Anthology of NZ Literature: Gaps in the story

By Andrew Stone

Doorstop anthology of Kiwi writing being talked about as much for what it doesn't contain as for what it does.

The Auckland University Press volume is an ambitious effort to collect New Zealand's significant writing in a single edition.
The Auckland University Press volume is an ambitious effort to collect New Zealand's significant writing in a single edition.

At 2kg, the Anthology of New Zealand Literature is a contender for the heavyweight publication of the year.

Even before its launch on Thursday night, it had become - courtesy of advance copies and a gossipy literary community - one of the most talked-about new books, as much for what it doesn't contain as for what it does.

The Auckland University Press volume is an ambitious effort to collect New Zealand's significant writing in a single edition.

It opens with Charles Heaphy's record of an interview with Te Horeta, who saw James Cook arrive in 1769, and closes with Andrew Johnston's 2007 poem Sol. From just last year year there is an extract from Hamish Clayton's 2011 debut novel Wulf.

In between the anthology's 1162 pages, the editors tick off works by most of the big names of New Zealand literature, reprint famous documents - the 1835 Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi - include whimsical flourishes - baking hints from the Edmonds Sure to Rise cookery book and an entry on soil from Yates' 1897 Gardening Guide - and chart the striking breadth of contemporary New Zealand writing.

Editors Jane Stafford and Mark Williams - Victoria University English lecturers and husband and wife - stretch beyond the printed word by including five black-and-white illustrated pages from cartoonist Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville. The cartoon strip appears in a chapter drawn from the 1990s, a section the editors call "playful" - "where the real and the fantastic collapse in on one another".

Elsewhere readers will find songs, book extracts, letters, journal entries, fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

They will not, however, find anything from Janet Frame, Alan Duff or Vincent O'Sullivan. Duff, author of Once Were Warriors and O'Sullivan, a poet and retired Victoria University English professor, both declined permission to include their work. In Frame's case, the trust which owns her copyright and publishers AUP could not reach agreement on "how to represent Frame's work".

AUP director Sam Elworthy says he "worked pretty hard" to get agreement to include these authors but in the end had to "respect the author's right to decide where and how their work gets published".

Other writers though, were omitted by the editors. Readers will not be treated to material from Shonagh Koea, poet Peter Bland, writers Bruce Jesson or Tony Simpson, novelists Tina Shaw, Chad Taylor, Laurence Fearnley, Sarah Quigley, Stephanie Johnson or Charlotte Grimshaw (though they will find her father C.K. Stead.) From three dames there is nothing: Anne Salmond, Judith Binney and Ngaio Marsh. New Zealand's only literary knight James McNeish is absent.

Michael King doesn't make the cut, nor does Roderick Finlayson, who engaged with Maori issues 50 years before King wrote about a bicultural land. Not surprisingly, the selections have stirred vigorous discussion in literary and publishing circles, as much for the inclusions as the omissions.

One academic critic said the editors were like boundary riders, deciding who was in the herd and who wasn't, and felt the fat collection was light on writing about war, sport and satire and passed over some milestone speeches, such as Peter Fraser's at the founding of the United Nations.

Tony Simpson, president of the New Zealand Society of Authors, says while the society did not have an "official position", the absence of some authors would raise eyebrows in the literary community.

Simpson, author of The Sugarbag Years, the award-winning oral history of the 1930s depression, and a dozen other works dealing with New Zealand's social, political and cultural history, said: "Any selection is likely to be arbitrary but I am surprised at some of the omissions and inclusions."

He imagined the anthology - "which I would most kindly describe as eccentric" - would be met with a "gnashing of teeth" by many writers.

"It is indicative to me of a problem which bedevils New Zealand writing. People can't make up their mind what the word literature means. To publish an anthology and not include first rank non-fiction writers like Michael King suggests this is an old-fashioned perception of what constitutes New Zealand literature."

Auckland poet Peter Bland - winner of the 2011 Prime Minister's prize for poetry but absent from the AUP collection - thinks the $75 anthology is designed to become a university text.

Of the inclusion of documents - one extract is from the 1954 Mazengarb report on 'moral delinquency' - Bland remarked: "I think that's what they call post-modernism."

Yorkshire-born Bland wonders if the editors felt he wasn't a "proper Kiwi" to warrant inclusion.

In an email, Sir James McNeish, whose fictional diary Lovelock was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1986, wrote that he was honoured to be in such good company as those omitted from the collection.

"If all these writers have been left out, I cannot but think - to rephrase one of his maxims - what Gore Vidal might have said: "New Zealand society, literary or lay, tends to be humourless. What other culture could have produced an academic anthology such as this and not seen the joke?"

Dunedin-based Philip Temple, a winner of the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for non-fiction, felt the collection was weighted too heavily towards graduates of Bill Manhire's Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.

He said it ignored some terrific writing about mountaineering and sport and could not sustain the claim on the dust jacket that "for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what's worth reading and why".

For his part, publisher Elworthy accepts every anthology "has some voices that aren't there" and by nature would be incomplete.

He says the editors wanted to create a "conversation" and show readers there were different strands of writing in New Zealand worth following.

Said Elworthy: "Great anthologies offer just one path into a country's literature - they are 'a knife through time' as the editors say. Lose the knife, include all your friends, and you'll produce a handy doorstop but not a great book.

"At 1200 pages, this anthology is a big old waka with 'a multifarious collection of crew and passengers', as the editors write. But it's just one rather interesting, illuminating path through New Zealand writing. There are other paths and people should take them."

Despite the price, Elworthy was confident the book would find an eager market, and noted the Australian equivalent - the Macquarie PEN Anthology - became a "bestseller". (It was also met with a barrage from critics angry that little drama was included.)

Elworthy contended the time was ripe for a New Zealand anthology: "We've just taken a big pile of great New Zealand writing to the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Our contemporary writers are flourishing."

Anthology of New Zealand Literature. Edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Auckland University Press, RRP $75).


Giveaway: The Weekend Herald has four copies to give away, courtesy of Auckland University Press. To be in the draw, tell us the title of Hamish Clayton's book. Send your answer, with name and address details, to Weekend Herald contest, PO Box 3290, Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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