Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams – review

By Hugh Roberts In Books

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Anthology of New Zealand Literature

Anthology of New Zealand Literature

Pity the poor anthologist. What is making an anthology but an exercise in leaving things out? But what more predictable criticism for any anthologist than they left out something “indispensable”? It is as if you threw a dinner party and received angry phone calls from the friends you didn’t invite. The problem is exacerbated in New Zealand; the “dinner parties” are fewer and further between (if you didn’t make it into this massive tome, chances are you might never see yourself collected into a competing volume) and the pool of “friends” is small enough that the act of exclusion feels more pointed. It is no surprise that the guest list for Jane Stafford and Mark Williams’s Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature has been generating a certain amount of pearl-clutching in New Zealand’s literary circles.

Some of the more notable no-shows declined invitations. The estate of Janet Frame couldn’t agree with the editors about which clothes she’d wear to the party, and Vincent O’Sullivan and Alan Duff were washing their hair that night. The editors can only point to the empty chairs and say “at least we tried”. Other controversial absences arise from differing opinions as to which crowd was being invited. Are Michael King and Tony Simpson (for example) “literature”? Or should they wait for a “New Zealand Non-Fiction” party? The editors invited some grief here because they couldn’t quite make up their own minds. If Yates Gardening Guide and The “Sure-to Rise” Cookery Book get invitations, what principle of exclusion can you hide behind?

But this, too, is a perennial anthologists’ dilemma. Nobody wants to invite the usual suspects over and over (“Oh God! Katherine’s telling that story about the dollhouse again!”) but every time you daringly introduce new blood you call into question the premises of the entire guest list. So we have an excerpt from Dylan Horrocks’s graphic novel Hicksville to show we’re hip, we’re down, we’re not stuck in fusty notions of what constitutes “literature”. But then, if comics are literature (I’m not about to argue otherwise), isn’t it odd to have only the one? Is there no context for this solitary sport: no precursors, no successors?

A similar problem haunts the collection’s occasional gestures towards populism (or “demotic energy” per the introduction). I understand why you want Barry Crump, Frank Anthony, Peter Cape and Fred Dagg along to liven things up, but they make you wonder why, say, Ngaio Marsh didn’t get a call. Stafford and Williams make the obligatory deprecatory noises about literary “canons” but they do shelter editors from charges of capriciousness or, worse, tokenism.

In the end, though, the “who’s invited?” controversy is not a very fruitful one. Any of us, given a chance to put this anthology together, would do things differently. I would have something from Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand, a lot more than two measly pages of William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s wonderful Tutira and at least one story by Roderick Finlayson, for example. But for every page I added, I’d have to take something out, something no doubt “indispensable”. Stafford and Williams have included a lot of short snippets of novels; I would have preferred fewer but longer extracts (can you learn – or teach – much about Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home from four pages? Or about Bill Pearson’s Coal Flat from three?). But there’s no innocent cut to make that happen. New Zealand drama is woefully under- represented; but you’d have to include some frankly bad plays to tell that story with any completeness.

Where I do take issue with the editors is in the volume’s arrangement. Overall, they group the works into 11 chronological sections, from “Contact” and “Colonial” through “Whaddarya? The Eighties”, “Cabin Fever: The Nineties” and so on. This is not unreasonable (although, is “Cabin Fever” really a necessary rubric to bring to the 1990s?). But within each section they group the works not by author or chronology, but by theme: “The Joy of Sex”, “Suburbia”, “Masculinities” and so forth. For a work whose primary users will be teachers and students, this seems irritatingly programmatic. It is as if Stafford and Williams are trying to impose their own ideal course syllabus on everyone else.

That said, once the inevitable controversy fades, this will be a widely adopted and highly useful book. The editors are to be commended for giving more weight to New Zealand’s colonial period than has been typical of previous anthologies, and have given us a sufficiently broad and representative sampling that, nagging subheadings aside, teachers will be able to use it to tell the stories they need to tell about the development of New Zealand literature.


Hugh Roberts is a New Zealander teaching English at the University of Southern California, Irvine.

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