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On contemporary New Zealand fiction – Jackson and Stafford

April 3, 2013

Floating WorldsIntroducing their edited book of essays, Floating Worlds, Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford describe the state of literature in New Zealand in the 2000’s. They write of the changes recent literature evidences in terms of thinking about ‘literature’ – changes they see to be shifting “…from the discussions in the Journal of new Zealand Literature, the Listener and New Zealand Books, which tend to focus on the relation between a New Zealand literature and a national identity, on the effects of the writing schools and the globalisation of the publishing industry, on current trends in the content and form of the recent literary novels.” (p.7)

Jackson and Stafford consider briefly the shift in NZ literature from concerns with (representation of) nature (i.e., beautiful green NZ etc.) to express New Zealandness in literature to considerations of disguise and performance; of “the relationship between the real and the imaginary, and the different kinds [-p.8] of challenging, edgy authenticities that operate in the space between them: the familiar and the foreign; the copy and the original; the fake and the genuine; the intention and the act, including the act of writing.” (pp.7-8)

“For the writers discussed in this collection,” they declare, “nature is arbitrary and invented or absent. One thinks back to Katherine Mansfield: ‘When NZ is more artificial, she will give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately. This sounds paradoxical, but is true.’ As Mansfield’s literary idol Oscar Wilde put it, ‘Truth…is a matter of style.’ This could be seen to signal a backing away from literary seriousness and moral purpose. And for Māori writing, with its implicit political responsibilities and concomitant investment in the real, this could represent a dilemma. When Keri Hulme ends the bone people with the vision of the ‘dream marae’ – ‘new marae from the old marae, a beginning from the end’ – she is in part tapping into the magic realist voice that postcolonial and indigenous writers have used, especially since Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Midnight’s Children [are Jackson and Stafford deliberately ignoring the Latin American tradition of magic realism here?], as a way of undercutting the notion of the authoritative and authorising master narrative. But there is also a sense in which her dream voices, like the ghosts and portents in the rest of the novel, are really there, part of a non-rational universe, rather than part of a new way of writing fiction.” (p.12)

Interestingly, Jackson and Stafford liken the changes taking place on the New Zealand literary scene to what has been happening in Canada. Within this comparison, they point to the term ‘Free Trade Fiction‘ which they attribute to Stephen Henighan (p.19) in his attack on the increasingly global nature of Canadian fiction – and on Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in particular. Explaining Henighan’s use of this term, Jackson and Stafford write: “Toronto has ‘relinquished its own position as a potential hub of pan-Canadian English-language cultural activity. No longer a place where a Canadian way of creating literature could be imagined, the city has declined into a cultural assembly plant supplying a global market with literary widgets of predetermined size’.” (p.19) Similarly, “Robert Wright in Hip and Trivial: Youth Culture, Book Publishing, and the Greying of Canadian Nationalism writes, ‘In a postmodern, globalised world of seemingly infinite choice, the idea of the national as the defining element in Canadian Literature appears to have had its day.’ Wright associates the move away from nationalism with a move to urban fiction, citing Atwood’s 1992 prose poem: ‘Forest? Forest is passé, I mean, I’ve had it with all this wilderness stuff. It’s not a right image of our society today. Let’s have some urban for a change.'” (p.19)

“This idea that the wilderness is no longer the ‘right [-p.20] image’ for Canadian society,” Jackson and Stafford continue, “informs Justin D. Edwards’ and Douglas Ivison’s 2005 edited collection Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities, which sets up to ‘shift the focus to that most placeless of places, the city’. This position is not without difficulties. The assumption that the city is somehow more ‘placeless’ than the ‘rural and wilderness spaces and small towns’ that had been the focus of Canadian writing is perhaps questionable. And these essays seem still part of the project of ‘using Canadian literature to connect a “sense of place” with a “sense of self”‘. Same project, different places.” (pp.19-20)

I see the connections – and I enjoyed their argument for these shifts… certainly their argument here is backed up by the essays in the volume.

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford (2009) ‘Introduction: ‘the gaming halls of the imagination’ pp.7-22 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.

NB a review:

Contents: Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford ‘Introduction: ‘the gaming halls of the imagination’ pp.7-22

Nicholas Wright ‘Tenderness and Postmodernism: Damien Wilkins’ The Miserables‘ pp.23+

Kristine Moffat ‘The Unifying Power of Imagery in Catherine Chidgey’s In a Fishbone Church‘ pp.37+

Jane Stafford ‘Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck‘ pp.52-69

Hamish Clayton and Mark Williams ‘Smoke at Anchor: Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville‘ pp.70+

Lydia Wevers ”Poor Mr Yate’: History, Sex and the Closet in Annamarie Jagose’s Slow Water‘ pp.93+

Anna Jackson ‘Genealogy as headland: Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants‘ pp108+

Erin Mercer ‘Urban Spaces, Hybrid Faces: Rethinking Identity in Paula Morris’ Hibiscus Coast‘ pp.124-141

Jennifer Lawn ‘What the Dickens: Storytelling and Intertextuality in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip‘ pp142+


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