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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Book reviewing and literary criticism

Book reviewing and literary criticism

The main focus here is on the reviewing of creative literature in English, particularly at the specialist level. For other disciplines, the primary sources for reviews are the relevant professional journals, many of which are indexed on Kiwinet, as noted above. The development of book reviewing in fields other than New Zealand literature requires further critical analysis. Ray Grover's contribution to the World Bibliographical Series, New Zealand (1980), provides a useful introduction to the professional and general interest journals, current listings of which are to be found in Nielsen Publishing's biannual Media Directory, established in 1976 as the Advertising Directory and Media Planner.

Until the 1930s, literary criticism in New Zealand was almost entirely restricted to book reviews published in newspapers and magazines. From as early as the 1880s, many of these publications committed themselves to supporting the development of a distinctive New Zealand literature, although until at least the 1940s discussion focused almost entirely on overseas publications, with literary journalists demonstrating a clear preference for poetry and short fiction imitative of British models. Iris M. Park's bibliography, New Zealand Periodicals of Literary Interest (1962), lists the magazine outlets for this type of reviewing. Substantial work on the literary pages of the newspapers remains to be undertaken. Guy Scholefield's Newspapers in New Zealand (1958) makes passing reference to this aspect of their content, and may be taken as a suitable starting point for further work, supplemented by Ross Harvey's Union List of Newspapers preserved in Libraries, Newspaper Offices, Local Authority Offices and Museums in New Zealand (1987). Book reviewing has been a regular feature of New Zealand radio, most significantly in Elizabeth Alley's long-running 'Anthology' programme, succeeded by the late Ross Stevens's 'Bookmarks', and in Kim Hill's 'Speaking Volumes'.

Prior to the 1940s, few efforts were made to survey the overall state of New Zealand literature. Introductions to anthologies of poetry supplied brief accounts. One of the earliest of these was Alexander and Currie's New Zealand Verse (1906), revised as A Treasury of New Zealand Verse in 1926. The publication in 1930 of both Quentin Pope's Kowhai Gold verse anthology and O.N. Gillespie's New Zealand Short Stories provided a foil against which an emerging group of younger critics and writers were to react. Influenced by British and American literary modernism, this new generation challenged the hegemony of the literary journalists, most effectively by participating in a series of avant garde little magazines and newspapers— Phoenix (1932-33), Tomorrow (1934-40) and Book (1942-47)—which provided for the serious examination of New Zealand literature, as well as encouraging new and innovative creative work. The culmination of this initial movement was the establishment in 1947 of the quarterly magazine Landfall. Its editor, Charles Brasch, drew support for the development of a more rigorous critical climate from other key members of his generation, including Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. Landfall combined with a number of other magazines published during the 1950s and 1960s (including Here & Now (1949-57), Canterbury Lambs (1946-49), Hilltop (1949) and Arachne (1950-51), Numbers (1954-59), Mate (1955-77), and the annual anthology New Zealand Poetry Yearbook (1951-64)) to stimulate an increasingly vigorous local criticism. The New Zealand Listener (1939- ) has long provided an important weekly outlet for book reviewing in both literary and other genres, as well as occasional longer pieces of criticism. Again, for the period to 1961, Park's bibliography provides the most accessible guide to these publications.

Since the 1960s, book reviewing and literary criticism has continued to develop in line with available outlets. The Listener and Landfall have remained important, and new literary magazines to emerge include Argot (1973-75) and Islands, first published in 1972, and a number of university-based periodicals. The most significant of these, The Word is Freed (1969-72), affected a self-consciously revisionist critical stance. This tone was sustained during the 1980s by several little magazines, including Parallax (1982-83), Splash (1984-86), and AND (1983-85). Local and overseas academic journals, including SPAN (1975- ), the Journal of New Zealand Literature (1983- ), the Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1965- ), World Literature Written in English (1971- ), and Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada (1989- ), continue to give space to much important critical work, as have other magazines with a focus broader than the strictly literary, including Comment (1959-70, 1977-82) and Te Ao Hou (1952-75). The appearance in 1991 of the quarterly New Zealand Books signalled the maturing of book reviewing in all genres, while Stephen Stratford's monthly magazine Quote Unquote, founded in 1993, provided an outlet for both reviewing and literary news. Previously, book trade and library journals were the outlets most explicitly dedicated to book reviewing. Prominent among these are the National Library's bulletin Books to Buy (1966-92) and the New Zealand Book Council's Booknotes, founded in 1981 and still current.

In the immediate post-World War II period the most substantial fruit of the new critical rigour was Allen Curnow's introduction to his Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945, enlarged 1951). In this text and its successor, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), Curnow commanded the critical high ground and established for the first time a credible canon of New Zealand poetry. During subsequent decades, local poetics has largely been constructed in the light of Curnow's work. In fiction, Frank Sargeson's anthology of short stories, Speaking for Ourselves (1945), though lacking an introduction of comparable depth, served a similar purpose and consolidated its editor's influence over the direction taken by New Zealand short fiction through to the 1970s.

Eric McCormick's 1940 centennial survey Letters and Arts in New Zealand, revised in 1959 as New Zealand Literature, stood as the only book-length historical study until the publication of Patrick Evans's Penguin History of New Zealand Literature in 1990. Evans's work was soon superseded, however, by the more comprehensive Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991), ed. Terry Sturm. Presently under revision, a new edition of this work will include an essay by Mark Williams on New Zealand literary scholarship and criticism.

A number of important genre studies and collections of essays began to be published from the early 1950s, one of the earliest of which was James K. Baxter's essay Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry (1951). The School Publications Branch of the Department of Education (now Learning Media Ltd) produced a number of useful genre studies as Post Primary School Bulletins, including M.K. Joseph's The New Zealand Short Story (1956) and W.H. Oliver's Poetry in New Zealand (1960). Likewise, Joan Stevens's comprehensive The New Zealand Novel: 1860-1960 (1961) found a ready market among both secondary and tertiary students. It reappeared in a second edition in 1966, covering the period to 1965. Publishers also sought to supply the student market with several series of critical monographs. These include A.H. & A.W. Reed's New Zealand Profiles, the Oxford University Press's Writers and their Works series, and New York publisher Twayne's World Authors series, which turned its attention to New Zealand from the 1960s with S.R. Daly's study of Katherine Mansfield (1965) and H.W. Rhodes's Frank Sargeson (1969). Kendrick Smithyman's A Way of Saying (1965) began life as a series of essays in the little magazine Mate. It remains the most sustained (if difficult) attempt to date to develop a local, post-Curnovian poetic.

Essays on New Zealand Literature (1973), ed. Wystan Curnow, was the first attempt to gather together serious critical work in the field. Much of this were drawn from academic journals which had begun to play a key role in the development of ideas about New Zealand literature, including the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and World Literature in English. Cherry Hankin edited two important texts: Critical Essays on the New Zealand Novel (1976) and Critical Essays on the New Zealand Short Story (1982).

Collections of essays and monographs by individual authors have appeared at regular intervals since the 1970s. Prominent among these are Allen Curnow's Look Back Harder (1986), ed. Peter Simpson, and two collections by C.K. Stead, In the Glass Case (1981) and Answering to the Language (1989). Others are listed by John Thomson in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (p.612 and passim). Such essays are usefully augmented by interviews and biographical writings. In particular, the autobiographies of Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame are exemplary of the genre in New Zealand. Katherine Mansfield has been a major subject for the literary biographer: Antony Alpers's Life (1980) and Sylvia Berkman's Critical Study (1951), supplemented by the collected letters and critical writings, remain required starting points for researchers. Though many other important personalities in the literature remain to be properly treated, several recent literary biographies (Michael King on Frank Sargeson, Keith Ovenden on Dan Davin), although generally not critical in their focus, supply important insights into the personalities behind the work. Beginnings (1980), based on a series of autobiographical essays commissioned by Robin Dudding for Islands, was the first sustained attempt to account for the personal origins of modern New Zealand literature. Collections of interviews with writers also add to this body of resources while theses in the area of New Zealand literature are also of immense value. All supply useful bibliographies, some of which are listed in Bibliographical Work in New Zealand (1980- ). Theses are listed in the Union List of Higher Degree Theses in New Zealand Libraries, the most recent edition of which covers the period up to 1992, with current theses now listed on the New Zealand Bibliographic Network (NZBN).