Confessions of an Unrepentant Anthologist (2013)

Brett Cross, ed.: brief 49 (September 2013)

Confessions of an Unrepentant Anthologist

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, ed. The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature. ISBN 9781869405892. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013. [xi] + 277 pp. RRP $NZ 75.00.

Jane Stafford & Mark Williams, eds. The AUP Anthology of NZ Literature (2013)

The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature is the first single-volume collection of Aotearoa’s major writing, from early exploration and encounter to a globalised, multicultural present. In fiction and non-fiction, letters and speeches, stories and songs, the editors unearth the diverse voices of the New Zealand imagination. And for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.
from the back-cover blurb

I suppose the main question people – or reviewers, at any rate, if that’s the same thing – have been asking themselves is whether this particular job, this doorstop-sized, soup-to-nuts anthology of our nation’s literature, was worth doing at all at this point in our history? But then, having myself recently received a review which contained the phrase: “I must confess that my first reaction ... was ‘why bother?’”, I think it probably best to ignore that kind of global positioning until we've gone into the subject rather more comprehensively. Certainly the book’s blurb couldn’t approach the subject more hyperbolically, or with a more thorough exhibition of self-confidence: “for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.” Really? Will it really be that?

Right from the outset, I have to declare a prejudice: not so much the fact that I'm not in the AUP anthology (its list of exclusions, if you want to think in those terms, is pretty reassuring in that respect), as the fact that I've edited – or co-edited – so many anthologies myself over the years. There are ten at last count: including the AUP Poets in Performance trilogy (2006-8); three anthologies of student life and travel writing from Massey (2003-8); an anthology of short stories from Reed (2006); an anthology of essays about Auckland: also from Massey (2011); and two joint verse / prose anthologies: Golden Weather (2004) and Orange Roughy (2008). And that’s not including a bunch of anthology-length issues of literary magazines, as well as a few online features ...

I don't say this to skite so much as to establish credentials. I've thought quite a lot about the varying purposes an anthology can serve over the past decade, and I've also found out how useful a collaborative approach to such decision-making can be (my co-editors on these projects have included such writing luminaries as Grant Duncan, Jan Kemp, Graeme Lay, Bronwyn Lloyd, and Tina Shaw). So let’s just say that I’m not in any position to throw stones at Jane Stafford and Mark Williams – my colleagues in the craft, as it were.

Even Murray Edmond’s somewhat depressing tally of recent New Zealand poetry anthologies in his editorial for Ka Mate Ka Ora 9 (2010) – he counts no fewer than 34 published between 2000 and 2010, and the list is by no means complete – includes a few glowing exceptions among its general atmosphere of Jeremiad:

Could this proliferation of anthologies be proof that during good economic years (the decade 2000 at least until near its end) poetry does well? Or might the list represent the end-product of a cultural nationalism which had its “high and serious” moment in the 1980s and is now in its senility? (p.5)

Well, who can say? Now that those boom-times have turned to bust, do we need to crank out any more portentous generalities about the influence of the larger economy on poetry sales? What I think Edmond fails to acknowledge is that his tender memories of early readings of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861) and (especially) Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) can be paralleled by just such moments of vision in each successive generation – but with different sources of inspiration each time.

It’s all very well to claim that “[Donald] Allen's anthology seems to be stuck in the shape it was born in and to belong forever in the moment of its birth ... Truly, in [Laura] Riding and [Robert] Graves's terms (in their Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928)), a true anthology” (p.6). It may indeed be a wonderful memory, but the need to work on providing the possibility of such memories for others has not disappeared as a result. Edmond calls his own anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 (2000) – co-edited with Alan Brunton and Michele Leggott – “an anthology created from the poetry which was to a large extent inspired by the Allen anthology: an anthology's anthology, a recovery of lost voices and an act of critical definition,” (p.6), but it’s hard to believe that that’s the only way in which it can have been intended to be received: especially by readers who weren’t even born in 1960 ...

I remember Scott Hamilton saying to me on one occasion that my special Kendrick Smithyman issue of brief magazine (Issue #26: Smithymania (2003)) would someday be picked up in a second-hand shop by some young kid whom it would electrify: that it was a kind of timebomb held in trust for the future. I have to say I very much like that image, just as I liked the cartoon on p.344 of Big Smoke which records the young schoolgirl Judy stumbling over the “fabled Freed at Last” on a rubble-strewn building site, under the questionably avuncular eye of some creepy English lecturer – not to mention the dedication of that anthology: “For Posterity.”

It’s not so much, I believe, that anthologists should make great claims for their own astuteness as prophets of what will and will not be considered “important” by the next generation, as that they should endeavour to make their assemblages the best and most convenient vehicle for what they see as intrinsically interesting – and therefore potentially incendiary – texts. Stafford and Williams, in their own blockbuster, have strayed intentionally beyond the generally accepted canon of “literary” textuality – including excerpts from the Edmonds Cookbook, diaries, public letters, manifestos – but these acts of cultural bricolage do not detract from the fact that they hope to make a strong impression: to change in some way our accepted vision of the past, of the canon of received texts and authors, even of acceptable genre-categories to be included under the title of New Zealand “literature.”

Have they succeeded? Well, to some extent (pace their blurb) it still does remain for posterity to say. A lot of other anthologies of American poetry were appearing in the late 50s and early 60s. Who would have predicted that Donald Allen’s would scoop the pool? At this point, though, more than six months after its first appearance, it might be salutary to sample from the responses that Stafford and Williams’ book has received to date.

Well, first of all, some of the things Sam Elworthy, the Head of AUP, had to say on the subject in the NZ Herald shortly after the launch sounded very much like a preemptive strike against any and all grounds for criticism:

[On the failure to include Janet Frame, Vincent O’Sullivan and Alan Duff]:
... Elworthy accepts every anthology “has some voices that aren't there” and by nature would be incomplete.

[That it’s just one more attempt at prescriptive canon-building]:
He says the editors wanted to create a “conversation” and show readers there were different strands of writing in New Zealand worth following ... “But it's just one rather interesting, illuminating path through New Zealand writing. There are other paths and people should take them.”

[That the omissions cripple any claims to being truly “representative”]:
... “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.”

[That it’s too big to lift, let alone use in a classroom]:
“At 1200 pages, this anthology is a big old waka with 'a multifarious collection of crew and passengers', as the editors write.” 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”.

[Finally, that in the age of the internet, such massive tomes are obsolete]:
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.” (Stone, 2012)

His strategy didn’t really work, though. Here are a few of the verdicts to date. Kevin Ireland on the New Zealand Studies Network blog (2012):

Anthologies work most happily when they follow a theme, such as humour, love or war. The all-inclusive anthology has to be almost a lost cause, for omissions are inevitable, inclusions at their best tend to favour some writers over others and at their worst they are often unrepresentative or plain eccentric. Editors, like any other discerning readers, have their preferences and prejudices and can’t help revealing them. This huge collection of New Zealand writing over more than two centuries is no exception.

He mentions in passing the “extraordinary” omissions of Frame and O’Sullivan which “must have been devastating to the editors for it haunts the book,”, but then goes on to list a number of other writers who have “been relegated to ghostly presences at the margins” or who are otherwise “notably missing-in-action.” Where he really goes to town, however, is on the latter parts of the book:

It is these last sections from ‘The Nineties’ on, that are the cause of the heated controversy I have read and overheard. The selection has a geographical and professional narrowness that is as idiosyncratic as it is unmistakeable. The favouring of associates of Victoria University and its illustrious press is disproportionate. It contains some excellent work by proven writers, but it cannot claim to be generous, inclusive or even a roughly accurate overview of contemporary New Zealand literature. That is what this kind of anthology generically sets its sights on. But this is where this anthology fails to focus. (Ireland, 2012)

Ouch! Not only does Ireland see such anthologies as a “lost cause” in general, but specifies this one as flagrantly unrepresentative in particular.

Does it have any defenders on these particular points? Stephen Stratford starts off reasonably sympathetically:

This must be one of the worst jobs in the world: making an anthology of New Zealand literature. You will be criticised for who is in and who is out. It would be bad enough with an anthology of fiction or of poetry or of non-fiction or of drama, but this book covers all four genres. (Stratford, 2012)

“Or so it claims,” he continues, somewhat ominously. After that we hear a good deal about the significance of certain of the omitted authors: particularly Vincent O’Sullivan, who apparently described the picture this anthology gives of New Zealand literature as “narrow and prescriptive,” and went on to say that:

To be in the crowd scenes for the spectacle of the new tablets brought down from Mt Kelburn did not much interest me. (quoted in Stratford, 2012)

O’Sullivan was himself the co-editor (with Mac Jackson) of an earlier vast tome: the 715-page Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Writing Since 1945 (1983), so one might interpret this remark as sour grapes. It does show that there’s nothing accidental or unconsidered about his refusal to report for duty in the ranks, though.

Stratford does concede that the “editors did not have infinite space and had to make their selection. They explain in their introduction their reasoning for their inclusions and exclusions.” Beyond that, though, he sees their introduction as “nonsense – such nonsense as only an academic could write” and the majority of their selections as either perverse or misjudged. The nub of his argument comes at the end, though:

This may be the last printed anthology of its kind – e-books and university course packs are easier to organise with different versions for different courses. The idea of a large hardback with poetry, fiction and non-fiction (and a tiny bit of drama) from several centuries is probably out-dated. Digital lets publishers and course designers slice and dice by genre, century, decade even. The master copy of the next anthology will have the full contents but what students see will be just a fraction of that. This is not a bad thing – it makes it affordable for the students, and the authors will get paid. Authors and trusts will be more permissive about permissions with a less prescriptive selection. Digital is a disruptive technology – three cheers for that – so a book like this is a dinosaur. We will not see its like again. (Stratford, 2012)

Nicholas Reid, in his own review, is particularly censorious of the heady claims made in the book’s blurb (which does seem a rather unnecessary provocation to those as yet undecided on such points):

This brings me back to the comment on the back cover, which says that this anthology will “for years to come … be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.” No. Sorry. I do not believe this. Not only is the statement a flat contradiction of what the editors argue in the Introduction; but it also ignores the unwieldy weight of the tome, which will tend to confine it to institutions and library reference shelves. And even if an accessible e-book version is in the works, the anthology’s selections and omissions are too contentious not to make it subject for frequent comment and criticism. If this aspires to be a “guide” to what is worth reading, then for years people will be lining up to point out its defects. (Reid, 2012)

His review is also notable for having elicited a comment by Murray Edmond on the anthology’s failure to address adequately the field of New Zealand theatre and drama:

The elephant in the room: in a book of 1,149 pages representing New Zealand literature, only 20 of those pages represent dramatic writing in Aotearoa. Apparently, in the editors' view, small single selections from Bruce Mason, Maurice Shadbolt, Greg McGee, Briar Grace-Smith, and Jacob Rajan have been considered sufficient to suffice.

It is difficult to know whether to take this as straightforward ignorance and lack of reading on the editors' part, or whether the choices and the glaring mountain of omissions of the work of playwrights signifies something more dismissive. As an Associate-Professor in Drama at the University of Auckland, home of this book, I find it deeply disturbing in cultural and educational terms for schools and universities, for the theatre industry and for the substantial audiences who have attended for years and continue to attend performances of local work. (Reid, 2012)

Again, ouch! One more review to complete this round-robin. Laurence Jones in the Landfall Review Online:

In some ways the AUP anthology could be discussed as many rugby matches are, as a game of two halves. In the first ‘half’, the 600 pages of texts covering from 1769 to 1969, there is the sense of a balanced and at the same time imaginative choice and arrangement of texts that gives a clear sense of the shape of New Zealand literary history while at the same time opening up a fresh sense of relationships by the juxtaposition of texts. In the second ‘half’, the 450 pages of texts covering 1970 to 2011, there are some brilliant episodes in the juxtaposition of texts but the general sense of the shape and balance of the whole is lost.

Jones is generally far more positive about the book than most of the other reviewers, but even he is forced to acknowledge certain flaws:

If there is ultimately a second edition, I would hope for a fuller representation of drama and recent non-fiction and a franker discussion of the problems involved in anthologising those genres, for possibly more recent poetry from outside the VUP-AUP orbit, and for renegotiations to get Frame, O’Sullivan and Duff into the book. (Jones, 2013)

His conclusion is interesting. “Perhaps Stratford was right in saying that in that respect ‘a book like this is a dinosaur. We will not see its like again’. But right now it is a dinosaur worth having.” Hardly a ringing endorsement, all in all.

So, to conclude, what are my views on these various objects of controversy? I’ve just been discussing how to write book reviews with the stage three students in my Travel Writing course, so I can hardly plead ignorance of the basic requirements of the form. Above all, I told them, one must be opinionated: reviews are intended to give advice to potential readers on whether or not to bother with a particular book (or, even more explicitly, whether or not to buy it). There’s therefore no room for “letting the evidence speak for itself” or “giving both sides of the story” – both popular techniques in the unreconstructed student essay.

That’s not to say that the opinion can be a purely arbitrary one. If a reviewer provides no real evidence for his or her judgements, then that can hardly regarded as persuasive testimony. There isn’t always room to go into detail, but what detail there is in a review should be carefully judged.

So, given it’s now put-up or shut-up time, I now propose to share my own opinions on the Stafford and Williams book:
  • First of all, the blurb is, I believe, a mistake. Unnecessarily provocative and obscurely expressed (What does it even mean by “writers in this country have struggled for 250 years to work the English language into some sort of truth”?), it has encouraged a good many of the attacks the book has received, and has tipped the balance for many other uncommitted commentators. I have to concur with Nicholas Reid on that one.
  • Secondly, the book’s claim to cover the four genres of fiction, poetry, non-fictional prose and drama is also, I think, misjudged. It’s big enough already, and any attempt to bring the latter two in line with the former will distort it still further. Murray Edmond’s testimony has to be taken as quite decisive on this matter.
  • Thirdly, the book’s potential audience seems ill-defined. It’s too large to act as a class anthology in schools (or even, I fear, universities). And yet it lacks the elaborate apparatus which has made the various Norton anthologies such a goldmine for teachers: “maps and timelines; full period introductions, and separate biographical-critical introductions and annotated primary and secondary bibliographies for each author; an author-title index; textual and explanatory footnotes for each text; selected critical excerpts on some key texts; online study guides and quizzes; a 300-page guide for instructors,” as Lawrence Jones helpfully explains.

Having conceded these points to its critics, though, I’m inclined to agree with Jones in seeing it as a promising start (rather than a full-stop) to a very interesting task. The Norton anthologies are constantly reinventing themselves, but that doesn’t mean that each successive stage isn’t worth reading for itself. Let’s consider some of the positive things about this anthology:
  1. It’s a good one-stop shop for basic information about most of New Zealand’s prominent writers – albeit with a few omissions, details about whom can be easily supplied from elsewhere. And given that Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie’s comprehensive 1998 Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature is now fifteen years old – although many of its entries are available in updated and expanded form on the NZ Book Council website – as is Terry Sturm’s monumental Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1991; 2nd ed. 1998), it’s nice to have a more recent work on the subject to put beside them on the shelf. What an excellent trio of reference books, in fact!

  2. The greatly increased and critically considered selections from New Zealand’s nineteenth-century literary heritage are a welcome corrective to the earlier view promulgated by (most famously and influentially) Allen Curnow’s classic Book of New Zealand Verse, both in its 1945 and 1960 incarnations. In this respect it’s a worthy successor to the editors’ earlier VUP publication Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006). This is the best kind of revisionism, balancing out the larger picture of our literary history in a much needed way.

  3. The contention that the future for such anthology projects is exclusively on the internet is not an entirely persuasive one. It’s hard enough to get the consent of authors (and their literary estates) to reproduce pieces of copyrighted work in print, let alone online. The more safeguards are built into sites (pay-to-view, or prior reader registration), the less useful they become. I don’t myself believe that the age of the print anthology is over just yet, though I would certainly concede that some kind of internet presence is increasingly essential for any reference book.

Finally, that’s what it is: a reference book. I certainly do hope that there is a second edition, and that the editors (and publishers) are able to take on board some of the objections which have been raised to this version. Personally, I’d like more apparatus, even if it meant less raw text. For myself, I like the general introduction very much – nor do I share Stephen Stratford’s views on the improbability of early settlers to New Zealand owning a copy of Ossian. I don’t think it’ so much that the editors meant to claim it as a terribly common book, so much as revelatory of a certain kind of attitude to the “savage” surroundings of the new land: a kind of Baedeker to how to portray the Other ... But then, maybe that’s just me showing the same “stupidity” (Stratford’s word) as all the other academics.

I also like the little pockets of texts the editors use as charts to the immense territory they’ve set out to explore. I used a somewhat similar method in our North Shore anthology Golden Weather, and – like them – found it an invaluable way of compiling and positioning texts one against the other to suggest more than the sum of their parts: a collage method, if you like. The mini-introductions they’ve provided to each section are also very useful.

In the end, though, it’s hard for me to see the lively commentary this book has given rise to as a bad thing. It shows how interested people still are in such modes of representation, how feisty and partisan in pleading for their views. This new AUP anthology has attracted argument and controversy rather than bland acceptance and apathy: I’d say, myself, that should be seen as a clear sign of success.

Works cited:


brief 49 (2013): 129-45.

[3,999 wds]

brief 49 (2013)

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