Kiwi collection shines despite sins of omission
The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature
WITHIN the past three years, two vast antipodean literary collections have been published: the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009) and now The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature. Predictably, controversy has been provoked by each.
The main criticism of the Australian book, trenchantly argued by Peter Craven, was that it included in full the material already collected in the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. This, he judged, skewed the balance of the anthology and could directly be related to the omissions of authors that were noted and regretted. A second level order of complaint involved the scant coverage of Australian drama, but that was due to the difficulty of adequately representing a play by excerpts.
The storm over the New Zealand anthology has taken a similar course. Protests focus on omissions (more than 30 names are listed with an aggrieved air by various reviewers of the book). More important (and acknowledged by the editors) are the self-exclusions of Alan Duff, author of Once Were Warriors, and of Vincent O’Sullivan, poet, novelist, editor, raconteur, anthologist and — with CK Stead — New Zealand’s finest living author.
O’Sullivan explained his decision thus: ‘‘ There are some wonderful things in this anthology ... But it is also narrow and prescriptive. To be in the crowd scenes for the spectacle of the new tablets brought down from Mount Kelburn [home of Victoria University in Wellington, where the co-editors, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, teach English literature] did not much interest me.’’
In another damaging blow to the integrity of the anthology, Stafford and Williams failed to reach agreement with the estate of Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s renowned authors, as to what a fitting selection of her work would be.
There were further grounds of protest. Stafford and Williams are a wife and husband team. They have been accused of preferring poets published by their own university’s press and also graduates of ‘‘ Bill Manhire’s creative Edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams Auckland University Press, 1162pp, $65 (HB) writing class at Victoria University’’ (‘‘a transformational force in New Zealand writing’’, in the editors’ generous view). Among the latter are Barbara Anderson, Jenny Bornholdt, Elizabeth Knox and Emily Perkins. If the internal weighting of the anthology (all 2kg and 1162 pages) is towards the past few decades — the most recent except is from Hamish Clayton’s 2011 novel Wulf — the coverage of the colonial period is ample, varied, sometimes surprising, often rich, as befits the particular research interests of the editors.
Who have they gathered? There are other married couples — Fleur Adcock and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, JC (Jacqueline) Sturm and JK Baxter, Mary Stanley and Kendrick Smithyman. Present and former New Zealand poet laureates are included: Ian Wedde and Hone Tuwhare. Also assembled are alcoholics, balladeers, bush battlers, communists, expatriates, graduates of the Maori Te Aute College, veterans of World War II and a number of writers who freely and frequently moved between New Zealand and Australia, among them Henry Lawson, Jean Devanny, Douglas Stewart and Alison Wong (who came to this country in time for her first novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, 2009, to be shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards).
If the ‘‘ outdoor life of the New Zealand male’’ is celebrated by Barry Crump, it is more ambivalently treated in John Clarke’s character Fred Dagg in The Gumboot Song. This miscellany of authors sounds familiar. We might almost be talking of Australians, or an Australasian literary sphere, or even reminiscing about the lost ‘‘ Tasman world’’ that foremost New Zealand historian James Belich posited, and that he argued ended in 1901 with a federation of Australian colonies that New Zealand did not join.
The anthology advances