Anthology of New Zealand Literature – Edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams.

The Auckland University Press 2012
ISBN 9781869405892

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Anthology of New Zealand LiteratureAnthologies 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. It seems currently to be the favourite subject of literary dinner-table conversations, largely for its curious omissions, and what’s mostly frustrating about the book is what’s in and what it reveals about where the editors have placed their money on where New Zealand new writing is heading.

The omissions do need to be mentioned first, for some of them are extraordinary. Janet Frame and Vincent O’Sullivan are not represented because they or their representatives have chosen not be there, and their absence must have been devastating to the editors for it haunts the book and unbalances a true overview of current fiction and poetry. But a number of other prominent writers have also been relegated to ghostly presences at the margins, sometimes to the benefit of those who could be described as up-and-coming or once-promising. Among those notably missing-in-action are Peter Bland, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Shonagh Koea, Reimke Ensing, Charlotte Grimshaw, Chad Taylor, Margaret Escott, James Courage, Judith Binney, Michael King, Rachael King, Kelley Ana Morey, Sue Orr, Sonja Yelich, Anne Salmond, Graeme Lay, Diane Brown and Linda Olssen… The roll call could be doubled without difficulty.

The inclusions also include surprises and some contribute to what is possibly the collection’s greatest strength, one which impresses even its most vocal critics: its coverage of 19th and early 20th-century poetry, song, miscellaneous non-fiction and fiction [though there are pages of Alfred Domett and Blanche Baughan, but no George Chamier or G.B.Lancaster]. And the editors have also enterprisingly tried to follow a rough chronological sequence in their presentation, while parcelling their selections into interesting themes. The early groupings work well, for the authors seem to fit into such subjects as “In the garden”, “At the beach”, “Through Pakeha eyes” and “Depression”. The difficulty comes later as authors become shoe-horned into neatly labelled but uncomfortable categories such as “Being the other”, “Overseasia” and “Personal effects”.

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.

Kevin Ireland