Chris Else examines the literary contradictions between local content and global success
I work in the creative writing industry. I teach courses, write assessments and act as a literary mentor. I believe in what I do. My advice has helped a number of books get published, and I have made a small contribution to the careers of one or two of our most successful authors. Sometimes, though, I am bemused by the whole business. The very idea of it seems a betrayal of all I once stood for.
Thirty-five years ago I was one of a group of young writers around Auckland University. We organised happenings and put on plays we had written. We ran magazines and published literary manifestos. We talked and we read and we wrote. The suggestion that anyone could have taught us anything would have been laughable. There was nothing to be learned. Literature was who we were, a way of being. A creative writing programme would have seemed as relevant as an iron lung.
In truth, we had everything such a programme might have provided – the support, the encouragement, the mentoring, the critical assessments. Some of this came from university courses and from those who taught them but most of it we got from each other and from our reading. It was informal, extracurricular – despite the institution rather than because of it.
This situation fostered certain attitudes. For us, writing was not a career. Careers require measures of success and a stable framework in which to achieve objectives. To be a successful writer you have to sell books and this means keeping readers happy. We had no intention of keeping anyone happy. We were more interested in tearing down the framework than in working within it. If we dreamed of fame, it was always on our own terms. We knew we were right and everyone else was wrong. We were politicised. By this, I do not mean that the content of the work was political, although it sometimes was. I mean rather that we saw writing, our kind of writing, as a subversive or revolutionary force. At the same time, though, it was also an individual endeavour. Me, here, now, doing my thing, engaging the world in an act of self-assertion. The first issue of Freed (July, 1969), begins with this Alan Brunton rave:
FOR TOO LONG IN THIS COUNTRY THE/LITERAL VERB & INADVERTENCE OF FORM./ THE WHISPER OF DEPENDENCE IN OUR/ RECEIVED POETRY AND NOWHERE THE STRUGGLE WITH THE THEORY
NOW A NEW GROUP RECOGNISING/ANCESTORS OUT OF VESPUCCI’S/MAD CUT-UP CONTINENT DESTROYING/THAT LAST WORLD FEELING OF/ MINORITY WHICH HAS MANHANDLED/ OUR WORDS INTO A GEORGIAN/ ATTITUDE OF INDIFFERENCE
THE DELIBERATE CONCEIT OF REMOTE-/NESS WILL BE NO LONGER! INSTEAD A/NEW THEORY OF PERCEPTION IN THE LURKHOLE OF OUR INSPIRATION; NEW HEROES RIPPED INTO OUR WORLD BUT/OF THE BELLY OF NOW.
Young poets tend to talk like this. Think of the Modernists early last century and the Romantics at the end of the 18th. Iconoclastic pronouncements don’t necessarily make convincing or coherent reading even 30 years on. Still, whatever one thinks of what Brunton had to say (and, with many qualifications and varying degrees of commitment, we all agreed with it at the time), he does not sound like a graduate of a creative writing course embarking on the carefully planned first steps in a literary career.
The creative writing industry was recently questioned by Patrick Evans (“The baby factory”, New Zealand Listener, August 16, 2003), who examined the work of writers associated with Bill Manhire’s highly successful programme at Victoria University. Evans suggested that, notable as their achievements were, these writers exemplified an undesirable trend towards what he calls the “commodification” of New Zealand literature. He bases his argument on a particular view of what constitutes excellence in a piece of writing. This is a “significant connection between an individual writing sensibility and a comprehensive, meaningfully localised world”. This connection results in work that is original, idiosyncratic and individuated. He thinks that many of the writers he discusses have abandoned these qualities in favour of something that is “bland” and “homogenised”, deliberately calculated to appeal to a global market – McLiterature, in other words.
In reply, Damien Wilkins (Booknotes, 143) sought to rebuff the suggestion that Manhire’s programme results in writing with any recognisably common characteristics. He points to the great variety of work that has come out of Manhire’s courses and to the fact that some of this work exemplifies precisely those qualities that Evans claims to value most. Creative writing classes, he implies, do not produce McLiterary clones, they encourage quality and diversity.
Wilkins is certainly right, at least to the extent that he identifies a weak point in Evans’ case. Evans cites a number of writers, among them Tina Shaw, Charlotte Randall, and Wilkins himself, who, he believes, have moved from work that demonstrates the qualities he admires to more recent work that is “bland”, “processed”, “polite and well-behaved”. Other writers such as Elizabeth Knox and Catherine Chidgey have abandoned New Zealand as a setting for their fiction and gone to other times and other places in an attempt to appeal to a global audience.
None of this can be laid at Manhire’s door, however. Some of these writers are not Manhire graduates and even if they all were, the most that Evans’ criticism could mean is that they have left behind the fine writing they did when they were fresh out from under their mentor’s influence and moved on to something Evans finds inferior.
Other respondents to Evans were just as quick to condemn him, accusing him, among other things, of exaggeration, error, envy, male chauvinism (possibly), outmoded regionalism and conspiracy theory. Some of this criticism is justified but the heat with which it was delivered did little to clarify the issues. I believe that, despite the faults in his argument, Evans has a point. It is not, however, about what happens in the creative writing classroom but about the effect that a successful creative writing industry has on the attitudes of young writers.
Evans’ critics accuse him of advocating an obsolete regionalism and, indeed, he does sometimes seem to suggest that good fiction requires a specificity of place that, in its turn, might imply both regionalism and realism. Responses to this tend to be scornful. You mean to say we have to write about New Zealand? That’s ridiculous. Why can’t we write about wherever and whenever and in whatever manner we choose?
Such appeals to artistic freedom are disingenuous, however. If you are aiming for publication in America, you can’t write about whatever you choose. You would be ill-advised to write about New Zealand for a start and if you did pick a New Zealand subject in a New Zealand setting you would be much better off if you wrote about Maori. Americans are not interested in New Zealand and the British don’t care much either. The European strand in our culture is not exotic enough to arouse curiosity and many of its preoccupations are largely irrelevant to people living in the context of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the War in Iraq.
It is conceivable that a good enough writer could transcend these difficulties, that a novel about the election of the president of the Taihape RSA could reach the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. What is inconceivable, however, is that any writer would embark on such a project with a realistic expectation that this book would be the one to launch them onto the American market. Here is the key to the problem Evans has identified. If overseas publication is to be a career objective rather than just a fond hope or a crazy dream, you have to do something about aligning yourself with your American or British readership. But what? Here are three strategies: go and live there; steep yourself in their culture even more thoroughly than you are steeped already; find subjects to write about that engage your imagination but that you think will also appeal to theirs.
When Emily Perkins and Kirsty Gunn chose to live in the UK and when Charlotte Randall and Elizabeth Knox set their novels in 18th century Europe, they were following such strategies. And guess what? It works.
These decisions do not, inevitably, lead to an inferior kind of writing – as Evans suggests – but they do raise questions about what is happening to our literature. We don’t want to insist that our writers always write about New Zealand. But do we want them never to do so? Or only to do so in their first novels before they take off into the big wide world? Local content is only one aspect of the problem, the most obvious. More important, perhaps, are subtler issues of values and approach.
There is a certain kind of writing that results from a writer’s immediate engagement with the proximate world. I don’t mean realism in the treatment. I mean confrontation and involvement with a particular, personal reality that consists as much in the social, political, cultural and intellectual environment as it does in the physical. The Freed poets are an example. They were not regionalist in spirit. They were global. They read American poetry and were inspired by the ideas of Charles Olsen. They wrote, however, from the place where they lived, a New Zealand here and now. They were not trying to export themselves to America. They were trying to import something from America and use it here to confront the literary and social establishment. Their work was raw and sometimes crude but it was also exciting, original, and full of energy. It enlivened the local scene and it invigorated the poetry. It would not have happened if Brunton, Haley, Wedde, Edmond and the like were first and foremost intent on finding themselves a publisher in New York.
This, then, is the grain of truth in Evans’ case. Bill Manhire is successful. Some of his graduates have achieved great things. They are the proof to aspirants, young and old, that you can have a literary career. You could even make a living out of it. If you’re good enough, you can sell your books in America and England and have them translated into 40 foreign languages. You might never have to have any other job. And the media will love you because you’re one of ours standing tall amongst them over there. And the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage (or at least her associate) will recognise you and talk to you at cocktail parties. What 20-something wouldn’t jump at the chance? And, like Cairns’ fudge, there’s nothing wrong with it, at least not in principle.
The problem is that the dream involves a paradox, a Faustian dilemma. If it is true, as I think it is, that the best writing any writer can do comes out of an immediate engagement with a particular, individual, localised experience then New Zealand writers cannot do their best work while at the same time living in New Zealand and working to satisfy a global audience. Let’s be clear here. I am not talking about regionalism and realism. I am talking about a confrontation with life that could result in any mode of expression, including surrealism and fantasy. It is the confrontation that needs to be particular and localised not the expression.
If, on the other hand, the confrontation is compromised by the perceived needs of an overseas audience of which the writer has only a vague and generalised awareness, then the writing runs the risk, in Evans’ phrase, of becoming bland and homogenised. The paradox, then, comes down to this: if global success depends on writing well, then the best way to achieve it is to abandon success as an objective and to do your own thing here and now. This is exactly what a good creative writing course will encourage you to do. However, a successful creative writing industry tends to have the opposite effect. It draws the socialisation of writers into our institutions and encourages careerism, an attitude that undermines its own aims.
What can be done? One thing that might help is a reversal of what seems to be a governmental and, hence, Creative New Zealand policy on literature. We should not be trying to sell our writers overseas until we have first of all sold them here. New Zealand readers of fiction read mostly overseas writers. My guess is there at least 10 Rose Tremains read for every Barbara Anderson. We need to turn this around. We need a bigger and much more diverse local market for our literature. If we get it, and I believe we can, then we will have a stronger local publishing industry, a greater sense of our national literary identity and, most importantly of all, we will encourage an environment in which our writers can produce the best work they are capable of.
Chris Else is a partner in TFS Literary Agency and Assessment Service. His fourth novel will be published by Random House in 2004.