Writing at the Edge of the Universe
ed Mark Williams
Canterbury University Press, $34.95,
I wonder if Patrick Evans realised, when he wrote that salty article about students from Bill Manhire’s Victoria University creative writing programme (New Zealand Listener, 16 August 2003), that it would be the impetus for not only a conference but also a book of essays by some of New Zealand’s literati. Evans maintained that the course was a “conveyor belt to success” and that it “led to a bland, homogeneous writing culture”. The challenge was thrown, and the conference which engendered these essays was held later in 2003, at the Canterbury University Bookshop and at Our City in central Christchurch.
In his introduction, Mark Williams says the conference “brought together practising writers, literary academics, playwrights, scriptwriters, arts administrators, teachers of creative writing, and publishers in a forum where issues might be debated.” Going by the published essays that is so, but who went to this conference? Was it representative of the New Zealand writing scene? Is this book merely a nice rendition of papers presented to a closed coterie of writers from Wellington and Christchurch? So I asked around.
Massey University’s creative writing programme, which has been running since 2001 with over 250 students enrolled annually, knew nothing of the conference. “If we had we would have gone,” says Dr Lisa Emerson, who wrote the first study guide and was instrumental in getting the Massey programme underway. Janine McVeagh, who runs a successful Diploma in Applied Writing at Northland Polytechnic, hadn’t heard about the conference either, but said she too would have been there, had she known. A pity the club was so exclusive: not only would the conference have been more dynamic, so would the ensuing book.
This collection of essays is a boil-up and sometimes a boil-over of opinion on writing, on reviewing, and on creative writing courses. If you are searching for a broad and comprehensive discussion of writing in New Zealand, in which writers from various backgrounds and ethnic diversity appear, this is not the book. No Maori writers are included in the line-up, no Chinese and no Pacific Islanders. When New Zealand has such writers as Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera, it seems strange not to include them. If they couldn’t attend the conference it would surely have been a good idea to have them contribute to the book.
What we have are the “tried and true”: Damien Wilkins, Briar Grace-Smith, Stuart Hoar, Iain Sharp, Owen Marshall, Elizabeth Knox and Patrick Evans, to name some of the luminaries. The opinions are interesting, and the writing, as you would expect, is of a high standard.
Opinion is the definitive word. Iain Sharp writes about reviewing, a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) piece in which he maintains that reviewers on national newspapers have such a heavy workload and such tight deadlines that they cannot possibly read properly the books they are sent. Such an admission seems to denigrate every book review, and if this is the case the next question would be why, then, do newspapers bother? But it is an amusing and cynical piece. It is a pity that because of the constraints of newspaper deadlines and space we don’t have longer articles from him
The point he makes, of course, is that if we do not value book reviews and/or allow reviewers time to review books in a thorough and intelligent way New Zealand writing will only attain the mediocre. Strong critical attack can be useful (if sometimes overwhelming for the reviewee) because it commands a high standard from writers. Our small literary community also makes it difficult to write a strong review without the reviewer being taken to task for making what seems to be a personal attack.
Owen Marshall walks headlong into the debate on creative writing programmes. He makes the point that writing classes do not aim to teach people to be creative, but to show keen prospective writers how to unlock their own creative ability. As he points out,
We might usefully make a comparison with people with musical or artistic ability, and the role in their advancement of courses of instruction. We are not surprised to find that many of our leading actors, artists and musicians have had advanced tuition. Why should it be otherwise with writers?
Creative writing programmes are often criticised for taking away the clear virginal quality of an undiscovered writer’s talent. Marshall has a comment on this too:
Occasionally writing courses are opposed on the grounds that literary talent is intrinsically too precious, individual and fragile to be exposed to the winds of open forum. I have little patience with this ‘don’t brush the bloom off the butterfly’ concept: for a Janet Frame it may be so, but in my experience far more often, the better the writer, the more open to vigorous challenge and experiment he or she usually is.
Critics also propose that creative writing courses will merely excite the already-ordinary into thinking they can become the next great New Zealand novelist. In my experience that is not the case. Of course there are many students who want to write successful work and hope to be published, but many also want to be able to write a coherent logical story about their family history, a story which will be kept within the family. What they are searching for are the tools to enable them to do that. In a time when fewer letters are written, when faxes fade and emails are trashed, the importance of this collecting of social history cannot be over-emphasised. Marshall’s essay underscores the influence such courses can have on our society’s cultural maturity. He gives some interesting examples of the growth of writing programmes in Australian universities, and applauds the appointment of Tom Shapcott as that country’s first professor of creative writing.
Margaret Mahy writes about reading and the connection between the writer and the reader. She says that “Reading can be an operation through which a reader moves into a text and uses it to construct self in ways the initiating writer could not anticipate and may never have intended.” It brings to mind the C S Lewis remark, “We read to know who we are.” Mahy’s essay is a thoughtful progression from the writer to the reader, and a short digression into whether we will ever be seduced from the printed word to the electronic book – a question which seems to arise at every readers and writers gathering across the globe. As she says so clearly and gracefully, “People work hard to make sure words are correctly placed on the page but in the end all that hard work – that necessary precision of writer and editor – is taken over in incalculable ways by the reader out there and becomes part of a mystery.”
A gem is the essay by Peter Simpson of Auckland University, and if you read nothing else in this book, read this. It is written with elegance and humour, and prompts us to reflect on who we are as a literary society. Have we grown and developed at all in the past 54 years? It would seem that the petty arguments and slights still fielded today were evident at that first Writers’ Conference in 1951. There were factions amongst the young and keen writers of the time who argued against the old school holding the reins – and the purse strings. Even though the pace of the 1951 conference was leisurely – it stretched over four days but had only 12 sessions – the arguments were fierce and the positions taken were strongly defended. The surprise is that Peter Simpson was not one of the invited speakers for the later conference, but that omission is redeemed by the inclusion of his essay.
Always, when a book is on the shelves ready for retail, the author or editor can look at it and wish that more, or other, had been done. That will be so with this book, but the important point is that here is a collection of thoughts, ideas and opinions from a selection of New Zealand writers. We don’t have to agree with all the book contains, but it presents an opportunity for everyone interested in the literary life of New Zealand to discuss, argue, and consider writing and reading in this new century, and that has to be healthy.
Rae McGregor is an Auckland writer, teacher and reviewer.