Letters – Issue 54

The irrelevance of gender

Vivienne Jepsen’s review of my novella Heart of the  Volcano in the June issue reeks of neo-moral demolition, but its obsolete, 1980s-style, aggressive feminism reveals a clear inability to read a text. As a piece of critiquing, it can only be described as an awful embarrassment.

There are glib “recognitions” – Castaneda, Hemingway – which are in fact crude inaccuracies. There is nothing of Castaneda or Hemingway here – if anything, the model is Graham Greene: the antihero wandering through dangerous tropical countries making an ass of himself and getting into trouble. The “mandatory” (and why mandatory?) Brit is probably Greene-inspired. And if Greene was the necessary source to recognise such a person, well and good, for Major Blewitt is based on two people I have met.

Jepsen says that Birgot is unreal. In fact, she is closely modelled on a real person. Nor is Grant worried that she can climb a mountain better than he can, as Jepsen mistakenly asserts. The fact is, Juan and Birgot are much younger and fitter than the middle-aged and unfit Grant – that’s why they are better at climbing. It’s youth, fitness and energy that are the factors here – not gender.

It’s possible Jepsen lacks the requisite life experience to assess the events described in Heart of the Volcano. In New Zealand and one would hope most countries, trampers and mountaineers stick together and a party travels as fast as its slowest member. What I tried to make clear – and it is based on real experience – is that here we have a party where the younger fitter members surge ahead and flout all the rules – they smoke, don’t conserve supplies, lose or surreptitiously consume foodstuffs – and get away with it. Grant feels isolated and demoralised because the even older Suloski leaves at the critical moment. He is then left alone on the side of the volcano ten thousand feet up, with diminishing water and food and no sleeping bag. If Jepsen has ever had this kind of experience, she may find gender considerations have a way of vanishing like mist.

Jaded men pursuing the mastery of women rings very oddly to my ears. Grant is trying to sort out his relationship with Helen, and the lively Suloski refers cheerfully to past times but he is not jaded. Whoever he encounters he enlivens. He zooms up the mountain, hoping Grant will follow in like manner, but Grant hasn’t the energy and the peyote is distracting him. Incidentally, peyote is used in small doses to give strength – Grant is unusually reactive and hallucinates.

What Heart of the Volcano is about is how each of the individuals climb the mountain for different reasons, and above all it is about survival.

Lastly, Jepsen refers to the “phoney” leopard on the cover. It’s a jaguar. Leopards are found in Africa and Asia,
not Central and South America. It’s not just geography that’s amiss here. The book is filled with references to jaguars, and a mythological jaguar man talks to Grant while he sleeps. Possibly Vivienne snoozed through this scene?  In other words, the interiority as well as accurate eco-zoology have sadly passed Jepsen by. Maybe she can do better next time.

Michael Morrissey



The Gang of Four

I’d just like to correct something in Bernadette Hall’s review of my collection The Sky’s Enormous Jug in your March issue. In the first part, she states: “I remember her, [ie, me] long-haired, laughing, on the cover of the newspaper that advertised the New Zealand Society of Authors poetry tour she made with Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Campbell and Sam Hunt.” That’s quite ingenious, as I don’t think the NZSA had yet been “invented”. It was still PEN NZ (Inc.), then. In fact our sponsor was the NZUSA – the New Zealand University Students’ Association – and we became known as the “Gang of Four”, a term Sam coined after Madame Mao and her lot to make us sound a little more like scoundrels.

Jan Kemp



Wellington Writers’ Walkway

An interesting contrast to the Wellington Writers’ Walkway is offered by a recently published little booklet, The Christchurch Writers’ Trail. It explains that the trail consists of modest plaques set up for 32 writers at appropriate spots around the city. Those 32 writers get a half-page write-up each in the booklet. But the booklet also lists 250 other Canterbury writers, giving a grand total of 282 Canterbury writers, in effect an historical coverage to which one would be hard pressed to provide additions (though I would mention myself as a possible addition).

Because the Cantabrians make an effort to be comprehensive, their list looks objective, one that Canterbury people can take pride in, as they do obviously in all aspects of their culture and history. So I don’t expect to learn that vandals have gone to work.

By contrast, in Wellington we have eleven writers singled out in what is in effect self-promotion of a virtually contemporary clique by ostentatious display, which lacks modesty, objectivity, comprehensiveness, history, and so mana in the eyes of the locals.

It wouldn’t hurt if Wellington were more like Christchurch, not just at football but also at culture.

F W Nielsen Wright



Mental submersibles

I’ve just finished reading (and enjoying) the June edition of New Zealand Books. I wonder whether you ever get (let alone wish for) any reader feedback? My experience of these things is that negative feedback is promiscuously on offer but positive feedback somewhat scarcer – possibly on account of some as yet undiagnosed, postmodern embarrassment generated by the disarming simplicity of uncomplicated praise.

Whatever the reason, I have been meaning for ages to communicate to you the enjoyment New Zealand Books provides me – which is no mean feat given that I
subscribe to too much and don’t read enough. But your editorial has prompted me to write – because I too read Ferdinand Mount’s piece in the Times Literary Supplement, mentally endorsed it and also thought at the time that, its limitations taken into account, New Zealand Books had every right to feel pleased with itself (which, the tone of your editorial suggests, you do too – and why not!).

I’ve subscribed to the TLS for about 20 years and consider it the one subscription I would never relinquish, desert islands and suchlike notwithstanding. It’s like a sort of mental submersible that awaits me each week – you get in, close the hatch and all extraneous material is filtered out for the length of a dive made in the presence of a generally congenial crowd. What I rather like is the leavening of reviews with one or two regular columns, the odd straight essay and the correspondence columns (which George Steiner rather cattily described as the “intellectuals’ telegraphic communication system”).

I appreciate the limitations you face and welcome the inclusion of the occasional essay or interview. It’s the regularity of one or two things in the TLS that is particularly comforting – they’re fixed points around which the rest arranges itself. Without aping it, I wonder whether something similar mightn’t be possible? You have some contributors (like Michael King) who are so good that it would be nice to encounter them without the excuse of a review (and in a small country I suspect you have to be particularly chary of preferred reviewer hegemony).

Simon Upton



Agents charging fees

The New Zealand Association of Literary Agents (NZALA) has recently become aware of instances of writers being charged fees by individuals acting as agents in return for promotion or sale of their work. This seems to be in addition to, or instead of, the usual practice of taking commission on the writer’s earnings. The members of NZALA would like to make it clear that this is not the practice of any member of our association and, in our experience, is not the practice of bona fide agents in other parts of the world.

Members of NZALA are all employed on commission, which is agreed individually with their clients. The only fee that may apply is for the additional non-agent role of manuscript assessor. This service provides feedback and advice on writers’ manuscripts. Most members of NZALA do not offer this service. Overseas agents sometimes charge fees for reading unsolicited manuscripts. No member of NZALA currently does this. Charging upfront fees for the selling and promotion of a manuscript is a poor practice. It does not encourage judicious judgement or energetic promotion on the part of the agent and it gives publishers little or no confidence that the work they receive from the agent will be of the necessary standard. It may also lay writers open to exploitation. In the end, it may well prove to be an expensive, time-wasting and ultimately discouraging process for writers who become involved in it. Having someone promote your work for a fee will not, of itself, make that work publishable. Good agents work on commission. We believe this system is the best for everyone concerned: writer, agent, and publisher.

Chris Else
on behalf of NZALA



KM’s Russophilia

The impression conveyed in Natasha Templeton’s review, in the June issue, of Joanna Woods’s Katerina: The Russian World of Katherine Mansfield, that there had been no local exploration of Mansfield’s Russophilia between Antony Alpers’ biography and Woods’s book, is not entirely correct.

Irene Zohrab (Irene Demchenko) has contributed a useful article to the Journal of New Zealand Literature 6 (1988), on “Katherine Mansfield’s previously unknown publications on Anton Chekhov”. Here she published in full and discussed three pieces that appeared in the Athenæum in 1920: on 23 January and 6 February, two instalments of a “Biographical Note” on Chekhov, only going up to 1887, based upon translations by S S Koteliansky of information recorded by Mikhail Pavlovich Chekhov; and, on 16 July, a review of The Cherry Orchard, evidently mainly written by Mansfield, with the sixth and last paragraph evidently by John Middleton Murry. Irene Zohrab’s article, which has not been noticed
by Joanna Woods, was avowedly a modest offering, but it did discuss briefly the contexts for these pieces, in Mansfield’s wider interest in Chekhov, and in subsequent scholarship.

In an article on Mansfield’s criticism, in the same issue of JNZL, David Dowling also gave some attention to her preoccupation with Chekhov.

J C Ross
Massey University, Palmerston North


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