Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

What is a New Zealand Novel?

What is a New Zealand Novel? The first question is, what exactly are we to regard as a "New Zealand novel"? Is it a novel set in New Zealand, no matter what it is about? Is it a novel published in New Zealand? For instance, how are we to classify Hugh Walpole, who was born here, as were the thriller writers Norman Berrow and Andrew Mackenzie? What about Will Lawson, Samuel Butler, G. A. Henty? What about Ngaio Marsh, Dan Davin, Hector Bolitho?

It is worth while deciding upon a definition because this makes us consider what we hope to find in a New Zealand novel. It is not enough for the purposes of this book that a novelist lives here; a "New Zealand novel" will be taken to be one which is related to this country, or to its people, or to the experience of life as human beings meet it in these islands. By such a definition we would include Dan Davin's For the Rest of Our Lives, and Guthrie Wilson's Brave Company, both set overseas, but having our citizens for subject; we would include all the others who have written of us at any stage in our history, and we would exclude the purely non-New Zealand fiction even of New Zealanders, the overseas stories of Ngaio Marsh, M. H. Holcroft, Jean Devanny, Ruth Park, James Courage.

This may seem too narrow a definition, but it will give us a measurable topic, and one within which we have unusual qualifications as critics. It is often difficult to judge the truthfulness, balance, vividness or imaginative perception of a novel set in, say, South Africa, Canada, or India. But we can at least make a good attempt at judging the novel set in New Zealand. We may swallow Hollywood's versions of Java, or Sweden—but do you remember what you have thought of its notion of New Zealand? Overseas critics are often astray, naturally enough, with fiction set in this country. V. S. Pritchett complained of Katherine Mansfield's At the Bay that there was in it no sense of there being anybody about—exactly!

The English reviewer of James Courage's The Young Have Secrets (it was Pamela Hansford Johnson) spoke glowingly of the background as "excellently done". How does she know? What other New Zealand novels has she read? Would you agree with her?

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There is of course another side to this New Zealandness. Readers who accept the imaginative transformation of reality in novels of the European or the American tradition, may tend to react sharply against it when the setting is local. In the visual arts, New Zealanders are dogged by a sullen prejudice in favour of the directly representational; we prefer the landscape, snow scene, beach, town, or street which we can recognise. Van Gogh would have had short shrift with us. In fiction, too, the artist who transcends reality in the search of a richer truth may meet with violent opposition; M. H. Holcroft writes in an editorial in the New Zealand Listener :

"Many readers want to discuss stories as if they were factual narratives . . . Our pragmatic temper reveals itself in a reluctance to make any concession to fancy. Artistic effect, which must be the writer's aim, is disregarded. Writers are judged, again and again, on questions of fact which for them are of secondary importance, or barely relevant."1 We do, of course, expect novels, as distinct from romances or fables, to bear a recognisable relation to life, but we should beware of condemning a story merely because it startles, annoys, or emphasises an aspect of life which we may personally be unfamiliar with, or prefer to ignore.