The importance of being earnest
Palmerston North writer Craig Harrison once glumly observed in an interview with one of us that, although the trend might be apparent only to someone who had read all 140 entries in Palmerston North’s Evening Standard short story competition, the truth was that New Zealand fiction was downright gloomy: “Humour doesn’t sell here. That’s because they don’t publish it.” And he cited small public library shelves devoted to Humour, and holding “eight slim volumes of Barry Crump writing about rats in sleeping bags”.
In 1998, the other one of us (along with Hugh Roberts) co-edited a selection of New Zealand comic verse called How You Doing? There was no lack of good material – from Allen Curnow to Peter Cape, Janet Frame to Charlotte Yates – but some of the living authors baulked at the adjective “comic”. They didn’t write “comic” poems, they said, clearly finding the term pejorative. But when “satiric” was added to the title, they were happy to be included. The introduction to How You Doing? discussed the absence of humour in our art and literature:
The archetypal New Zealand novel, short story or film is instantly recognisable by its grim devotion to a dispiriting realism. As Patrick Evans described the typical Frank Sargeson story: “Someone not very bright is going to tell us about somewhere not very nice.”
But that was 10 and 20 years ago – surely things have changed? Not according to Paul Thomas, who at the launch of his latest novel, described much local fiction as the literary equivalent of milk of magnesia – if it hurts, it must be good for you.
So are we really still as dour – and masochistic – as all that? Do we actually prefer our fiction nasty and brutish, if not poor and short? One rough guide might be to think of how many comic (and satiric) novels show up at our annual book awards. A few names and titles do suggest themselves: Stephanie Johnson’s The Shag Incident won the 2003 Deutz Medal, the year that William Brandt’s The Book of the Film of the Story of my Life was long-listed. Brandt’s short story collection Alpha Male won the 1999 Montana New Zealand best first book award (perhaps because of the hilarious “Rat” factor), as did Duncan Sarkies’ darkly funny Stray Thoughts and Nosebleeds in 2000, and Julian Novitz’s wry My Real Life and Other Stories in 2005. So, on the whole, you’re allowed to be funny when you’re young and promising, but once you’ve arrived, you’re expected to be “serious”.
As if funny and serious are mutually exclusive. If they were, where would that leave Alison Lurie, David Lodge, Richard Russo, Roddy Doyle, Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Franzen, Marina Lewycka et al? We can be proud of a clutch of cartoonists, comedians, columnists and children’s writers, but, these aside, try naming your top 10 New Zealand comic authors. For every Johnson and Brandt, we can come up with 10 home-grown fiction writers who wouldn’t dream of trying to make their readers smile, let alone laugh. Maybe the real issue is not so much that
we’re incapable of producing funny fiction as that we don’t finally look up to it. The earnest post-colonial legacy, perhaps: if it makes you laugh, it doesn’t impress.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway