There and now, Janet Wilson

Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction 
Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford (eds)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864736017

The increased tempo of public debate in the last decade over issues such as public policy and the arts, canon formation, audiences and readers, the production and marketing of literature, as well as the broadening of cultural enquiry, has led to a proliferation of collections. Floating Worlds – eight essays on works of fiction published in the last 15 years – follows such volumes as “New” New Zealand (2008); Gothic New Zealand: the Darker Side of Kiwi Culture (2006); On Display: New Essays in Cultural Studies (2004); and Writing at the Edge of the Universe (2004).

To that extent the volume’s celebration of “groundbreaking fiction”, which defines a new mainstream, is marked not just by the contributors’ command of theoretical approaches such as queer theory, postcolonialism and postmodernism; the essays are also responses to ongoing debates about nationalism and the globalisation of culture. Floating Worlds contributes to a general repositioning of the critical enterprise with reference to the new global contexts and practices associated with the post-1999 era, and the Clark government’s cultural relaunch of New Zealand which linked creativity to innovation. An engagement with and critique of the values of the cultural nationalists of the 1930s and the official biculturalism of the 1980s is evident in many essays, and the collection is animated by responses to the critic Patrick Evans’s polemical arguments, outlined in 2003, that New Zealand literature was being “globalised” in writing schools, notably Bill Manhire’s, because it was being produced with an eye to international markets. Evans noted a loss of local reference, and asked whether these can be called New Zealand novels.

Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford launch their new “canon” by challenging the assumptions of Mark Williams’ study of New Zealand fiction, Leaving the Highway (1990). Williams’ canon comprised established writers like Maurice Gee, C K Stead, and Janet Frame, whose works are marked by the “man alone” trope associated with the 1930s cultural nationalism. By contrast, the experimental fiction of the younger post-baby-boom generation studied in Floating Worlds evinces, in Mark Williams’ words, “more complex ways of registering the local […] without recourse to any of the literary nationalisms that had thus far informed New Zealand writing”. This fiction emanates from the Wellington-based group of writers and critics, active since the 1990s through the literary journal Sport, Victoria University Press, and the Bill Manhire writing school at Victoria University of Wellington, the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). Not surprisingly, much of the volume’s critical activity can be traced to the same sites of cultural production: it is a Victoria University Press publication, its editors and four of the contributors either study or teach at Victoria University of Wellington, three of the writers studied – Elizabeth Knox, Paula Morris and Catherine Chidgey – are graduates of the Bill Manhire writing school, while Damien Wilkins now teaches in the IIML.

Wilkins, whose first novel Les Miserables (1993) is regarded as seminal, has articulated key premises of the new fiction as in his essay in Writing at the Edge of the Universe on the importance of the creative writing course. In his excellent opening essay on Les Miserables, Nicholas Wright shows how Wilkins in this textually self-aware novel is interrogating postmodernism and presenting a theory of fiction; its metafiction is “ ‘about’ the work of tendering readings, identities and meaning in the postmodern”. Also prominent in this group is the graphic novelist Dylan Horrocks (whose illustrations provide the covers for both this collection and “New” New Zealand). Hamish Clayton and Mark Williams, writing on Horrocks’ acclaimed graphic novel Hicksville (1998), show how Horrocks parodies the cultural nationalists, and opens up new demotic spaces for contemporary narratives in the realm of high art, reaching new audiences and creating critically active readers. A further collapsing of the literary and social boundaries that informed Williams’ own definition of the canon in 1990 comes with the departure from the recuperative agenda of the Maori Renaissance in the works of part-Maori, American-based writer Paula Morris: in her study of Morris’ novel Hibiscus Coast (2005), Erin Mercer points to the “nowness” of Morris’ work, its international settings and inauthentic, performative tropes linked to hybridised identity structures, thereby drawing an effective comparison with Keri Hulme’s concern with the pre-colonial past in The Bone People and her preoccupation with cultural authenticity. The essays in Floating Worlds illustrate the way that the deterritorialised nationalism promoted by globalisation has reinforced New Zealanders’ distance from the anxieties about settlement and geographical remoteness, promoting a more assured, detached self-definition. The fictions under scrutiny are evidence of a cultural production in which place is no longer the most important explanatory framework. Location is largely a matter of choice, while absence apparently does not diminish proximity to New Zealand: Anne Kennedy is another overseas-based writer; Wilkins, who has spent time in the United States, and Annamarie Jagose, who formerly lived in Melbourne, are both returnees. More significant is the shaking off of the shackles of the New Zealand referent, evident in the overseas settings of 19th century provincial France in Elizabeth Knox’s seminal novel The Vintner’s Luck (1998) and 19th century Florida in Catherine Chidgey’s novel The Transformation (2003). Jane Stafford and Kirstine Moffat, writing on Knox and Chidgey, show how reinventing the nation in their works means ironically playing off the inauthentic against the authentic, or invoking and redeploying the voices and narrative structures of earlier writers.

Detachment, irony, and the embrace of artifice signal a new arrival. The editors argue that the play with stereotypes of New Zealand literature, and the use of disguise and performance to both construct and undermine national identity, show local literature has caught up in sophistication with theoretical models and practices of writing imported to New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. The ways that fiction interacts with theory, for example, are brought out well in Lydia Wevers’ reading of Jagose’s critical writing on queer theory to show the centring of homosexual love in the reimagined historical narrative of her Slow Water (2003) and its figuring of power in sexual discourse; and in Jennifer Lawn’s examination of intertextuality and postcolonial “writing back” in tracing the influence of Dickens’ Great Expectations on Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip.

Although these eight studies of the new literary dispensation – acknowledging irony, critical distance, playfulness, complexity in national identity formation – are well honed, Floating Worlds is ultimately just one more globally inflected version of the debate about the local production of literature. This in itself is no bad thing. However, the editors might have discovered more complexity in locating the local endeavour in relation to the global. For example, they at times seemingly accept an essentialising nationalism as when – as if in answer to Evans’ question about whether globalised fiction can also be labelled as New Zealand – they quote Morris’ assertion that, despite her overseas habitation: “I’m a New Zealander, so that makes me a New Zealand writer.” This also evades the particularities of diasporic writing, a term which might equally well describe Morris’ fiction: the intersection of migrant subjects with host cultures, the new reference points and subjectivities emerging from diasporic relocation, the questioning and redrawing of national boundaries. And in its focus on the “now” generation, the collection overlooks the earlier play with distance, geographical dislocation and the challenge to national referents, found most notably in Janet Frame’s postmodern fictions, Living in the Maniototo and The Carpathians. These are gaps which need to be addressed, as they suggest.

There’s also the question of representativeness: why is Canada cited as another case study of national debates over globalisation with no reference to the debates about culture in Australia? The editors admit a degree of subjectivity in their selection of authors, but at moments Floating Worlds seems to be a project stemming from a shared consciousness about literary value amongst an influential circle. Although the excellence of this collection is in no doubt, the questions it subliminally raises about how else the national literary culture might be defined are beyond its immediate scope.


Janet Wilson teaches at the University of Northampton and has recently published Fleur Adcock and The Gorse Blooms Pale: The Southland Stories of Dan Davin.

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