The mighty pen

Poet and academic Bill Manhire (click for image credit)

Poet and academic Bill Manhire (click for image credit)

At a moment when we seem to be remembering the contribution that the sword of war made to our nation’s history, it is salutary to recall that the pen is even mightier. Today we highlight the release of five fascinating and beautifully written stories which tell the history of writing in this country and the contribution it has made to the sense of ourselves. They are Fiction, Non-fiction, Criticism and the arts, Intellectuals and Publishing.

Lydia Wevers, in a nicely measured survey of novels and short stories, suggests something of the range of approaches in our fiction writing. I was struck by the contrast in the styles and interests of the female authors from the male in early New Zealand fiction – women’s tended towards romance, while men wrote rollicking pioneering accounts. However, things are never that straightforward – several women confused the issue, such as Edith Lyttleton, who published about back-country men under the name G. B. Lancaster, and Iris Wilkinson, who wrote, among many other works, a novel about men at war, Passport to hell, under her pen name Robin Hyde. There is much to explore and recall in the fiction story, but I particularly invite you to look at two great film clips that focus on the literary beginnings of Katherine Mansfield and Ngaio Marsh, and a sound recording of Frank Sargeson talking about his realisation that he needed to write with a New Zealand voice.

Alex Calder begins his excellent study of New Zealand’s non-fiction with the problem that the genre has always had a negative identity – it is, as Calder writes, ‘everything published that happens not to be fiction, poetry or drama’. He prefers to use the term ‘creative non-fiction’ to emphasise that just because the subject is the empirical world, the act of writing about it is no less a creative exercise. The subject matter he canvasses ranges from studies of exploration, Māori life and pioneering, through to biographies, history and feminist critiques.

Some of Anne Salmond's history books

Some of Anne Salmond's history books

‘Creative’ writing, whether fictional or documentary, is greatly assisted by three factors – a community of writers, a culture of debate and criticism, and a publishing industry to print and distribute writing. The three remaining stories treat each of these in turn.

Chris Hilliard tackles the community issue in an original discussion of the existence, or non-existence, of ‘intellectuals‘ in New Zealand. He suggests that, by comparison with 19th-century Britain or Europe, colonial New Zealand lacked the supporting structures to allow intellectuals to flourish. But from the 1930s, as university colleges became established and the depression invited searching questions, communities of writers and artists emerged. Christchurch’s artistic and intellectual community, including the Caxton Press, The Group and Tomorrow magazine, looms large in the story.

The Christchurch intellectuals, and especially Allen Curnow, also have an important place in Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams’s elegant exploration of criticism of literature and the arts. They suggest that until the 20th century, apart from newspaper reviews, there was little sustained arts criticism in New Zealand. Crucial to its emergence was the appearance of serious magazines and journals – Phoenix, Tomorrow, Landfall and, from the 1970s on, And, Antic and Art New Zealand. Good writing feeds off dialogue and debate.

Lead type thought to have been used by William Colenso in the 1830s for printing some of the earliest New Zealand publications

Lead type thought to have been used by William Colenso in the 1830s for printing some of the earliest New Zealand publications (click for image credit)

Finally, New Zealand writing could never have flourished in the way that it has without the huge contribution of the publishing industry. In a fine, comprehensive overview Elizabeth Caffin shows how long it took before New Zealand-based publishers provided a welcome to local ‘creative’ authors. There was early publishing, but it tended to be missionary works for Māori, government gazettes or almanacs for settlers. Fiction writers and historians had to look overseas for an outlet. Local publishers Whitcombe and Tombs concentrated on educational works and A. H. & A. W. Reed on populist topics. It was not really until the later 20th century that Reeds took on more serious work, overseas presses set up local houses, and a host of smaller local publishers emerged to encourage creative writing in different genres. Not that the story of publishing in New Zealand is one of ‘onwards and upwards’ – Caffin ends this valuable survey with comments about the impact of e-publishing and the increasing concentration of multinational publishers, as they have merged with each other in recent years.

But, at a time when over 2,000 titles are published in New Zealand each year, when people flock to literary festivals such as last weekend’s WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, when last year one of our novelists won the Man Booker prize and two years ago the government invested much time and money promoting New Zealand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, surely we can claim that creative writing has become central to the country. Long live the New Zealand pen! Or, at least, the Kiwi keyboard.

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