Critic and literary historian Mark Williams describes how he learnt to love his feminine side
Adolescents commonly write poetry, but they write poems to themselves rather than for an audience. If they write for others, it is usually to interest them in the drama of the self or to project a desirable version of the self to an ideally attentive reader. Few have the detached professionalism of Katherine Mansfield, already as a teenager contemptuous of romantic sincerity and busily experimenting with different literary styles and noms de plume in her diaries.
As a schoolboy in the late 1960s my poetic hero was Dylan Thomas, whose drunkenness and lecherousness I interpreted as a romantic refusal to accept the constraints of normality rather than markers of his disintegration. Besides, Thomas was interested in words more than their meanings, and this louche surrealism I connected with my other poetic model of the day, the psychedelic slush of contemporary rock music, especially Cream’s Disraeli Gears – which I once translated freely into French for an assignment, dazzling the teacher with my plagiarism. I also wrote poetry of two distinct kinds: obscene ballads and dreamy word-spinning lyrics peopled by girls named Adelphine. The former was written to be read in the sense that it aimed to convince my sceptical schoolfellows that I was rampantly heterosexual. The latter was closely based on various late-Romantic models and, taking it to be the genuine article, I wisely kept it to myself.
In my last year at St Peter’s College – just below Auckland Grammar – a poetry contest was announced, to be judged by a famous old boy of the school, the irreproachably, indeed fabulously, heterosexual Sam Hunt. With a mixture of abject trepidation and absurd confidence, I sent off a small selection of my romantic and private verse and waited for the rapt reply. It came, late and brief, and the form of address was even more wounding than the rejection that followed: “Dear Miss Williams ….”
Sam Hunt was a scrupulous and discerning critic. He actually replied to even the most maladroit of the teenage poetasters who flooded his mailbox with their sub-confessional outpourings. He had read my verse attentively enough to judge its author by the tone and atmosphere in which he wrapped his dithering persona. But Sam, for all the hearty sexual knowledge his rock-troubadour verse boasted, was no judge of gender. He made the basic mistake of those stuck at one end of Mansfield’s “whole octave” of sexuality by assuming that an external manner reliably denotes true identity.
Many years later, I had another experience of gender confusion, this time in journalistic form. Back in New Zealand after five years earning an apparently unmarketable PhD, I found myself writing for a brave exercise in leftwing publishing, New Outlook. This bi-monthly magazine of articles, opinion and often savage reviews was published by the incredibly long-suffering Peter Davis, who never withdrew financial support when sales figures languished or editors departed, not even when the magazine became besotted with Bob Jones and switched from sober Leftism to the exuberantly brutalist Right.
In my time Graham Adams was editor. An optimist in the face of market indifference, Graham gave the impression that our struggling magazine was ever about to jump into advertisers’ paradise by achieving enough subscribers to be professionally graded, and he would try to convince those of us with other jobs, however fragile, to abandon them for the courageous enterprise of independent journalism. On one occasion, when I had written at least two reviews for one issue, Graham suggested that I use a pseudonym to avoid giving the impression that the magazine had only one or two reviewers.
I thus became “Melanie Harris” for a time. Melanie, it must be noted, was easily inhabited; Iain Sharp occupied her in October. Nor was I the first New Outlook writer to use a pseudonym. Anne French had already been Holly Page and Catherine Elliott. I had no control over which piece would be assigned to Melanie, so could not concoct a style especially for her. I simply wrote the reviews we favoured at New Outlook, full of venom and vigour. After the reviews appeared, Graham told me with satisfaction that a woman friend of his, of strongly feminist politics, had told him: “You know, I hate Mark Williams’ reviews, but I love Melanie Harris.”
I’m rather pleased to have contributed thus surreptitiously to the feminist movement of the mid-1980s. At the time, I was always worried about accidentally saying something offensively masculine to feminists and receiving the swift rhetorical drubbing that inevitably followed. But what really interests me about the friend’s mistake is the flaw it reveals in how readily we assign value to capacious categories like gender and how even those who war against outdated stereotypes fall easily into new ones. Clearly, the editor’s friend had learned by rote the prevailing system of gender ascriptions that neatly upset traditional ones: women were strong, independent, powerful, forthright and uncompromising, hence Melanie Harris was admirable. The same qualities displayed by men – in this case, me – were judged oppressive and sexist.
Perhaps in the intervening years I’ve simply become carapaced in indifference to those who object to my errant politics, but it seems to me that the shaming value of the fierce slogans of 1980s politics has dissipated along with the lure of sexual militancy. Lesbian separatism is no longer urgently advocated as the necessary political choice for undergraduate women. The words ‘heterosexism” and “phallologocentrism” have mercifully fallen into the dustbin of even bluestocking usage. There are no longer “Lesbian Only” streets in Herne Bay.
It’s tempting to see this as a move away from political activism towards quietism and withdrawal. But I would argue that the terms of our collective politics have become more sophisticated: political engagement has become less concerned with abstractions and more attentive to the particular, and this shift is neatly registered in our literature. The key novels of the 1980s were the bone people and The Matriarch, novels in which the characters’ situations were representative of the cultural obsessions of the time and were heavily invested with authorial viewpoint. In the key novels of the 1990s and 2000s – Wilkins’ Chemistry, Knox’s Vintner’s Luck, Jagose’s Slow Water – there is a concentration on specific histories, exactly realised locales, and the characters don’t seem to have leapt directly from the author’s musings on colonial history or whitebaiting.
Mansfield as a young woman was less interested in the self than in the range of selves she might invent. Out of this profusion of personae, she fashioned a coherency that knits together all she wrote. She was chary about identifying herself as a feminist, though well aware of the movement and profoundly sympathetic to women. It was the small exactnesses of life she wanted to catch rather than embrace already given explanations, and this disciplined attention to the contingent and the actual connects her to the present. Above all, she knew that we do not meet the author when reading a text. The point is not that the author is dead or absent, rather the author is at best an unreliable presence.
The African-American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr illustrated this in an essay on a literary fraud in which a book taken to be a “true” account of being raised by Cherokee Indians and an authentic work of Native American literature turned out to be written by the man who wrote George Wallace’s notorious “Segregation today … Segregation tomorrow … Segregation forever” speech. Gates also recounted a wager between Roy Eldridge and the music critic Leonard Feather as to whether, blindfolded, Eldridge could distinguish black musicians from white ones. When Feather dropped the needle onto a selection of records, “more than half the time Eldridge guessed wrong”. So the trick is not to play the game of meeting the author; meeting his words is enough, and even the “his” should sometimes be “her”.