Sunday, February 24, 2013

Quietly Astonishing Blurbs

Shift by Rhian Gallagher (Auckland University Press 2011)
Winner of the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry 2012

Magnificent Moon by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press 2012) Has to be a favourite for the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry 2013

Poems by two New Zealand women who have both lived as expats in London and returned home. Both studied creative writing under Bill Manhire at Victoria University. Both books are published by university presses. What else do they have in common?

Well, this: their back cover blurbs both contain the description astonishing modified by a form of the word quiet.

"For ten years the occasional appearance of an Ashleigh Young poem has teased and delighted her growing circle of admirers. Here at last is her quietly astonishing first book." (VUP 2012)

"According to Bill Manhire, Rhian Gallagher is one of the quiet, astonishing secrets of New Zealand writing." (AUP 2011)

There is one astonishing thing that Rhian Gallagher and Ashleigh Young do not have in common: Ashleigh Young's work was included in the highly controversial 'Anthology' of New Zealand Literature published by AUP in 2012. Some commentators liken the list of inclusions in the oversized contemporary section of this unwieldy volume as reading more like the personal cocktail party invite list of the married couple editors, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, who both lecture at Victoria University, than as a fair and representative sample of the best of recent New Zealand writing. It does seem bizarre to have included Young, who had not quite published her first book at that point, at the apparent expense of including work by AUP poet Gallagher in an AUP volume! Gallagher's third book, and her second poetry volume Shift was also fresh from having won the NZ Post prize for best poetry book at the 2012 national book awards. Her first volume, published in the UK, had been shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prize. The fact that the South Island based Rhian Gallagher has apparently remained a secret to the Wellington-based anthology editors is indeed astonishing, and her work is just one of the many deafening omissions by the editors in the "AUP Anthology". I think it's more accurate to call it a "cultural compendium" than an "anthology of literature" since so many of the editorial choices have been illustrative of arbitrarily imposed cultural and historical themes rather than having been chosen because they were the best pieces by the best authors. Such an impressionistic project would not in itself be a bad idea; but unfortunately the reality of the idiosyncratic miscellany that AUP has produced conflicts with the stated aims on the cover of the 'doorstop' (more unkindly referred to as a 'white elephant'):  "In fiction and non-fiction, letters and speeches, stories and song, the editors unearth the diverse voices of the New Zealand imagination. And for years to come this anthology will be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why." Nope - sorry - that is false advertising.

My own take on the AUP Anthology is that endless debates concerning the omissions will not be as helpful as would be an analysis of the flaws of the methodology which led to the notable omissions. I have listed dozens of names that are missing, that are equally as deserving of inclusion as many of the favoured writers. There will always be the ins and the outs resulting from personal taste, fashion, elitism, parochialism, cronyism, the gaps in the editorial knowledge, even perhaps the personal animosities, that will influence the selection process, although some of these factors seem to have operated excessively in this case. What also seems to be different in the production of this 'anthology' is that the editors frequently appear to have rejected an author's best work in favour of lesser squibs or vignettes that fitted in with their own theoretical framework. This may give an evocative snapshot of the country from the perspective of the towers of Victoria University, but it cannot claim to represent our literature.

PS Please don't imagine I am suggesting that Ashleigh Young's work is not worthy to represent the latest and the greatest. In fact I would put money on her magnificent debut outclassing the output of some of her former teachers and mentors. That's the way it rolls.

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