The second of two extracts from Marilyn Duckworth’s 2012 Janet Frame lecture.
Women novelists in our country were once spread thinly. Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ruth France, Janet Frame: barring popular romance, that was about it. On Marmite jars as a child, I’d seen the phrase “Too much spoils the flavour.” As far as women writers went, that was a nonsense which was to be dealt with in no uncertain manner a couple of decades later. Too much, perhaps, but the flavour? Nothing very wrong with that. My novelist daughter was told by her agent that she might have written a “Marmite novel”, and readers would either love it or hate it. We need our Marmite novels as well as fast food fiction. Debate is what helps our literature develop. That happens now in blogs but not enough in print, or on free-to-air TV or radio.
Naming and labelling plays a part in any writer’s life. It was after my fifth novel I saw I had to begin resisting labels. Labels tended to supply another rigid set of rules. Labels and pigeonholes had always bothered me. Feminism was another one of these. I believed in equal rights and opportunities for women but I always had – it seemed so blindingly obvious. When my first husband referred to me as a career woman in the 1950s, I knew it was a term of abuse. “Deep down,” he’d say, “you’re a career woman.” As if it was some sort of kinky aberration. What I wrote in my fiction was always a way of displaying feminist striving; I can see this now. But that didn’t mean I would carry a flag to say so. No way.
In the 70s, with the second wave of Feminism – or Women’s Lib as it was then called – critical prescriptions seemed to shift from how an author should write to what an author should be writing about. A fashionable compulsion to confront contemporary “issues” in literature became apparent. The problems of society needed to be exposed in novels; of course they did, but incidentally. It wasn’t up to any writer to solve social ills, I believed.
At the same time I eagerly watched the surge in fiction by women – Joy Cowley’s Nest In a Falling Tree, Margaret Sutherland’s The Love Contract, Patricia Grace’s Mutuwhenua – and gave due credit to those who took on the responsibility of social conscience as something of a deliberate project. I was happy that they could do it better than me. Some of them made such a good job of it that society sat up and listened. There were eager readers waiting. Fiona Kidman was notably one who consciously did this in the late 70s, perhaps for the first time. Critics didn’t always avoid a prescriptive mode of reviewing, and this had the effect of sometimes drawing attention to the social role of characters and plot before paying attention to literary merit. This might have benefited society – exposing social ills has never been better achieved than in great fiction. Dickens and Chekhov are cases in point. But my suspicion was that the art of literary criticism in New Zealand was edging downhill, short-changing our writers. Male writers were mostly immune, unsullied by accusations of posturing and hysterical voice raising. They had no need for it. Their voices were loud and reverberating already. But it was clear what was happening in the pages of small magazines. Landfall sometimes carried two reviews of the same title to cope with this phenomenon. Writers must learn to grit their teeth. Message novels occasionally got a bad press from me, I’m afraid, when I took my turn at reviewing. The title of one of my books – A Message from Harpo – was in fact a sly dig at this kind of writing. I based it on a telegram Harpo Marx had once sent that read simply: “No Message – Harpo.” I’m not sure anyone got the dig, which was in a way my own fault because what else was I doing but attempting my own message?
In the 80s, the reading community was lucky to have Bert Hingley of Hodder & Stoughton. I’d read his “Bookmarks” column in the New Zealand Listener and recall admiring his velvet jacket at a wild 70s party, but in the 80s he was much more than a velvet jacket. He was a notable publisher, energetic and innovative. I was overjoyed when he dared to take me on. I think it was Bert who instituted publishing original trade paperback novels – quality soft cover editions – and identical hard-covers at the same time. Sue McCauley’s best-selling Other Halves (1982) was perhaps the first of these. Penguin and other New Zealand publishers followed suit in close order. This proved good news for our bookshops and writers alike. New Zealand fiction displays became increasingly prominent in shops, so that it’s hard to remember when New Zealand novels had to struggle to be noticed, masked by overseas titles. Women’s Bookshops opened, in Wellington and then in Auckland, and did a good trade. In the 70s, we had had the magazine Bookworld with Elizabeth Alley as the reviews editor. In the 80s, new literature-friendly journals appeared like Quote Unquote and City Magazine. Monthly glossies like North and South, Metro and others carried regular books pages. Gordon McLauchlan conducted a regular TV interview.
The Listener Women’s Book Festival began to happen in a number of city centres. I was invited to a light-hearted one, debating “A Post-Feminist Paradise.” “Men have come a long way, with our help,” I said. “We’ve taught them Guilt. On the domestic front guilt used to belong exclusively to women. Now men have learned to lie about with their feet up, prostrate with guilt, apologising while women do their 70 per cent of the housework.” In 2012, the percentage of women doing the housework in the publishing field is probably something similar. Harriet Allan of Random House is one I’m seriously indebted to. It’s been 20 years and eight titles I owe her now. In 1986 the first Writers and Readers Week came about, organised by Ann Mallinson and with essential input from Elizabeth Alley, Bill Manhire and the committee. It was an outstanding success. I later served my own time on this committee, under the leadership of Jenny Pattrick and Chris Price – some of the most enjoyable meetings I can remember. I’d learned at last to open my mouth and let my writer’s voice out.
John Mansfield Thomson had raised the question humorously: should novels be sold like soap? Indeed. Publicity machines make more suds and more noise now than anything I expected to hear 50 odd years ago. It didn’t matter then if one was shy, tongue-tied and very secretive about the writing process. But promotion is a huge part of the job of writing today, and nothing much happens without it. If you’re not prepared to put some real effort into selling your own titles – and indeed yourself – you’re of little use to a publisher. The role of writer has become cast in a different mould. My first novel sold somewhat better in England than it did in my own country oddly enough, and I certainly had more advertising “pulls” in the UK and more reviews. Advertising in print had to do the job, instead of author tours. I can’t have been alone in this colonial experience, but there are so few writers around today who were writing in the 60s that it isn’t a conversation I can indulge in very often. We were always told New Zealanders were avid readers, but there were less than three million of us when I began. There are over a million more today, but not, I suspect, that many new readers and not reading all the deserving titles. The New Zealand Listener was devoured over my growing years by every serious book-lover. Monte Holcroft, Ian Cross. The list of celebrated editors can shine in the dark. For decades, it had a monopoly of radio and early TV coverage and correspondingly high circulation; for decades, its reviews were some of the most reliable and memorable.
Book reviewing in our newspapers made less of a ripple in the 60s, with the possible exception of the Auckland papers and the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune where Louis Johnson was features editor. Gill Shadbolt in Truth made a determined showing with her books pages in the 60s, going so far as to swipe and preview one of our friend Barry Crump’s novels ahead of its release. There were the more academic Landfall reviews, of course, a scattering in literary magazines such as Numbers and shorter ones in wider market magazines, including even the Weekly News. And at least we had Arnold Wall’s weekly radio programme “Bookshop”, where two or three books would be analysed. I recorded my own first ever book review – of Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori – in Arnold Wall’s recording studio in Christchurch, quaking with nerves. Another Christchurch recording studio would be demolished 50 years later, following a real and tragic quake. Memento mori indeed. National radio remains the writer’s friend. We don’t need any damaging quakes there.