Mapping the citadel, Lydia Wevers

The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature in English
Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (eds)
Oxford University Press, $79.95
ISBN 0 19558348 5

The publication of this book should have been timed for the millennium. If there is going to be a text of millennial weight and gravitas this is it – 602 pages and more than you ever wanted to know about New Zealand literature in all its nooks and crannies, folds, sweaty places and glorious high country. Still I suppose Oxford and the editors needed to get it through before Y2K cripples the technology that must have been essential to the production of this monumental text – 680 authors and 110 titles by 90 contributors (though this last figure could be wrong as I did find one contributor who doesn’t appear in the contributors’ list). Of course I haven’t read it all. How could I? And anyway the point of a Companion is not to read it from cover to cover – though I have looked at every page and read a number of entries – but this Companion will do superbly what it is intended for – sit on your desk and act as an essential reference tool for every student, teacher and interested consumer of New Zealand literature.

A Companion is essentially a list, made up of other lists. The editors’ Preface makes various claims both about what it is and what it is not. It is not a “dictionary or bibliography or history or a ranking of writers”, but it is a “reference source of a full and unprecedented kind”. I think the list of what the Companion is not is interesting, because it does in fact do all those things. It induces dictionary entries, adapted from the Oxford New Zealand Dictionary; it is a bibliography – look up any entry with the intention of building some bibliographical information about that writer or title and it will allow you to start on it; it is also a history in the sense that it tells stories about the relationships of writers and texts and itself constructs a cultural history of choices and emphases, a history which will become clearer as the Companion dates; and it is also a ranking of writers as anyone who can count or measure will be aware.

But of course the editors’ point, and the one on which the Companion is built, is that this is not primarily where you go for the kinds of specialised information provided by lexicography or history. So what do you go there for? Or rather what do you find? Well, for a start, I found a lot of writers I’d never heard of. I made it to 41 before I gave up, and I decided eventually to ignore writers I didn’t know in fields I don’t keep track of – children’s literature in my case. A major editorial claim is for inclusiveness. If there’s a weighting to the inclusiveness it’s in the direction of the past – there is an astonishing number of what the Preface calls obscure or reputedly minor figures, dug up by the prodigious work of Nelson Wattie and Lawrence Jones. Whatever else, the Companion gives the lie to the idea that there isn’t a 19th-century literature or that New Zealand literature lacks quantity. I am all in favour of inclusiveness, and I welcome the very broad approach the Companion has taken to the word “literature” – it is anything but precious in its mapping of the citadel – which is an irreproachably Good Thing; we have after all left Great Traditions behind us. But it is always on the boundaries that contests occur: some of the surveying seems dodgy, and you think you would have drawn that bit of the map differently.

So it is with the Companion. Here are a few of my questions about it. I can’t, for example, really see why Patrick White gets an entry on the strength of a few opinions about New Zealand, even though what is said about him is interesting, or why Karl Wolfskehl should have n longer entry – about double – than Ian Wedde. Why does Winifred Davin have her own entry when she doesn’t meet the editors’ requirements of “at least two books” and seems to be there as a partner in a way that no one else is? Why is James Belich given an entry and not Miles Fairburn or Jock Phillips, whose work has quite as much to do with New Zealand writing as Belich’s?

Why in fact are there so few historians and so many composers and artists? I can see the argument that’s being made here – that composers and artists use New Zealand literary texts in some way, but it’s thin in patches (where do artists’ books come in the literary discussion?) and I would argue that a book like A Man’s Country has a lot of connections with things identified as important to New Zealand literature, starting with Man Alone. Alison Gray comes in as a novelist but appears alone among sociologists while – for example – Jane and James Ritchie are absent though their Violence in New Zealand seems on the face of it to have more to with what is going on in prominent New Zealand writing than The Jones Men. Why isn’t Bridget Williams mentioned, a publisher who established pioneering imprints, when many other publishers are?

These are boundary questions which any editor would answer differently – my point is not to criticise Robinson and Wattie for the decisions they have made but simply to point out that these are choices which affect the shape of the Companion and its inclusiveness in ways which amount to a cultural reading of what “literature” might be.

Although the above were questions which occurred to me while reading the Companion, and a completely different range would occur to readers with other hobbyhorses, I did notice one area of partial absence which I thought was more problematic and that was critical writing. I am of the view, and I am sure the editors are too, that critical writing is essential to the dissemination and development of a literature. Not just because it evaluates, but because it provides the discursive context in which a literature is received on its deepest level.

I thought the Companion was a bit patchy on this. Critical texts are sometimes mentioned in an entry on a writer or a work and sometimes not, there seems to be no general agreement about that, or whether they are produced as part of the body of work of a writer who also writes literary texts.

There are some exceptions, like Terry Sturm, Lawrence Jones, Mark Williams. If you were to go to the Companion looking for a place to start with critical discourse you would have difficulty finding it. I think it would have been useful to include this as a key word category just as much as “Landscape” or “Dalmatians in New Zealand literature”. The book I noticed missing was Heather Roberts’ Where Did She Come From?, a pioneering work on early women writers. It would be helpful, if you were an overseas scholar, as many readers will be, to have a point in the Companion where you were directed to Roberts’ book or a number of other important critical texts, as a guide or a nudge to the other writing of literature. Major writers – Frame, Mansfield, Baxter (but not Curnow) – have these references built into their entries, but I am thinking more of texts which take a look at writing outside the “majors” and is harder to access. Many of Frame’s novels and Mansfield’s stories get individual entries – excellent critical descriptions/ readings of the text by Kim Worthington (Frame) and Sarah Sandley (Mansfield) – but I would have liked some glimpse of the critical reception of these texts, most of which trail a large bibliography of their own.

The Preface also draws attention to the comparative absence – in relation to the English or American Companions for instance – of entries on characters in literature, a point I would have missed if it hadn’t been presented to me, but since it was I looked up the entry on Barbara, Mary Scott’s farmer’s wife, and found it disappointingly thin on why she might be there. A lot of implied judgement operates in the Companion, in the form of choices and length of entries, and sometimes explicitly, in the form of adjectives such as the entry on Edward Shortland, author of the marvellous The Southern Districts of New Zealand, which concludes an admirable description of Shortland’s life and work with the remark that it remains “valid”. I pondered on the force and placement of that adjective. Does it mean Shortland won’t be valid one day? Adjectives are the slipperiest part of writing, and in a book where every word in an entry does a lot of work, they take on considerable weight.

But these are really patrolling-the-wire remarks, places where I thought the fence dipped or the topography left something to be desired. I don’t think any Companion in any literature could do a better job than this one and not produce its share of queries and disagreements. The amount of work done by the editors, both as compilers/creators of the text and as entry writers, is astounding – there are more than a few pages where the editors reign supreme, especially Robinson who must have picked up a huge number of entries personally. The key word entries are imaginative, broad-ranging and helpful as field surveys, and the standard of entries is consistently high for interest, clarity and information. It is a book full of treasure. I am glad to know that Dulcie Deamer (a name I did know) was crowned Queen of Bohemia in 1925 in a King’s Cross pub, and was notorious for “acting out her Stone Age theme by wearing a leopard skin in public”. That gem was provided by Nelson Wattie.

Lydia Wevers was one of the contributors to the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English and is currently working on the History of Print Culture project.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Language, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category