Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 22, No. 8. August 3, 1959
N. Z. Novelist Rare — "Must Fly or Die"
N. Z. Novelist Rare
"Must Fly or Die"
"If the good Lord lined up all the little souls of unborn novelists and said to them 'Where would you like to be born?'. . . New Zealand would get no votes at all." This was said by Ian Cross, New Zealand novelist and O.U. Burns Fellow 1959, at a recent well-attended meeting of the O.U. Literary Society.
"Despite all the optimism generated by a coincidence of publications last year, the stiuation is still rather gloomy. Such factors as the fellowship that I'm holding at present make it that much less gloomy I suppose, but consider this:
"Taking the latest edition of McCormick's Letters And Art In New Zealand as our guide—that is, accepting his judgment of whether a novelist is worth considering or not—we find that of the post-war novelists until 1957 not one has survived in New Zealand. Here is the list—Courage, Davin, Park, Wilson, De Mauny, Ballantyne, Frame. Not one living in this country.
"Of the 1958 crop, McCormick mentions three authors, all now living in New Zealand, but it's far too soon to tell what's going to happen to us.
"Of the pre-war novelists still living mentioned by McCormick, we find that Lee and Finlayson have stopped producing, leaving us Frank Sargeson, the single exception to prove the melancholy rule—that novelists worthy of the name haven't yet been able to survive in New Zealand.
"Compare the novelists with the poets, still taking McCormick as our guide, and we find that the 1946-47 period produced 23 poets he deemed worthy of notice. All New Zealanders living and writing in New Zealand are writing poetry.
"It would seem that the New Zealand novelist is not only a rare bird—he must either fly from our shores or die. It seems that the short story writer finds the going almost as difficult. Lately I've had a look at some of the short stories of 10 to 15 years ago; one sees obvious talent, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have developed since. However, the survival rate of the New Zealand short story writer within New Zealand is much higher. He doesn't go into exile either; he only fades away.
"But think of it: 23 poets have come into being and survived from 1945-57 within New Zealand—and not one novelist.
"The main reason for the difficulties of the New Zealand novelist is, of course, not that New Zealand is such a small country, but that it is a country of a single class; almost of a single type of people. This means that it is extraordinarily difficult, almost impossible, for a novelist to get outside his subject if he wants to set his novel in New Zealand.
"In England or America one has only to get outside one's class or region to achieve a sanitary distance from it—to see one's setting, one's characters, in perspective. Having achieved his distance and perspective, the novelist finds his task possible. The English provincial and the American regional writer can not only retreat from their subject—they can write in the terms of another class, another audience, within their own country. This other class or audience has values and judgments within which they can work, certain that their audience will be interested and willing to share their recognitions. . .
"But in the past at least the New Zealand novelist has found it impossible to get outside his class, his subject, within his own country because the vantage point of another class or reality simply does not exist.
"Now if fleeing overseas were the solution, the aspiring New Zealand novelist would have no problem whatever. It's easy enough to get away. But the painful fact is that the New Zealand novelist has not yet found his nationality sustained by an interested overseas audience. To return to our English provincials and American regionalists—when they retreated to another class, another way of thought, another region—they could write of what they left behind for an informed audience. . .
"Now the New Zealander going to England receives some nourishment as a novelist, it seems to me, but certainly not as a New Zealander. James Courage has virtually 'passed over' and become an English novelist. Dan Davin ... is going to set one more novel in New Zealand and then make the transition to English novels. David Ballantyne has been in London about five years now and has published nothing. A New Zealander, Bill Pearson . . . wrote from London in Landfall, September 1952 'We New Zealanders have far less in common with the English middle classes than we may think and at best they will patronise us and emasculate us.'
"My own rather brief observations in London lead me to a similar conclusion. There's no informed and interested class in London to stimulate and sustain a New Zealand novelist. He won't find an audience delighted with his recognitions concerning Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin; they don't know enough to share his recognition; they don't care enough. So he's much more likely to have his nationality smothered. It's a tragedy, surely, that Courage and Davin, two of the strongest talents we've produced since 1945, are losing or have lost their nationality—at least as far as its exploration by the novel is concerned—and are in danger of becoming no more of New Zealand than writers born in Lancashire or Sussex.
"Of course the New Zealander who settles overseas for any length of time will always have a New Zealand childhood or adolescence to recall—as Mansfield did—but such recollections are going to be of little value in the future. So it looks as though the aspiring New Zealand novelist must remain in his single class, in his single region. There seems to be no way out for him.
"This situation, both for the novelist and the short story writer, explains the narrowness of our range. It is, of course, the explanation for our constant use of the first person—without this foothold outside his region from which to make his observations, without an interested audience outside his class within whose terms of reference and range of recognitions he can work, he must naturally fall back on the first person. Consciously or unconsciously he is bowing down to the limitations imposed on him by his situation. For when the writer uses the first person he doesn't have to account for anything that is outside the range of comprehension of his central character.
"Touching on this point, Robert Chapman, writing in Landfall of March, 1953 . . . says this: 'For a New Zealand writer to choose the technique of omniscient narration from a platform outside the action would disperse the emotional force engendered by participation and constriction, while letting the writer in for the whole task of drawing the social diagram.'
"Coming along six years later as an apprentice practitioner, I can only agree. The task of ominiscience seems an almost impossible burden for a New Zealander—to be a historian and a sociologist as well as a novelist, without that foothold outside your class to make the necessary observations, seems too much to expect."
Another handicap for the New Zealand novelist in New Zealand "concerns this same homogeneous society in which we live. The fact is, that it generates very little energy. I'm speaking as a journalist now and believe me, it's amazing how little happens. If the grass stopped growing we'd be really in trouble. But writers haven't got built-in generators—they need to be revitalised time and time again by the community about them. And if the community's vitality is low, the writer suffers most. The effect on the community of the 40-hour week, the long weekend and 13 or 14 public holidays a year is sheer disaster for him. So not only is the poor devil trapped in his single class, his single region—it's a fairly lifeless class and region, too."
New Zealand writers, said Mr Cross, had pretty well reached the limits of their exploitation of children.
"However, what has the adult world given the New Zealand writer? One depression, one war and many, many games of rugby football. If there hasn't been anything else to inspire the writer, the weakness is not necessarily in his talent."
Mr Cross praised various of the earlier New Zealand novelists (though he thought we have not yet produced a novelist of the first class), and strongly criticised the poor reception they had received from New Zealand critics. He called Guthrie Wilson "the only New Zealand novelist since 1945 who has tried to live and write in New Zealand. Against all odds, in the face of all difficulties. There's no doubt at all in my mind of the importance of Wilson to the postwar literary scene. I haven't read any of his books lately . . . but I do recollect many elements of considerable craftsmanship in his work and a genuine feeling and a genuine searching of heart and mind. And he did nibble around the greatest problem for the New Zealand writer—that of using Mr Chapman's platform of omniscience—a problem that even Frank Sargeson has so far avoided."
Novelist Cross About N.Z.
Ian Cross is the present and first holder of the Burns Fellowship at O.U. Author of "God Boy," he has been chief reporter on the Dominion and defunct Southern Cross. He has tried his hand at gun running while working for a newspaper in Panama, and the lack of excitement after this possibly accounted for him becoming public relations officer for the N.Z. police before taking the Fellowship. The idea of writing fiction came to him while studying in the U.S. on a Nieman Fellowship. He has another book in the hands of his publishers at the moment, and 'God Boy" is being adapted for theatre, television and film.
But Wilson, along with several others, was treated poorly by the New Zealand reviewers. Mr Cross quoted lengthy extracts from reviews of novels by Wilson, John A. Lee and John Guthrie, and gave his own assessments of the three writers, arguing that they had been very harshly and unsympathetically received by the New Zealand reviewers.
Lee, he said, was "the New Zealand writer, taking stock of all the obstacles that surround him, accepting what he is and where he is." And of Guthrie's Paradise Bay he said that it was one of the best New Zealand novels so far, "an attempt by a New Zealand writer to give an impression of a whole New Zealand community. And it is our first true comedy of merit Nostalgic, humorous, understanding, loving—Guthrie handled his subject with a quite beautiful control.
"I can't see how we can move from infancy to childhood without passing through an adolescence, gawky and awkward though it may be. It's clear, isn't it, that New Zealand has reached the end of a prolonged infancy—that it is time for the blocks and the toys to be locked away for ever—yet we are still at this standstill, clinging to page 5 infancy. Because, I believe, though we want to grow up we don't want to go through our adolescence . . . the dilemma of the New Zealand intellectual is his unconscious desire for cultural maturity without first suffering the indignity of adolescence."
On the harsh criticism of past good New Zealand novels, he said: "There's no doubt that the attack on Wilson and Guthrie and the dismissal of Lee [in Landfall reviews] were fair reflections of current local literary attitudes. . .
"The point is . . . that any outsider and newcomer who surveys the local literary scene must note that not only has no novelist of the post-war era survived in New Zealand—not only have there been considerable difficulties for a novelist wanting a vantage point and audience outside his own class or region—but that some of the few novelists, inside and outside, before him couldn't rely on a great deal of understanding and even faced a rather sneering hostility. The warmth that greeted the 1958 class suggests that we might be growing out of that rather unpleasant phase; it is to be hoped so.
"Now there is one thing I'm certainly not suggesting—that New Zealand novels should be accorded some kind of local standard of critical reception—although it is rather strange that in the past our novelists have been the only artists who haven't been accorded that standard."
Our painters, musicians and actors, said Mr Cross, had been given a fair measure of this local standard of criticism—they had received favourable criticism in New Zealand which they would not have received elsewhere.
"The pattern for them is: considerable support and warmth for their efforts within New Zealand, a flat rejection or much harsher judgment overseas. With our novelists, this pattern is almost Invariably reversed. . .
"In spite of my rather flippant opening remarks . . . about the difficulties confronting the New Zealand novelist, I believe that the aspiring New Zealand writer would be foolish to even wish to exchange situations or nationality with any other hopeful writer on earth. . . We can be of no value to ourselves or the world except as New Zealanders; the only thing of real value we have to offer the world is our unique vision of life from this point of the globe. So much of that vision is yet unrealised and to capture even part of it is the great incentive—the great challenge—for the New Zealand writer."