Second time around, Elizabeth Webby

The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (2nd edition)
Terry Sturm (ed)
Oxford University Press, $89.95
ISBN 0 19558385 X

That a second edition of this substantial reference-work has been required less than a decade after it was first published indicates both its success and the size of the gap it filled. The increase in its number of pages – from 748 to 890 – points to a third reason: the remarkable surge in the number of new books, especially novels, published by New Zealanders during the late 1980s and the 1990s. In this review, I will be concentrating mainly on the additions and other variations between the two editions of The Oxford History, though I’d like to begin by indulging in a little comparative literary historiography.

Terry Sturm was one of the contributors to The Oxford History of Australian Literature, edited by Leonie Kramer and published in 1981. Far from going into a second edition, this work was fairly universally condemned and has long been out of print. A New Oxford History of Australian Literature, with entirely different contributors and editors, and employing a very different approach, is to be published later this year. In the interim, a New Penguin Literary History of Australia, of which I was one of the editors, appeared in 1988 but is now also out of print. It deliberately adopted a model of literary history that was much broader than those used in both the reviled Oxford, and an earlier Penguin, whose first edition had appeared in 1964. With a second, enlarged edition in 1976, the latter Penguin, edited by Geoffrey Dutton, is the only history of Australian literature to have had a publishing history comparable to that of Terry Sturm’s Oxford. H M Green’s classic two-volume History of Australian Literature (1961) was, it is true, reissued in 1985 with additions by his widow, Dorothy Green, but this hybrid version was not a success.

My brief account of literary historical comings and goings across the Tasman does, I hope, provide some perspective on what Terry Sturm and his contributors have managed to achieve. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English provides for readers of New Zealand literature the sort of magisterial completeness and authority which H M Green’s volumes do for readers of Australian literature published before 1950. With the aid of his eleven contributors, however, Sturm has been able to maintain his History‘s authority by keeping it up to date in a way never possible for Green, working alone.

Given the opprobrium attached to Kramer’s Oxford History of Australian Literature, it is somewhat ironic that Sturm’s much more successful volume adopted a fairly similar structural approach to the writing of literary history. Unlike Green’s, and most later histories of Australian literature, Kramer’s was divided by genre only, not by period and genre. Sturm followed the same pattern, though expanding considerably on what was seen as Kramer’s over-élitist concentration on fiction, poetry and drama, by including chapters on non-fiction, children’s literature, and even popular fiction, as well as surveys of Maori literature and of “Publishing, Patronage, Literary Magazines”.

The second edition adds a further chapter on “Literary Scholarship, Criticism and Theory”; all the original chapters have been expanded, with those on non-fiction and the novel in particular being substantially rewritten. The period subdivisions within chapters, which most authors adopted in the first edition as a way of dealing with their material, have now been included for all of them and appear on the contents page. And within each of these subdivisions a further level of subheadings has been added to provide an additional guide to readers. The result is a de facto genre and period structure, though one that allows for the fact that different genres often develop at different speeds. For example, for various reasons the novel was slow to get going in New Zealand, though since at least the 1980s it has been the dominant literary genre.

The amazing growth in the number of New Zealand novels published between 1986, the cut-off date for the first edition of this history, and 1996, the cut-off date for the second, is well reflected in the major changes to Lawrence Jones’s chapter. Others writing on closely related genres – Lydia Wevers on the short story and Sturm himself on popular fiction – had used an author or author/genre approach for their second-level structuring. Hence they were able just to add some extra material to cover 1986-96. Sturm, for example, notes the continuing growth in romance writing, the resurgence of the thriller and the beginnings of a New Zealand school of science fiction, though one not as yet widely supported by readers.

One imagines any reader would have been pretty well occupied just getting through all the new novels described by Jones. Having adopted a thematic approach for his chapter, Jones has had totally to reorganise the second half of it, that covering the “post-provincial period” from 1965. The result, however, tells readers – perhaps non-New Zealand readers in particular – a great deal about the vast changes in New Zealand society during this period, and about how change has accelerated in the past two decades.

As Jones suggests, the New Zealand novel has been “part of the change, both reflecting it and influencing it, as can be seen in the prominent social role played by such novels as Keri Hulme’s the bone people (1983) and Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990).” It is no accident that both relate to the renegotiation of Maori/Pakeha relations which has been one of the major changes, as reflected in the full title of this Oxford History, and in the revisions to all of its chapters. There have also of course been significant shifts in relations between men and women and between the individual and the state.

One of the strengths of Jones’s approach is that he is able, through contrast and comparison, to suggest the ways in which societal and economic changes are reflected differently in novels by Maori and Pakeha, women and men, younger and older writers. In discussing Patricia Grace’s Cousins (1992), together with a range of novels by Stead, Sargeson, Anderson, Gee and many others, for example, he notes how the “change from a Provincial to a Post-provincial society appears quite different from a Maori perspective: the central process is the development of a Maori cultural awareness and assertion, not the replacement of a puritan monoculture by a pluralist consumer society.” To have merely discussed all the novels by Maori, or women, together – even to have adopted the more usual approach of discussing each novel once and once only – would have made Jones’s task much easier, but allowed for fewer of these insights.

There are, however, disadvantages as well as advantages in Jones’s approach, with discussion of many novels and authors spread across a chapter section rather than concentrated in one place. Anyone particularly interested in Cousins, for example, needs to track the various references to it, a task not helped by the fact that even in this new edition titles of individual works are not listed in the index. For those interested in Grace’s writing as a whole, it is necessary also to consult the chapter on the short story, while for Janet Frame, the non-fiction chapter must be added as well.

Reviewing the first edition of the Oxford History, Patrick Evans praised Lydia Wevers for presenting the best treatment of any individual author in the book in her discussion of Katherine Mansfield. If Wevers on Mansfield remains a highlight, this is partly because Jones’s approach, like that of the History as a whole, does not privilege individual authors.

One place where individual authors still reign supreme is of course in John Thomson’s Bibliography. And it’s here that notions of the canon can still reinsert themselves, however hard other sections of the History work to deny them. As Terry Sturm notes in his introduction, 162 authors now have entries of their own, as against 140 in the first edition, with women now making up 46% rather than 43% of them. (One might compare this with the Bibliography in Kramer’s Oxford History of Australian Literature, clearly the model for Thomson’s, but listing only 71 authors, about 20% of them women). What Sturm doesn’t say, however, is that three authors, all male, have been dropped: Ron Bacon, Michael Gifkins, Ian Middleton. While many of the new names, such as Barbara Anderson, Alan Duff, Rosie Scott and Damien Wilkins, already seem securely established, perhaps a few of the others will be put on their mettle.

Mention of Rosie Scott raises the question of how this History treats authors who have written on non-New Zealand topics, including those who moved from New Zealand to Australia. With Jean Devanny and Douglas Stewart, only the works set in New Zealand are discussed and listed in the Bibliography. But all Rosie Scott’s novels are discussed, even though her most recent ones have Australian settings. Thomson, incidentally, refers those wanting further information on Stewart’s “Australian” works to the bibliography in Kramer’s History. A much more up-to-date source is The ALS Guide to Australian Writers. A Bibliography, 1963-1995 (2nd edition, 1997), which also has a listing for Devanny, though Rosie Scott has not yet made it in.

As one might expect, the author who takes up the most space in Thomson’s listings is Mansfield, with eight pages, though Frame is fast catching up, having moved from about three-and-a-half to five pages. The other authors who now score more than a page of critical references are, in order, Baxter, Curnow, Ihimaera, Sargeson, Shadbolt, Gee, Hulme, Hyde, Ngaio Marsh, Margaret Mahy, and Stead. Again, men are still just in the majority. While a number of these authors have worked in other genres, the dominance of fiction is still remarkable, reflecting not just the increased output of novels but the swing in critical and theoretical interest away from poetry and drama since the 1970s.

This brings me to Mark William’s new chapter on “Literary Scholarship, Criticism and Theory”. Inevitably, there is some overlap between this chapter, Dennis McEldowney’s discussion of literary magazines and the annotations in Thomson’s Bibliography. While Williams adopts a slightly simpler, three-period division, he broadly follows Jones’s categories of “colonial”, “provincial” and “post-provincial”. For the earliest period, to 1933, most emphasis falls on the development of English as a university discipline, the criticism produced by writers, especially Mansfield, and the beginnings of local criticism in literary magazines. Williams opens with a reference to newspaper theatrical criticism, based on research by Howard McNaughton; I suspect that further work on 19th-century newspapers would also yield rather more literary criticism than he records.

The focus in the section dealing with 1933-1970s falls mainly on the contributions of Curnow, Sargeson, McCormick, Baxter and Stead towards the construction of a national literature. Again, however, there is an interesting account of changes in the university teaching of English, with Auckland pioneering the teaching of New Zealand literature. In contrast to all other chapters, Williams devotes the least space to the most recent period, seemingly hamstrung by the fact that he himself has been one of the major players. He records the “increasing politicisation of New Zealand literature and criticism around the issues of gender, culture and race”, something reflected everywhere in the History, especially in its new material, and ends with a perceptive comment on the binarisms that have bedevilled New Zealand English departments, especially the false opposition between criticism and theory.

Finally, a word on the binarism that is most immediately obvious when one puts the two editions of this History side by side: the colour of their covers. Patrick Evans, in the review mentioned earlier, described the cover of the first edition as uterine pink. Whether or not one agrees, the cover did seem deliberately chosen to subvert earlier constructions of New Zealand literature – and national identity – as hard, masculine and anti-domestic. It did, however, at least to me, also hint at nostalgia for a lost New Zealand, secure, white and middle class.

The new cover, with its blue and white waves of words, seems in contrast resolutely unidentifiable with any specific race, gender or class position. But, given McEldowney’s excellent account of the “intricate dance” of recent takeovers in the publishing industry, is this off-shore image a portent of things to come? And why is the word “Oxford” in red?

Elizabeth Webby is Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, and the editor of Southerly, Australia’s oldest literary journal.

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