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Sport 4: Autumn 1990

Stephen Stratford — Is Your Book Really Necessary?

page 139

Stephen Stratford

Is Your Book Really Necessary?

The Penguin Book Of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories
(Edited by Susan Davis & Russell Haley)

There were many fine local anthologies produced in the 1980s, notably Mac Jackson and Vincent O'Sullivan's New Zealand Writing Since 1945 and Marion McLeod and Bill Manhire's Some Other Country; there was John Barnett's All the Dangerous Animals are in Zoos, Michael Morrissey's The New Fiction and a slew of women's fiction collections, including three from New Women's Press and, most recently, Lydia Wevers and Elizabeth Webby's trans-Tasman Goodbye to Romance. None, however, found the wide international circulation this will: under Penguin's reciprocal arrangements with its sister companies, copies will find their way to bookshops in Britain, Canada, the US and Australia. So how does it compare with its predecessors, and what sort of picture of our short fiction does it give to those coming to it for the first time?

Going by Haley's record as a writer and Davis's as co-editor of Antic, one might have expected them to produce a more refined version of The New Fiction. Such a book would be an ideal complement to 1984's Some Other Country, whose uncompromising subtitle 'New Zealand's Best Short Stories' is undeniably accurate, allowing for the self-imposed limitation of one story for each of the 22 authors chosen, from Mansfield to Marshall. A similarly-sized selection of subsequent work, a genuinely contemporary anthology, would be more than welcome. Then again, the editors could have used All the Dangerous Animals as a model; with only 12 stories, each chosen to illustrate its author's strengths, it succeeded in giving a clear picture of the then-current range of our short fiction.

Instead, we have the worst of both worlds, an unwieldy selection that is neither consistently contemporary nor representative of the writers' best work. Roderick Finlayson's'Flowers and Fruit' and Philip Mincher's 'Traumerei may be recent (it's irritating that only the date of first book publication is given) but are old-fashioned; Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera, in particular, are ill-served by the stories chosen; and the clamour of 43 voices drowns out the still small voice of a Jean Watson or page 140 an Yvonne du Fresne.

Far from being contemporary, several stories are downright elderly. Ian Wedde's 'Circe and the Animal Trainer (from The Shirt Factory and Other Stories, 1981), Yvonne du Fresne's 'Farvel' (from Farvel,1980) and Grace's 'The Pictures' (from The Dream Sleepers, 1980) were almost certainly written in the 70s. Ihimaera's 'The Greenstone Patu' first appeared in The New Net Goes Fishing in 1977, thirteen years ago, and I would guess was included simply to bump up the Maori quotient.

'Contemporary' has other connotations, as the editors point out: '. . . our employment of the word has as much to do with the notion of the "new" as with chronological parameters. We are not talking, however, about trying to establish an avant garde, since the "new", here, is defined by many differing voices and fictional strategies.' This raises hopes for a lively selection, more accessible than the aggressively partisan The New Fiction yet remaining free from the kinds of story — remember the old man in the hut? — devastatingly parodied by A.K. Grant in 'An enquiry into the construction and classification of the New Zealand short story'.

The editors were also 'committed to looking for what we came to call "edge" work. Such a notion, with its cluster of usages such as "keenness", "tension", "sharpness" and "danger" applies, as we would expect, to the fictions of our best-known writers.' This is a curious and incoherent formulation: How can a short story be dangerous? Dangerous to whom?

'In the process of selecting our stories, they continue, 'we had anticipated that we'd encounter "edge" fiction predominantly in newer voices. Innovation, we found, isn't necessarily the prerogative of the latest generation of writers; but neither can all the mature and assured work be gathered under an Establishment banner.' This patronises both older and younger writers, just as the rest of us are patronised by their 'deliberately includ[ing] texts which disrupt readers' expectations as to how prose stories function.'

The 43 writers chosen certainly cover the field, from Maurice Gee and Janet Frame to Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Anne Kennedy. Much as I admire Albert Wendt's work I am uneasy about his inclusion, especially with a story set in Samoa and written while he was still living in the Pacific. Can we really claim him as our own? More worrying, though, are the exclusions.

C.K. Stead's battle with Penguin over royalties, resulting in his 7000 word story 'Concerning Alban Ashtree' being withdrawn, was thoroughly rehearsed by Robin Dudding in the Listener last year. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, there is no question that Stead is in the top page 141 rank of our fiction writers and any collection of our short stories without something from him is seriously unrepresentative.

A less obvious but equally damaging omission is that of Bill Manhire, whose fiction has appeared in Islands, Sport and Untold and overseas in Meanjin, PN Review and London Magazine. The three stories I have seen from The New Land (due in March from Heinemann Reed) are stunningly good, everything the editors say they were looking for. It is, to say the least, odd that Manhire wasn't invited to submit work while several writers not known for their fiction — Hugh Lauder, Michael Harlow, and Cilla McQueen — were.

Also absent are Rosie Scott and Alexandria Chalmers. Scott's case is arguable — her stories don't quite live up to her novel Glory Days — but Chalmers is one of the discoveries of the 80s, exemplifying the best features of both the traditionalists and the modernists with her idiosyncratic style and an emotional range that puts her younger contemporaries to shame.

The editors' self-imposed guidelines were to 'consider short stories which had been produced within the last ten years by any living New Zealand writer. From this period we would try to choose work which hadn't been previously anthologised.' They started work in 1987, which would account for 'The Greenstone Patu', and seem to have stopped in 1987 too. Why else did they not invite submissions from Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins and Forbes Williams? A 1987 selection cut-off would also account for Haley's own 'Lions, attention please!', a curious choice in the light of the superb The Transfer Station: those stories, which are much stronger and better integrated, were written in January 1988.

The decision to avoid previously anthologised work sounds sensible but in practice it was crippling: if previous anthologisers have done their job well — and they have — then the best work, at least of the established and often-anthologised writers, is automatically ruled out. With the exception of Maurice Gee's 'Joker and Wife' and Keri Hulme's 'Unnamed Islands in an Unknown Sea', major writers are represented by work that is less than their best, while the opposite is true of what one might call the second division (we'll come to the third division later). The landscape is thus transformed: the peaks are flattened and valleys raised.

Janet Frame, Fiona Kidman and Vincent O'Sullivan come off badly and Owen Marshall's 'Convalescence in the Old City' is wilfully unrepresentative. On the other hand, 'Shanties' exhibits all Barbara Anderson's customary virtues; Sue Reidy's 'Alexandra and the Lion is one of her best;'The White Daimler' is a good Lay; Fiona Farrell Poole's assured page 142 'Footnote' is an inspired choice for the opening story; and Michael Gifkins' 'Not Looking for Graham Greene' ends the book on a high note.

What about the third division? or, here come the postmodernists. A number of works, warn the editors, 'foreground language itself, where utterance is both the means and object of fiction'. On the evidence here, Gifkins, Manhire, Frame and Poole would be interesting writers whatever the forms they chose; lesser writers have nothing to offer but form. This narcissistic focus on the materials and processes of art to the exclusion of all else is as pernicious in literature as it has been in the visual arts: like most readers who are not writers themselves, I am heartily sick of having my attention called to the fictiveness of fictions. 'I bloody know that,' I want to shout. 'Get on with it!' B.S. Johnson did all this and more in the 60s — do we have to go through it all again?

Avant garde 'texts' are bad enough, but old-fashioned ones are unforgivable. The inclusion of so many is puzzling in what by literary standards is a mass-market book. Unity Books' Nigel Cox, who ought to know, estimates the audience for serious fiction here at 600. The audience for the minor post-mods is even tinier, almost certainly restricted to those who write the stuff.

Too many pieces — Lauder, McQueen, Michael Henderson — read like creative writing exercises. Eight pages are given to Bentley's subFlann O'Brien pastiche; Harlow gets five, as does Ted Jenner whose piece seems to have lost in translation from the French. Jean Watson, our most consistently under-rated writer, gets three pages. Perhaps she had only a three-pager available, but the distinct impression is that the poseurs and pasticheurs count for more. An even more unfortunate effect of their disproportionately large presence is that, with one exception, the stories by Maori writers look out of place.

The editors sought 'edge', the 'new' — but what links the stories of Grace, Ihimaera, Bruce Stewart and Apirana Taylor (apart from being about Maoris) is their stylistic conservatism. There's nothing, or not much, wrong with that, but they sit uncomfortably alongside the postmods, let alone the somewhat self-conscious stylistic acrobatics of Gifkins and Wedde. Rather than displaying a healthy diversity, this makes for a confusing melange of styles: pushed and pulled in so many directions, the book goes nowhere.

There is a strong streak of sentimentality in the Maori stories, compounded in Ihimaera and Stewart by an unconvincing mysticism. The latter's 'Patu Wairua' is essentially a revenge fantasy of the powerless that may work well as a morale-booster but is simply bad fiction: 'They'd page 143 been going for fifteen minutes — Jim Corbett was exhausted. He'd completely lost his composure. He flew at Tama with wild haymaker swings which missed. He grabbed a long baton off a cop and went in swinging — Tama wasn't there. Jim threw the baton away and charged — tried to tackle — Tama kept up his ritualistic dance. Jim Corbett never even touched Tama.' Taylor's 'Hera' is also sentimental, but is redeemed by its attention to detail and by treating seriously a serious subject — death.

The exception is Ngahuia Te Awekotuku's 'Makawe'. Unsatisfactory in many ways, it seems, like'Patu Wairua', less a fully worked-out fiction than a fantasy of revenge — in this case against a youth whose sins are no more than vanity and a normal dose of randiness. But despite its inadequate characterisation and crude caricature of sexual politics, it is powerful and passionate with a real smell of blood and rage: it is a true 1980s story.

The selection of Pakeha stories has the opposite bias. Perhaps to get away from the stereotypes Grant so gleefully lampooned, those stories that earnestly sought to define the national character (and put an entire generation of schoolchildren off New Zealand literature for life), the editors plumped heavily for stories set overseas: 15 out of 38, over a third. It can't have been easy to get such a story from an author so quintessentially localised as Marshall— or, come to think of it, Marilyn Duckworth. Apart from making the Maori stories seem excessively introspective and parochial, this bias toward exotic settings exaggerates a recent trend — but the trend is no less real for that. Gifkins, for example, has produced two collections set in the South of France following his Menton fellowship, Cranna has recently returned from overseas, and as readers of Felicity Ferret will know, Lay is an inveterate traveller to the Pacific islands. An overseas setting is thus natural for these writers, but I suspect that for many others it is a means of freeing themselves from the burden of the insular realist/ naturalist story.

Those earlier stories were the product of a cultural insecurity that has largely passed. In reacting against a domestic setting, however, the new stories seem to seek validation in belonging to the world rather than their country of origin. In concentrating on these, the editors have presented foreign readers with a portrait of a community of writers desperate to show how cosmopolitan they are. Instead of a colonial insecurity we now have a post-colonial insecurity. Instead of a self-conscious New Zealandness, we now have an equally self-conscious internationalism.

In this context it is instructive to look at a roughly similar volume from page 144 over the Tasman, The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories. It has 32 stories by 24 writers (people like White, Jolley, Moorhouse and Carey get two each), chosen by one person, Murray Bail. In an excellent context-setting introduction (a grievous lack in the present volume) he remarks, 'The freshness in this recent Australian fiction is due to the writers' acceptance of place — they could forget all about that. Many stories are no longer set in Australia, or in any recognisable place at all. The feature is a willingness to take risks — intellectual, emotional, stylistic. And surely these can be seen as reflecting the writers' lives. These writers display a confidence whether in the treatment of dialogue, of sex, of the innocent abroad, or in the subject of language and the process of story-telling itself. And with it came humour, of the selfdeprecating kind (often emerging when the writer did place one foot back in the bush), more experiments, some reaching towards the abstract. It spread through the 1970s and 1980s, this new confidence, as a kind of literary myxomatosis, reducing any remaining dun-coloured realism to a few pockets. In retrospect — and in short — it was never "realism" which held back Australian short fiction, but the exceptionally dry treatment of it.'

Much of this sounds familiar and is generally reflected in the present volume (save the humour). Bail's final point surely holds true here: it is the dryness of much previous New Zealand writing that now makes it seem stupefyingly dull. With the glorious exception of Maurice Duggan, we have had precious few stylists, few writers who convey the sense of exhilaration and zest Manhire does in his new stories, like a unicyclist on a high wire shouting gleefully, 'Watch me go!'. This is why his absence — and that of Stead, Wilkins and Williams — is so damaging.

Anthologies are bound to be contentious, but they should be interestingly so. The New Fiction, for example, stands up as one man's frankly partisan selection, chosen to illustrate an argument about the nature of fiction. The trouble with Penguin's new anthology is that it is just as partisan as Morrissey's but is less than frank about it. It has nothing new to tell New Zealand fiction's regular audience: most will already know the two really outstanding stories by Gee and Hulme, there is nothing fresh to delight them and the sloppy proofreading will enrage them. What will it tell its overseas readers? It will tell them that our postmoderns are quaintly obsessed with left-over ideas from the 60s and 70s; that Maori writers are quaintly obsessed with rural Maori life and traditional Pakeha forms; and that Pakeha writers are quaintly obsessed with their travels and have nothing much to say about life in New Zealand.