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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Andrew Johnston — Mark Pirie's ‘Excellent’ Adventure

page 207

Andrew Johnston

Mark Pirie's ‘Excellent’ Adventure

New Zealand Writing: The NeXt Wave
edited by Mark Pirie
University of Otago Press, 280pp, $24.95

‘Excellent … cool, I think!’

There are a few excellent things in this book. And a lot of ‘cool’ things. But ‘I think’, with its note of doubt, is the phrase that most sticks in the mind from the quotation that shrieks at us from front and back covers of The NeXt Wave. Because this is a deeply confused anthology, a self-contradicting, ill-informed and ill-conceived production that misreads and misrepresents recent writing by young New Zealanders. It throws together some exciting work—the fiction by Hinemoana Baker, Sia Figiel, Annamarie Jagose, Emily Perkins and Jo Randerson, for example, and some of the poetry by Nick Ascroft, Paola Bilbrough, James Brown, Kate Camp, Dean Hapeta, Kapka Kassabova and John Pule—with mediocre writing that doesn't bear reprinting and some truly awful stuff that should have been left to rot in peace. All of it has been published before; there would be a point in this collection if it genuinely represented a new direction in New Zealand writing, but Mark Pirie fails to convince—either in his selection or his introduction—that this is the case. Instead one has the impression of the book as an act of late-adolescent angst, in which Pirie has grabbed any recent (and some not-so-recent) writing that somehow matches a notion of ‘cool’—counter-cultural, ‘urban’, ‘multicultural’, dealing with sex, violence, drugs, pop music—and hurled it at everything else being written by New Zealanders.

This is unfair on a lot of people: readers who might buy this book in the belief that it represents the cutting edge of young New Zealand writing; the writers selected, who might not take kindly to being page 208 appropriated for Pirie's purposes; and lastly (though I imagine them bemused rather than hurt by Pirie's extended fit of editorial pique) the large cast of writers he rubbishes off in his introduction. You could blame Pirie for this, or you could blame the University of Otago Press. Pirie is young—23 is the age at which young men, especially, think that what they've seen and known of the world is all there is to see or know. I blame the publisher, who should have known better than to let Pirie turn what he admits in his acknowledgements was originally an unfinished Honours essay on ‘New Zealand Poets as Rock Stars’ into a large, fully-fledged anthology from a university press.

When I first picked up The NeXt Wave I thought that there might be a decent book hiding inside it—enough good new writing to achieve a kind of critical mass—but sadly this isn't the case. There is, on the other hand, a lot of strong writing about by young New Zealanders at the moment, especially fiction by women; probably enough to make an anthology worthwhile. But some of the writers who might form the backbone of such a book—Catherine Chidgey, Sarah Quigley, Emma Neale, Kirsty Gunn, Raewyn Alexander, Maria Wickens—aren't in The NeXt Wave (Pirie makes a specious argument in his introduction for the omission of the first two, whose work had been published in magazines well before he assembled his book). In failing to take into account the diversity of what's out there—in trying to skew the material to fit his prefabricated theme—Pirie has not only produced a bad book, he's probably scared off other publishers who might have attempted a collection of work by a dynamic new generation of writers.

That capital X in The NeXt Wave stands for ‘Generation X’, of course: in his introduction Pirie claims his book ‘presents a sample of some of the emerging and innovative voices around the country, most of whom can be grouped under the media label of “Generation X”.’ Further down the same page, he says: ‘In putting together this anthology, the temptation has been to focus solely on the media term and marketing concept of “Generation X”. Instead, I've opted for a discussion of recent directions in young Aotearoa-New Zealand writing.’ Three pages later, he reports without comment that Australian critic Paul Dawson ‘sees the generational conflict between “Generation page 209 X” and the “Baby Boomers” as being a mere marketing ploy on the part of multinational publishers and cautions us against equating a genre of writing with the “voice of a generation”.’

This kind of confusion is typical of Pirie's tangled introduction, in which he evidently wants to have it every way at once: adopting the label that the writer Douglas Coupland invented (in his 1991 book of the same name) for the disillusioned, overeducated and underemployed post Baby-Boom generation; scorning it as a ‘marketing concept’; but nevertheless using its trappings on the cover to market the book itself. If only Pirie had taken more notice of Dawson's last warning, we might have been saved from all this. One is reminded, with a shiver of horror, of Michael Morrissey's 60-page introduction to The New Fiction (1985), which similarly announced a literary revolution; at least Pirie keeps his manifesto to 20 pages.

It's worth harking back to Coupland's book, which captured with wonderfully funny irony the lives of impecunious twentysomething characters trapped in a world defined by consumerism. It's the quality of the irony that sticks in the mind, which is why the book has remained a classic despite the plethora of ‘Gen-X’ films and books that followed it. It's not a particularly rebellious book; if anything its characters, while aware that their plight has a lot to do with an economy built around the needs of the previous generation, are much more interested in turning their university degrees into serious salaries—so they can go out and buy all those desirable brands—than in fighting the system.

Our own equivalent, of course, is Emily Perkins, and it's a measure of the power of her example—and of her mastery of similar irony—that Pirie seems almost unconsciously to have tried to will into being a whole New Zealand literary movement where there isn't one. The beginning of his introduction gives the first inkling of this, as he quotes Sarah Quigley: ‘In the wake of Emily Perkins’ resounding success comes a growing necessity to define the indefinable “Generation X”.’ Later he says Perkins is ‘perhaps the best example of this direction’. But watch what happens next: several writers are listed as ‘complementary’ to Perkins (including Bill Payne, born in the 50s, whose story, set in the 70s, bears no resemblance to anything by Perkins) and Pirie then page 210 goes on to talk about the subjects of their work—‘sex and violence, underground/pop culture lifestyles and urban nihilism’ (mistaking, in the process, a strong strand of adolescent fantasy for ‘lurid urban realism’). In the next paragraph this has become a ‘style’ again.

What is Pirie doing with this slide from style to subject matter and back to style? At first it seems that in an attempt to make his selection cohere he is conflating 90s irony with anything he can find that celebrates or represents marginalisation or rebellion against dominant social values. Ignoring the idiosyncrasies of individual voices and styles, he grafts onto this ‘complementary’ team, in succession, ‘popular pulp, fantasy and Science Fiction’, ‘young urban Maori’, ‘urban performance poetry’, ‘poetry written by our young poets for the “page”,’ ‘internationalism’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘the movement against “political correctness”’, the ‘psychoanalytical’, and ‘finally, recent young feminist, gay and lesbian writing’. (In his last category—when will male editors stop putting women and homosexuals in the same basket?—Pirie eventually gets round to noticing ‘other recent writings by young women’, only to patronise them: ‘one notices their self-confidence as women in society. Their writing is often and increasingly assertive, witty, “street-wise” and “smart”…’.)

Pirie's selection doesn't cohere: his theme doesn't work and the book, despite the inclusion of some terrific writing, is so crippled by omissions that it is not even the representative anthology of young New Zealand writing that it could—accidentally—have become. What rationale is there behind Pirie's choices? One is left with his statement (once again he tries to have it both ways) that the anthology is simply a ‘highly personal selection’. What does this material have in common that might tell us something about what Mark Pirie likes? A tendency to strike an anti-authoritarian pose, perhaps—but only if one mistakes (as Pirie seems to have done) writing about marginalised or minority lifestyles, or about sex, drugs and violence, as a necessarily anti-authoritarian gesture. The book's origins in an essay about ‘New Zealand Poets as Rock Stars’ would seem to confirm this, as would the otherwise bizarre inclusion of Bill Payne's story about 70s junkies and some sub-Sam Hunt poems by Andrew Fagan, former singer in The Mockers, a tenuous connection to New Zealand's days of punk. (One page 211 of Pirie's own poems mentions James Dean, an even earlier pose-striker.)

Pirie makes this reactionary motive clear when opposing the prose in The NeXt Wave to ‘middle-class conservatism’ and the poetry to work that is ‘clever, playful, escapist and non-confrontational’ or ‘highbrow and erudite’ or ‘stolid conservatism’. He attaches a list of names to each of these tags—pretty much everyone who has had any kind of positive critical reception in New Zealand ends up in one category or another, raising the question of whether Pirie is somehow driven by a problem with other people's success. He is so thorough in his condemnations that it becomes amusing to see him do the rounds of NZ Lit with a big stick, ritually bashing everyone's shins. The arbitrariness of his distinctions becomes apparent when he tries to describe what it is that recommends his book's ‘poetry written by our young poets for the “page”’: ‘a continuation of experimental postmodern and open-form techniques, mixed with traditional poetic forms and structures. They tend to focus on abstract settings as well as everyday life, often with an inventive and subversive use of language and imagery.’ As a description, it applies equally well to almost all of the poets he has just written off in the above categories—to Allen Curnow as much as to James Brown.

Pirie's use of the word ‘postmodern’ here with positive connotations draws attention to the way it flashes from green to red and back again like a traffic light throughout his introduction, switching meaning from paragraph to paragraph. It's a notoriously empty word these days; instead of redefining it for his own purposes or steering clear of it altogether, Pirie lets the word's wobble betray his other major negative motive. He pits a misguided and native populism—a simple-minded promotion of anything ‘accessible’ (all ‘performance poetry’, for example) and anything overtly influenced by popular culture—against ‘abstract and intellectual postmodern or high Modernist experimentation’ (in prose) and ‘elitist academic postmodern theory’ and ‘alienating and intellectually obscure high Modernist and postmodern poetry’. (Lists of names are attached to these tags too. Some writers even get two whacks on the shins.) The latter is condemned because it ‘may have discouraged people from reading, buying and supporting page 212 poetry in this country’ despite the best efforts of ‘youth culture icons and tele-photogenic poets such as Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare, James K. Baxter and David Eggleton’. Here, then, are the rock stars: Baxter plays the harp, no doubt, in this supergroup. If only Pirie had read more thoroughly—especially the New Zealand poetry of the late 60s and 70s—he would realise the significance of the impact of popular culture on earlier writers and discover that his is far from the first generation to be influenced by more than ‘high culture literary works and art movements’. Apart from the mention of Baxter, this book appears to have amnesia.

In a footnote—this is shortly before the footnote numbers fall out of synch with the footnotes themselves—Pirie says that the popularity of performance poetry ‘is evidenced by the fact that Sam Hunt is rumoured [sic] to have sold out of 5,000 copies of Running Scared on publication day, whilst in contrast Bill Manhire (our most popular “book” poet) has a much smaller print run of 1,000-1,500 copies’. On Pirie's criteria, no one can be both a performance poet and a ‘book’ poet, and Barbara Cartland is the most praiseworthy writer of all; he seems to have no notion of mixed ‘poetries’ rather than one genre called poetry, as he ignores the variousness of the contexts in which poetry is produced and received, in order to go on happily comparing apples and pears. His categorical rejection of writing that uses less than transparent language—whether he labels it ‘clever’, ‘escapist’, ‘abstract’, ‘academic’ or ‘obscure’—is just another instance of the anti-intellectualism that plagues discussion of New Zealand literature and art.

Pirie seems to be oblivious, too, to the paradox of introducing a purportedly populist anthology with a 20-page pseudo-academic essay, complete with two pages of footnotes, some of which read like dark parodies of undergraduate essay style: ‘Performance poetry also challenges Roland Barthes's “death of the author” concept, if the author is present when the work is read to the audience.’ The book is rounded off with an eight-page ‘Bibliography/Discography’, which claims to be ‘Works referred to in the introduction and other related works’ but (apart from books by everyone he trashes in his introduction) seems more like a list of every ‘cool’ book and record that Pirie would like us page 213 to believe he has read and listened to. It's a thoroughly extraneous and indulgent addition that as a finishing touch gives the anthology a strong whiff of egotism.

Pirie's mention of Manhire is ironic: as poet, teacher, editor and columnist, no one has done more to raise the profile of New Zealand poetry in the past decade than Manhire. The success of 100 New Zealand Poems, which finds room for every kind of poetry written and performed in this country, makes a mockery of Pirie's categories. And it's when one turns to the contents page of Mutes & Earthquakes, the anthology of work from Manhire's writing course, that one sees how skewed Pirie's book is: the overlap between these books is much smaller than it should be.

I could go on pointing out problems with Pirie's introduction and selection, but it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. However misguided, it's a brave book in some ways. It is alert to a real climate of dynamism and ambition among young New Zealand writers, and ambitious in its own way; it's just that Pirie misreads badly the work they are doing. At the end of his introduction Pirie offers this quotation from Overland: ‘One writer told me the other day that he was lucky, for he had found his writing voice at the age of twenty-one. Ah, yeah, he had. His twenty-one-year-old writing voice.’ The same could be said for Pirie's ‘editing voice’. The fact that this book is so poorly done doesn't necessarily mean he won't one day edit a decent anthology—he's certainly got the requisite courage, energy and bloody-mindedness.

What The NeXt Wave lacks above all—again ironically, given the cover quotation's shout of ‘Excellent’—is a working idea of excellence. In his introduction Pirie quotes, approvingly, critic Paul Beasley's characterisation of ‘the traditional Western canon…with its vacuous notions of excellence, its stupefying classification systems and concepts of standards’. Later, however, Pirie is happy to describe Annamarie Jagose's work, for example, as ‘excellent’. And before signing off he curiously turns on his own contributors (and selection) in saying ‘most of these writers will have to move on and grow—at least in skill’. It is true that in the past the canonical steamroller has squashed other literatures on the basis that they are not ‘good enough’. But Beasley's trendy relativism is wilfully blind to the fact that each kind of writing page 214 can be done more or less well—and that there is such a thing as talent, which hard work can turn into good writing. It seems ludicrous to have to spell this out. Unfortunately relativism such as Beasley's makes all too easy a marriage with the attitude that because everyone has language, everyone can write—just like that (a little like the punk rock line that everyone can play guitar)—which is closely allied to a stance like Pirie's that if it's ‘accessible’ it must be good. The result, in the case of The NeXt Wave, is the inclusion of utter doggerel such as Scott Kendrick's poems.

The consequence for New Zealand's cultural climate of such attitudes to excellence—whether they come from editors, publishers, critics, reviewers or Creative New Zealand—is a slackness that wastes talent, denying writers the resistance they need in order to push themselves to do better, and thus denying readers the complex images and versions of ourselves, our language and our society that we need—the sustenance that only art can provide. At its best Mark Pirie's anthology reaches for new, challenging images and versions of ourselves that merit preserving in book form; at its worst it preserves poor work that nourishes no one, passing on in the process a false sense of achievement to young writers. One hopes there is still room for a collection that captures the best of new writing, an anthology that would really be ‘excellent’.