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

By Guy Somerset In Books

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27th November, 2012 Leave a Comment

Anthology of New Zealand Literature

If ever a book cried out for an e-book version, it’s this,” I say to Jane Stafford and Mark Williams as I heave their nearly 1200-page Anthology of New Zealand Literature from my bag after lugging it up to Stafford’s office in the ninth-floor English department at Victoria University of Wellington. “Really?” says Williams. “We thought it cried out for an even bigger book.”

The landmark anthology covers more than 200 years of New Zealand literature in English, but “large as it is, is a condensation of not just a lot of reading but also a lot of material that was collated and edited”. Nonetheless, it remains the biggest such anthology in New Zealand publishing history. There have been anthologies before, of course – countless ones of poetry and short stories, but general anthologies have been more narrowly focused in their time frames and as a result much smaller. There has been an Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English and an Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.

There has never, however, been anything quite like the Anthology of New Zealand Literature, featuring as it does some 400 extracts from 200 authors, the earliest from 1769, the most recent from 2011. The book was commissioned by Auckland University Press director Sam Elworthy three years ago. He had been inspired by the 2009 publication of a Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. “When I was living in the US, the Norton anthologies are all around you, for different countries and eras. It struck me when I saw the Macquarie PEN that we didn’t have such a thing here and it seemed surprising.”

Elworthy was particularly keen to see early New Zealand literature afforded some of the attention heaped upon the post-1930 period and so was drawn to Stafford and Williams partly because of their book Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006).

“I think Maoriland is a great book and they had rediscovered some of our literary tradition and could bring something new [to the anthology]. Our literary tradition was defined a lot by Allen Curnow and people coming along and saying it was all dead before nationalism, and other people afterward saying, ‘There were nationalists but now there are these cool new people around.’ I thought Jane and Mark both knew what was going on in current literature and had a different view of the history of writing in New Zealand that was going to be quite important to bring to the book so it wasn’t just the old story repeated.”

It took Williams, who has been involved with previous anthologies, including co-editing Oxford’s Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (1997), “a little while to get my head around the idea [of the new anthology], I have to say. But I quickly became very enthused about it indeed. I could see a way into it.” Stafford was “more straightforwardly enthusiastic because I haven’t done any anthologies and was naively unaware [of what they entail]”. “It is a difficult business, obviously,” says Williams, “but it is extremely pleasurable.”

The pleasure, says Stafford, “is just to sit down and read as widely as you like. Falling over things you never thought of before or never encountered before. We talked very widely and people would say, ‘Why don’t you think about this?’ That’s a very pleasant time in the process, the early time, when we weren’t thinking about page numbers or volume or balance or anything. We were just collecting.” And being tapped on the shoulder by writers hoping to be included? “Only a couple,” says Stafford, “who shall remain nameless.”

This stage was like being “a child with a Meccano set with an infinite number of pieces”, says Williams. “But some of the bolts get taken away as the pages shrink and you face reality.” The worst reality they faced, however, was not pages shrinking but the Janet Frame Literary Trust refusing permission to use the author’s writings they wanted. Stafford and Williams had asked to use some poems and extracts from Frame’s novels and autobiographies – and were later going to seek a passage from the posthumously published Towards Another Summer as the anthology’s opening epigraph. But the trust would only agree to their using complete short stories, poems or non-fiction from the In Her Own Words collection – and the two parties couldn’t agree on selections acceptable to both of them.

An Anthology of New Zealand Literature without Janet Frame? Preposterous, surely. “We agree,” says Stafford – but the selections had to be the right ones. “We did think we had a responsibility to Janet Frame. They weren’t the only ones with a responsibility to Janet Frame.” In preparation for the book, Stafford and Williams looked at other national anthologies, including the Macquarie PEN, and talked in Vancouver to Laura Moss, co-editor of a two-volume Canadian Literature in English (2009). This year is coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the Norton Anthology of English Literature in the US. In an article in the New York Times, general editor Stephen Greenblatt framed the anthology within the context of 19th-century English critic Matthew Arnold’s notion of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. That is to say, the notion of a literary canon.

But this is not a notion Stafford and Williams found holding sway as it once did. “[Anthologising] used to be very much a canon-making operation,” says Stafford. “And the great ones in New Zealand are the Curnow ones [A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960)], which are giving the tick to a list of approved authors and approved positions and attitudes. You definitely wouldn’t be doing that if you did that now. You would be more inclusive. You would be thinking in more complicated ways about what literature meant. So you would have things that weren’t necessarily thought of as being literature. You certainly wouldn’t have that high culture idea about what literature should be.”

Such is the philosophy that informs the Anthology of New Zealand Literature, although “one of the things we agreed with Sam was that it wasn’t going to be so uncanonical as to be quirky and eccentric”, says Stafford. As Williams points out, “it is actually very canonical” in terms of the writers in there. But you will also find the Treaty of Waitangi, the Mazengarb Report, a recipe from the ‘Sure to Rise’ Cookery Book and “General Hints on Gardening” from Yates’ Gardening Guide for Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, selections are organised historically, with each period divided into a series of thematic sub-headings (“suggestive rather than prescriptive”, insists Williams) – leaving one with little sense of how the selections might relate to a writer’s career, aside from brief “factual not evaluative” biographies and bibliographies at the back of the book. Williams speaks of his and Stafford’s “democratising impulse”, but the resulting impression of an equivalence between everyone and everything won’t be to every reader’s taste.

Vincent O’Sullivan was one of two living writers who refused permission for his writing to be included. (The other was Alan Duff, who gave no reason.) It was O’Sullivan who raised the “prescriptive” word about the theming of selections. “There are some wonderful things in this anthology, of course there are,” he says. “But it is also narrow and prescriptive. To be in the crowd scenes for the spectacle of the new tablets brought down from Mt Kelburn did not much interest me.”

“I don’t know if other people felt irritated by that,” says Williams. “They may well have but nobody else objected on that basis. But Vincent did say something [along the lines of what he said to the Listener] – that in the old days editors used to leave it up to the readers to make their decisions. Which is palpably not true. Curnow and Vincent [who co-edited the Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Writing Since 1945 (1983)] did not leave it up to the readers to make their decisions.” By who and what they choose, and by their introductions, “editors always exert an influence on anthologies, whether they’re showing their hand or not”, says Stafford. “I do think the prescriptive charge is wrong,” adds Williams. “Firstly, we don’t have a joint ideology …” “We disagree,” interrupts Stafford, pausing significantly, “about almost everything.”

I can certainly vouch for plenty of interplay during the course of our interview: corrections, qualifications and elaborations of each other’s comments. They are partners in their personal as well as professional lives – which must have made the writing of the book a pretty intensive period, I venture. “Yes,” says Stafford. “It was,” says Williams. “We argued a lot,” says Stafford. “We didn’t with Maoriland, did we?” says Williams. “This was much more – how shall I put it [Stafford laughs in the background]? – complicated working our way through it. It was a big bugger.”

“There are productive ways of arguing,” says Stafford. “Because the other person is always going to question why something is going in it or why it’s going there and so on. So I don’t think it was a destructive process. But it was a bit tiring sometimes,” she says, laughing again. Living together, it’s not as though they’d be able to escape either the book or each other. “We were like dairy owners,” says Williams. For Williams, the historical and thematic presentation of selections in the anthology led to “a machine that generates conversations”.

“You can say that [the selections] talking to each other is a way of editing the book,” says Stafford, “but it’s also something we observed as a historical phenomenon. Writers have talked to each other and picked up things and reacted against something or altered this particular theme or transposed this to that, and so on. That was one of the delights and we’re still noticing it now, things we weren’t in fact conscious of. Which doesn’t mean it’s completely coherent and there aren’t people who are aberrant and different. But I did find that a really interesting feature of doing the book.”

“This is a much more flexible arrangement [than presenting the selections chronologically by author and their date of birth],” says Williams. “And it actually conveys the way people read the work. You read it at the time in terms of the other writing that appeared alongside it.” He and Stafford talk a good game when it comes to the inclusion of the Edmonds ‘Sure to Rise’ and Yates’ Gardening Guide.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, two books were in every home, says Stafford. “One was Yates’ Gardening Guide and the other was the Edmonds cookbook … they’re actually doing slightly different things [as extracts]. Because the Edmonds cookbook is like a found poem. It’s just a beautiful list of hints for cooking. But Yates’ Gardening Guide we put next to the poems that are about settlement and about the land and about clearing the land and so on. So this lovely precise paragraph about the properties of soil and how you look after it seemed to me to be a nice balance.”

“And it looks forward beautifully to the [1995] piece by [ecologist] Geoff Park,” says Williams. “But also the [1975] Ian Wedde Aramoana poems – all about soil and clay and so on,” says Stafford. If they are vocal and persuasive on this, they are less so when it comes to a glaring omission: the popular, acclaimed and award-winning Charlotte Grimshaw. On the two occasions I bring it up, the conversation is peppered with silences. “With contemporary novels, some of them are very hard to take an excerpt out of, and so there were novels we really admired but it was just impossible to represent in an anthology,” proffers Stafford. But Grimshaw’s best-known books, Opportunity and Singularity, are short-story collections.

“I guess everybody is going to select somebody different,” says Williams. “I rather like Graham Billing. I rather regret not having The Slipway [1974] in. And there are other examples from the 50s and 60s … The only thing I’m surprised about what you’re saying is it’s only Charlotte Grimshaw you mention.” He adds: “I feel really happy with the final [contemporary] section of the book … I’m sure another editor or editors may well have put Charlotte Grimshaw in but we didn’t so we will live with that.” Not thinking of Grimshaw necessarily, I am reminded of something Stephen Stratford wrote about the enemies you make judging book awards.

“That’s nothing compared with doing an anthology,” says Williams. So he expects there to be writers with their noses out of joint? “Absolutely.” They thought carefully about who they put in and who they didn’t, he says. “There are all sorts of things going on in an anthology,” says Stafford, “but we do take responsibility in terms of taste as well as all the other things we’re trying to do. It’s a kind of balance. We have put in writers we don’t particularly care for and styles we don’t particularly care for because we think it’s important we represent them. But we also probably – we should, in fact – have it as a reflection of our taste to a certain extent, otherwise we aren’t really editing.”

With that, I heave the anthology back into my bag – happy to report that, yes, there is an e-book version in the pipeline.

AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (AUP, $75).

27th November, 2012 Leave a Comment

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