Marketplace or laboratory?

by Gregory O'Brien / 30 August, 2008
Literature thrives on productive anarchy and a sense of tradition, not bureaucratic and commercial jargon.

There's a Maori whakatauki that translates as: "Go back to the past and walk into the future" - a useful piece of advice for writers as well as people generally. In a literary world that at times seems driven by marketing departments, the past is a good place to go to for direction, energy and a sense of perspective. The past is so much bigger than the present for a start, as poet Joseph Brodsky used to say, and is "the source of standards, higher standards than the present affords. One should write to please not one's contemporaries but one's predecessors."

I remember the Auckland University Press pre-Christmas drinks, 1984, when the press' editor Dennis McEldowney introduced me to fiction writer Roderick Finlayson - I recall the great humility of him; the poet Kendrick Smithyman - a fizzing fusebox of a man, filled to the brim with history and literature; the high and certainly very mighty Allen Curnow; and the man whom Maurice Shadbolt described as New Zealand's "most imaginative and sensitive essayist", Eric Mc-Cormick. As a writer, you need a thriving tradition behind you, and, for me, aged 23 at the time, this roomful of characters was ample embodiment of that.

A few years later, working with photo-grapher Robert Cross on a book of portraits of writers, Moments of Invention, I travelled around the country, visiting CK Stead, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Fiona Kidman, Patricia Grace, Margaret Mahy and others.

Ezra Pound once said to critic Hugh Kenner: "You have an obligation to visit the great men [and women] of your time." Those years of being youngish and very curious were, for me, the beginning of a dialogue with the past that is something I think all serious writers are involved in. I never thought of those writers as the Establishment - they were living ingredients that Literature had passed down to my generation. "You invent your own ancestors," poet Jonathan Williams used to say - and so I found mine, in the world and on the page.

It must have been McCormick who first encouraged me to explore the permeable border between literature and art - the title of his 1940 study Letters and Art in New Zealand hit a resonant note, as did Robin Dudding's journal Islands, with its subtitle Arts and Letters. In July 1988, McCormick invited Chrissy Hemming from AUP and me out to his house in Green Bay, Auckland, where we sat in the sunroom while his sister Myra made pots of tea, and McCormick carried in boxes of books from his library, encouraging us to take all the titles we would like to keep. Such quiet generosity strikes me as a physical embodiment of a process of handing down and continuity - another kind of literary inheritance.

For better and for worse, New Zealand literature has changed hugely over the past 20 years. These days, what once was a small shop has become a bigger one, and rather than being the "closed shop" it might have appeared from some angles, it now tends to be open all hours. Less happily, our notion of "literature" and the literary is these days in danger of being swamped by an attitude to writing - and to creativity generally - that equates it increasingly with the marketplace.

If literature is not a marketplace, then what is it, you might ask. Literature, from my vantage point, is a laboratory in which language and life are processed. Another key element in this laboratory is a notion of literary tradition - tradition being the past in its most vital manifestation.

What I saw in McCormick, Finlayson and the others was independence, idealism and tenacity. Writing was a manner of being, of seeing and of - to use a Janet Frame word - giving. Of course, they could all, at times, be argumentative, cross and competitive. Those pioneering generations of writers may have been idealists, but let's not idealise them all too much. My favourite story about the wise, humble McCormick is one Iain Sharp told me, which dated back to the mid-1980s, when Sharp was secretary of the Auckland branch of the writers' organisation PEN. He recalled one PEN meeting "when Stead, Sinclair and Shadbolt were all going at one another hammer and tongs in alpha male ego mode over some funding issue or other. Eric piped up with the comment, 'What we must not lose sight of is that we're a crowd of mediocrities. I do not exclude myself.'"

While literature looked in danger of being swamped by academic theory back in the 1980s, these days it is far more likely to be devoured by bureaucratic and commercial jargon. Literature is a rebuttal of such narrowness and banality. Its variousness, its elliptical nature, its productive anarchy set it apart. Yet why do we still try to make the arts conform, to put a box around them, to limit them? I'm told that, these days, Creative New Zealand grants to writers are being referred to as strategic investments. In the present era, we visit the most toxic of bureaucratic language upon all of the arts - shovel-loads of radioactive, poisonous muck - and then expect them to grow. Literature needs to keep its distance.

The good news is that literature as a process of thought rather than a product is alive and well, even if its best manifestations have a habit of going under the career-fixated, success-driven, prize-giving apparatus of the art-as-business brigade. There are writers out there on what the German poet Friedrich Holderlin would have described admiringly as their own "eccentric orbits".

The judges of this year's Montana New Zealand Book Awards commented on the lack of experimentalism in the fiction submitted, which suggests that possibly some of the restlessness, imagination and energy usually found in fiction might, in recent years, have migrated to the non-fiction sector. Recent "non-fiction" by Anna Sanderson, Chris Price and Martin Edmond steps gingerly over the boundary between fiction, non-fiction, memoir and poetry. So, too, Stephanie de Montalk's masterpiece of personal essay-writing, Unquiet World - a book that appeared in Polish translation and was made into a Polish TV documentary, but met, inexplicably, with an almost-silence at home.

Poetry is definitely the point at which literature is most overtly and visibly a laboratory - and this is played out in recent collections such as Anna Jackson's expressionistic bricolage The Gas Leak, and in the dazzling yet dirge-like verse of Geoff Cochrane; in the dramatic monologues of Tusiata Avia and Jo Randerson; in the crystal clear seeing and saying of Richard Von Sturmer's Suchness (another book worthy of far wider readership); and in the atomised verbal structures of Kate Camp, James Brown, James McNaughton, Janis Freegard, Airini Beautrais, Michele Amas and other newer writers, all of whom seem to have happily adopted Cilla McQueen's maxim that writing should aim at "kicking the habit of 100% corrected vision".

One of the most intellectually charged recent poetry publications is Sam Sampson's Everything Talks. On the back cover blurb, Waitakere City Mayor Bob Harvey heralds Sampson as "a son of the west", his work "imbued with the salt air of the roaring Tasman Sea and the mists of the Waitakere Ranges". If this book is anything to go by, then maybe West Auckland is set to become a civically sanctioned, city-sized laboratory of experimental writing. Poetry laboratories will be replacing P-labs around the outskirts, all of them part of that grand laboratory that is New Zealand Literature - a place where everything talks, and the voices of the past hear themselves in the voices of the present. Given that McCormick was a West Aucklander, too, how glorious and appropriate is that?

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