues of conflict that dominated much of New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. The heritage for this form of postcolonialism is not its emergence from the rhetoric of the postmodern in a Euro‑American theory, but rather the anti‑colonialism engendered by the specific history of a settler colony.

This is the point noted by Anne Maxwell in her study of the representation of history in recent New Zealand fiction and film. For Maxwell, that which is gained by Michel Foucault’s genealogical analysis of modernity ‑ as well as the qualifying late Marxism of Frederic Jameson’s work on historicity ‑ has to be qualified in any New Zealand context because both share a tendency to totalise and omit the level of lived experience. In a shrewd observation, Maxwell notes that the specific nature of local politics and history have blunted the use of poststructuralism in theorising the narratives of recent New Zealand culture: “In New Zealand, where the unequal effects of settler colonialism and the global market continue to be experienced as everyday reality, scholars have tended to equate alternative modes of history writing with the oral narratives of the Maori. This has resulted in the critique of history being driven less by poststructuralism’s de-legitimisation of the self‑empowering discourses of modernity than by the desire to overcome the gap between scientific and mythic world view.”

It’s a good point and the problems it raises are central to reading New Zealand within the current vocabularies of an institutionalised, global cultural criticism. It’s therefore a shame that Maxwell is a victim of her own logic. Her analysis of Ian Wedde’s Symmes Hole and Jane Campion’s The Piano as texts that interrogate postcolonial history is limited by an over‑reliance on a simplistic notion of Europe, the west and the Enlightenment as one end of a dualistic opposition. I wonder which Enlightenment Maxwell means ‑ the plasticity of the mid eighteenth‑century Scottish Enlightenment, with its language of civil society, the individual and community emerging from a relationship with England that is clearly colonial in part; the distinctly anti‑colonial strain of thought in the French Enlightenment, in figures such as Reynal and Diderot; the utilitarian Enlightenment of a nineteenth‑century Britain, aligning colonial expansion with the language of justice? The idea that the Enlightenment is all rationality and cognition is severely flawed, and surely to use a phrase like “the west”, as Maxwell does, is exactly the same as using a phrase like “the native”.

In addition, Maxwell’s championing of Michel de Certeau’s theories of everyday life, at the expense of Foucault and Jameson, still runs the risk of an alienation from the level of lived reality she wants to address. Surely, despite all its anti‑Hollywood conventions, one of the reasons we watch The Piano is precisely because it does have Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter in it and therefore, in part we respond to performance and the classic nature of the Hollywood star system? Maxwell’s case may have worked better with analysis of films from the early 1980s, when the New Zealand industry was more of a national entity, in terms of both funding and audience. The historicity and genre mixing of Utu, or the local interrogation of capitalism and community in Ngati may well have been more suitable examples.

The tensions in Maxwell’s article are exactly symptomatic of the difficulties encountered by other essays in the collection. Anna Smith brings a Kristevan approach to Love, that sexiest of topics now in vogue in European theory, but can’t quite weave it into her reading of the bone people, leaving it somewhat isolated at the beginning and end of her piece. Kai Jensen, with the kind of glibness that Williams and Leggott probably should have got rid of, introduces his essay on Sargeson with the line: “It is my pleasant task in this essay to celebrate Frank Sargeson as a homosexual writer.” Immediately the reading of a gay Sargeson is thus juxtaposed with the (unsaid) version of Sargeson we all know so well ‑ that of the nationalist canon. The shame is that Jensen’s essay simply turns Sargeson into a writer over whom we can pour differing ideologies. First nationalist, now gay, but the reading is still so consistent, and Jensen’s resort to conjecture and even titillation (“Does ‘pretty far gone’ amount to ragged, torn, revealing a glimpse of flesh?”) only serves to prove that there is still very little good writing on Sargeson.

The good writing in Opening the Book is, however, excellent. Susan Ash’s analysis of the postmodernism at work in Janet Frame is subtle and useful. Jane McRae is entirely right to stress that the approach to Patricia Grace should be made through questions of the value of communication and social morality. Alan Riach not only manages to locate James K Baxter in the local context, but also provides a necessary sense of the international audience for the poet (and by implication for other New Zealand writers as well). Riach’s piece works well because he admits to a feeling that previous writing on Baxter has failed to do him justice and then writes into these tensions. Mary Paul’s multiple readings of Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” pull away from a commitment to any doctrinaire theoretical approach in favour of a mix of cultural history and the importance of location.

Mansfield is the subject for one of the two best essays in the book, that of Lydia Wevers. Wevers goes straight to the heart of the old controversy over Mansfield as a “local” or “metropolitan” writer in her commentary on the sense of place in the stories. Reading back through the critical orthodoxy of cultural nationalism, Wevers uses Homi K Bhabha’s theories of the cultural liminality of the nation, the national existing in the gaps and the pauses, to locate Mansfield as a writer acute in her awareness of the relationship between imagination and the geography and politics of space and place. Wevers is surely right when she says: “So when “At the Bay” and “Prelude” are read as ‘New Zealand’ stories it is not nationalism or the response of the reader which constructs their significance, but their metonymic function in writing the nation, not as the pictured and picturesque scenery of difference, but as a sequence of exposures whose gaps in time hint at boundaries and complex structures momentarily lit up.” This sense of the metaphoricity of the national narrative is illuminating and Wevers’ essay is a model of how to blend critical viewpoints.

The shifting nature of representation is also the subject matter of Michele Leggott’s essay on Hyde and Duggan, which is a hugely rewarding mix of archival work, textual analysis and provocation. Leggott continues the process by which Hyde, with her multiple and various outputs of war record, historical romanticism, experimental modernism and a poetry full of folded narratives of sexuality and self‑inscription, is read as articulating the multiplicities of New Zealand in the 1930s (Chris Price’s essay in the collection does likewise). Clearly, what is of value to Leggott here is not simply to unwrap Hyde’s poetry as a site of de‑stabilised commentary on a whole range of issues; she also enjoys the necessary revision of the nationalist discourse this must entail. In celebrating both Hyde and Duggan, figures derided by Curnow, Glover and Fairburn as being “hysterical” and “chaotic”, Leggott inserts potentially differing views of New Zealand writing as a whole. Her emphasis in the essay upon the relevance of Hyde and Duggan to the present intensifies this. To replace the demand on a “fidelity to experience” with the shifting positions of Hyde and Duggan is also to challenge the structures that emerge out of the orthodoxy of the nationalist criticism. There is a line of New Zealand poetry, faint but discernible in this collection, that runs out of the 1930s of Hyde, through Baxter, to the central 1970s figures of Manhire and Wedde, with a figure like Leggott herself at the end. This is all wickedly partial, it is exactly the kind of thing Williams warns against in his introduction, but it is genuinely provocative ‑ in, say, the question of what to do with Curnow here. Leggott’s essay is full of these possibilities, as well as being excellent and authoritative on her two subjects. As with Wevers, it is the engagement that is stimulating.

To come to Ending the Silences after Opening the Book is to necessarily change pace. The only references to Maurice Shadbolt in Williams and Leggott’s collection is a passing mention of Once on Chunuk Bair in Joanne Tomkins’ survey of New Zealand drama and a line from Alan Riach which makes the point that Ending the Silences seeks to address, namely that Shadbolt, with a strong international reputation, suffers from considerable neglect at home (and the fact that Riach has an essay in both collections may explain how such a comment popped into his head whilst he was musing on Baxter). In his introduction, Ralph Crane talks of the “vast and neglected middle ground inhabited by often popular writers”, including Maurice Gee with Shadbolt as possible victims of “academic snobbery.” This is in part true, but as Opening the Book proves, there is a general dearth of book‑length material on most New Zealand writers (how many books on Grace, Wedde, Hulme? Or even Frame, Sargeson and Curnow?). This is largely a question of market, but it does leave curious gaps in which writers ‑ Manhire would be a good example ‑ can be accepted as being vital to the development and quality of writing in the country, yet have little actually written on their work.

Crane aims to plug that gap as far as Shadbolt ‑ possibly the first New Zealander writer to be able to use creative writing as his main source of income ‑ is concerned. He collects essays that span Shadbolt’s output, from concentration on the early short stories to the drama.

The placing of Lawrence Jones’s survey as the first essay is a good choice, since it provides a structure from which the remaining pieces can follow. Jones is suitably solid and it is interesting after the angles and approaches in Opening the Book, to read a criticism that talks of “failure” and “success”, the clear judging of perceived quality. It is perhaps both attractive and not. The direct level of “reading” in the collection produces the kind of commentary that, while avoiding the excesses of the over theoretical, can become tedious. Studies like Crane’s own essay on the nature of narration in Shadbolt’s New Zealand trilogy, or Cherry Hankin’s analysis on the nature of entrapment, offer criticism that probes and explores but sometimes fails to get beyond the boundaries of the texts. In contrast, the essays that look to stress other writers and other contexts ‑ such as Riach’s exploration of Shadbolt through Walter Scott and Frank Sargeson, or Ken Arvidson taking pleasure in illuminating the history behind the Waikato chapters in Season of the Jew ‑ come at Shadbolt tangentially, as if they were really more interested in the issues that remain necessarily peripheral here. Shadbolt is at the end of these essays, but he is also the excuse to do other things. It is Kevin Ireland’s reminiscing about Shadbolt, who he calls the “Berlioz of the New Zealand novel”, that reinforces a certain facile nature about the book, Ireland’s yarning about Shadbolt’s “vindication” of himself is fine in itself, but curtailing the space for a wider criticism. The back cover of Ending the Silences told me that Shadbolt was “one of New Zealand’s most important writers” but the contents, for all they did, never really told me why.

If there is not much about the metafictional in Shadbolt or in Ending the Silences, it seems to abound in the latest volume of the Journal of New Zealand Literature. Scrambling to catch up with the calendar, the 1994 issue is now, panting but presumably fitter, only one year behind real time, but the annual surveys contained are still at 1990 and, as Lawrence Jones notes in his editorial, proving both increasingly complicated and increasingly necessary to produce. The nature of the surveys provided by the Journal are always useful, particularly to the number of people working on New Zealand material abroad, and these contained here are no exception. The problem is that the pressures created by the existing format make for a severe backlog, with articles finally reaching print long after they were written. It is this difficulty over publication that gives a volume like Opening the Book its twin positions as clearly a major landmark publication, yet also occasionally tentative. It is an easy move to call for more space, more journals, yet it is a call that probably should be made. The contexts and issues surrounding New Zealand criticism are only going to get more complicated, something the Journal acknowledges. They need the room to be worked through.

Stuart Murray teaches English at Trinity College, Dublin, and is preparing a book on New Zealand writing in the 1930s.

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