Doug Munro makes some strange misrepresentations and errors in his review of Robert Louis Stevenson: His Best Pacific Writings (NZB August 2004). His claim that the use of two “obsolete” place names shows “insufficient familiarity” with the region means he must have missed my explanation of that editorial policy. (It’s because Stevenson, naturally, uses the older forms.) To suggest that I propagate a “legendary romance” view of Stevenson in the Pacific (a quotation taken from the back cover) fundamentally misrepresents a book whose main theme is that Stevenson’s response was “tragic”, and sought “the smell and the look of the thing” instead of “being carried away by the romance”. To complain of “literary criticism ad nauseam” about Stevenson’s Pacific writings is equally misleading, when such criticism is sparse at best, and before my book virtually non-existent on the non-fiction, letters, and poems. My critical argument that A Footnote to History is a precursor of Granta-style journalism is a radical one, and it’s disappointing to see it ignored. Dr Munro also skipped Albert Wendt’s insistence in his foreword that “Tusitala” means “Writer of tales”, not “Teller of tales”, which Munro supplies. The book uses Wendt’s translation throughout. The most serious of many such oversights is the review’s disregard of the book’s essentially literary purpose. But even on the historical and biographical matters it prefers, to assert categorically that Stevenson’s political writings had “remarkably little impact” seems wrong, when Bismarck’s Germany took Footnote seriously enough to ban it.
Keep up the good work
I have to read review journals from 8.30 am to 5 pm most of my working life, and just wanted to tell you I am so enjoying New Zealand Books. At last, here is a journal I’d pick up with the same interest as I would The Literary Review. I don’t buy our New Zealand titles so haven’t had it circulated to me previously, but I’ll now make a point of reading it just for my own pleasure. I wish for your sake it could be in A4 format; is it cost? The curse of the New Zealand literary journal. Ah well, just a “keep up the good work” encomium from a librarian who has read them all.
The praise problem
I thought Heather Murray’s review of Catherine Chidgey’s novel The Transformation was unduly personal (NZB August 2004). I have only a passing acquaintance with Ms Chidgey but I find it hard to believe a young writer deserves such stern treatment. I can’t see that the writer’s appearance is important to the review, nor how the book was funded. Public funding cannot guarantee a book every critic will admire, and private funding seems to me a matter between donor and recipient. As for where she learned her craft (in Bill Manhire’s IIML classes), this seems irrelevant too. (Or, perish the thought, was that the real issue?)
This approach to criticism is increasingly tiresome, although I’ve a feeling we are moving towards some shifts in attitude. I was pleased, for instance, to see Gordon McLauchlan’s level-headed defence of his work in the same issue. And anyone who cares about critical standards could not have failed to respond to American writer Mark Doty, at the last International Festival of the Arts, when he talked about the teaching of writing reviews. Negative criticism is easy to write, he said, almost anyone can do it if they set their minds to it. It is much harder to write interesting reviews (for that, read entertaining journalism) that are positive, or tease out the best intentions of the writer, and discuss craft in a meaningful way; it’s reviewing based on the love of literature, not the loathing of successful individuals.
Meanwhile, in the latest Landfall, in a wonderfully funny and very astute essay called “The Praise Problem”, Iain Sharp has challenged New Zealand critics to think generously and have the courage to say of a work they enjoy that it is simply “marvellous” or words to that effect. It’s a grown-up enthusiasm many overseas reviewers have long succumbed to, but remarkably few have discovered in this country. By hedging their bets, our local punters can say, well, ahem, you know, I didn’t say I exactly liked it.
This is not a plea for every book to get a glowing review. I am not Pollyanna. It would just be great to learn what a reviewer thinks about a book, without snide and wounding asides.