One of the Porlock people
Patrick Evans makes a convincing argument in the most recent Journal of New Zealand Literature (“Dr Clutha’s Book of the World: Janet Patterson Frame, 1924-2004”) that “taking control of her own life-story” was a significant factor in Janet Frame’s devotion to her writing. Perhaps the desire for control over life exists in all writers to some degree, but in Frame it was especially strong. There is an obvious connection between extreme shyness and the desire to control how others perceive you – and from this comes the desire to control how readers perceive your story through the manipulation of literary style. Frame was certainly a brilliant literary stylist.
All this may help to explain why Frame’s autobiography is such an exception in her writing life. Michael King’s biography, Wrestling With the Angel, chronicles a steady decline in Frame’s literary productivity through the late 1960s and 1970s (though the quality of her writing was, if anything, improving). Following treatment at London’s Maudsley Hospital, Frame revived her life and literary career by writing three novels and two collections of short stories over two years up to late 1962 – and all in a noisy flat. But Frame’s orderly publication dates through much of the later 1960s disguise the fact that her publisher was playing catch-up, and at last there was a seven-year hiatus between Daughter Buffalo (1972) and Living in the Maniototo (1979). In addition, King shows that more and more of Frame’s output was written while overseas, as she complained increasingly of distractions at home. But then in early 1980, immediately after the publication of Living in the Maniototo, King shows Frame beginning her autobiography in New Zealand and working at it indefatigably. She rushes the first volume into print. Nothing around her seems to prevent her from writing quickly, and she completes the work, despite several moves overseas and back, by late 1984.
Admittedly, there could be many reasons why Frame’s life-story may have flowed easily from her practised pen. But why did she start when she did, and work so hard? According to Evans’ article, he began investigating her life in 1976, and I think his actions may have been a factor. King records that Frame saw Evans’ Twayne World Authors book about her in the Stratford Public Library in 1978, and also that, shortly before this, the book’s use as a source by another academic provoked Frame to write Evans a remarkably intemperate letter. It seems odd that a few factual errors concerning her life should have so incensed Frame that she called Evans “one of the Porlock people”. But perhaps it was the realisation that her life-story was once again slipping beyond her control which caused the shy and reclusive Janet Frame to begin an autobiography for publication as soon as possible. Far from being “one of the Porlock people”, it may be that Evans can take some credit for having initiated a literary masterpiece.
After Frame published her autobiography, King shows the pattern of declining fecundity returning to her writing life. She produced only one more novel, The Carpathians (1988). Evans refers in his article to the “hardening” of the “official narrative” of Frame’s life-story that followed the appearance of the autobiography and the success of its film version. Indeed, the great event of Frame’s remaining years was the publication of King’s biography itself in 2000, which did little to disturb the established view of her life. We can hope that this may have brought Frame some much-deserved peace of mind in her old age.
Bad review? Get over it
So Gordon McLauchlan (“Reviewing the reviewers”, Comment, NZB August 2004) had what he considers a bad review from an academic and is feeling aggrieved. Tough – but it happens. It certainly doesn’t justify 1800 words of self-exoneration and the wild assertion that “the New Zealand level of performance [in reviewing] is slumping”. What evidence does he have – apart, of course, from this one review? And what exactly does McLauchlan mean when he claims that “some of the country’s best creative writing is done by journalists”? He gives no explanation and no examples.
Shame on you for squandering more than a page of your precious space (see Editorial, same issue) on this sort of lazy, off-the-top-of-the-head impression and self-therapy masquerading as informed and considered comment. The pity of it is that a serious discussion needs to be had about the hostility between journalists and academic critics – a conflict also evident in your new editorial regime, by the way. McLauchlan’s shoddy piece does no service to responsible journalism or to the reputation of New Zealand Books.
What you know
Fiona Kidman is quite right to support Mark Doty and Iain Sharp in their pleas for more positive reviewing which focuses on craft and “the best intentions of the writer” (NZB October 2004). Many New Zealand fiction writers have suffered from reviewers who have been more intent on reviewing the author’s morality, or presumed autobiographical behaviour in the writing, than what a book sets out to achieve and whether or not it succeeds. I was prompted by Fiona Kidman’s letter to see whether, in this context, her criticism of Heather Murray’s review of Catherine Chidgey’s The Transformation (NZB August 2004) was justified.
Murray’s thesis in writing her review was to test Bill Manhire’s dictum of “(1) write what you know and (2) write what you don’t know”. This has become a reverberating cliché whenever creative writing courses are discussed, and the Manhire courses, with their concomitant degrees, honours, awards and publishing connections are regarded as the most important and successful in the country. They are seen to offer a career path for new writers with excellent media and international publication openings. The most celebrated of the new writers, such as Chidgey, are lauded as the leading products of the Manhire programme and generously rewarded and promoted. Given this, it seems perfectly reasonable to test the Manhire dictum against the work of someone who is held up as a star pupil.
Murray devotes most of her review to an analysis of The Transformation and concludes that Chidgey has taken “(2) write what you don’t know” too far. She does not say that it is a bad book or that the author has dandruff but that, for her, it does not succeed. She then sounds a cautionary note about young writers taking the second part of the Manhire dictum too much to heart. Although it is unfavourable, the review does not seem “unduly personal”.
Iain Sharp wrote in Landfall about the problem reviewers have with giving writers praise, echoing some of the mean spirit that still persists in what Jamie Belich has described as our “tight society”. What we really need – all the time – is honesty: for reviewers to attend not to the author, but to the work and the professional circumstances surrounding the work, and to give proper praise where it is due and fair criticism where it is not.
Il Duce Muldoon
Your reviewer of Muldoon Revisited (NZB October 2004), who thinks that Muldoon should be linked with Mussolini rather than with Richard Nixon or L B Johnson, will be pleased to know that the analogy has already been made. A 1968 cover of the student magazine Cock shows a cartoon entitled “Il Duce Benito Muldoon”. The byline, “Sketch by George Wilder”, might be satirical.
J H Bentley