Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


A new (old) sensation

The piece below originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Metro magazine, billed rather provocatively on the cover as "What's wrong with NZ novels?"

I'm grateful for the softening effect of that question mark: "A few diagnostic gestures towards a working theory of some current plot trends in the New Zealand literary novel" would have been more accurate, but probably wouldn't have helped sell copies of the magazine.

The article got a lot of feedback; most of it positive, and pretty much all of it off the record (both of which surprised me).  One correspondent summed up the general response thus: readers thought I was basically right, except for one thing -- and that "one thing" was completely different for each individual.

In fact, it wasn't right I was after, so much as useful: I distrust grand unified theories, but am intrigued and beguiled by patterns, and by exceptions. It's always easier to identify patterns in the past, once the dust has cleared and the canon stands outlined against the sky, but I wanted to at least try to draw some literary isobars on the map of here and now.

Re-reading the article now, what strikes me (underneath the gleeful hyperbole) is a pretty transparent tug-of-love between exasperated critic and soppy literary fan-girl. I didn't particularly want to be right about this  impression I was gathering. But I didn't want to be alone with it, either.

So let's make it more useful, more nuanced. Tell me your "one thing" -- or, even better, your more-than-one thing -- that I'm wrong about. What have you dozed off over lately, despite yourself? What's keeping you awake? Does the changing context of reading make you crave less sensation, or more?  Is this just a phase we're all going through, readers and writers alike? Tell me, do. I'm all ears.


Once More With Feeling

Jolisa Gracewood has had enough of the "new sensationalism" in New Zealand fiction.

At bedtime, there’s no sweeter soporific than a beloved paperback. But too often, lately, I’ve sat down in broad daylight to read something new and promising, only to startle awake some time later with the book lying across my nose like a chloroform-soaked hankie. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and longer to admit it: I wasn’t tired. I was bored.

This was bothersome. Firstly, because so many of these narcoleptic volumes were by New Zealanders. Given that it is theoretically possible to read all the New Zealand fiction released in a given year, it feels rude not to at least try. These are our stories. And I don’t want to just lie back and think of the South Island, I want to love these books. All of them.

Secondly, and paradoxically: the novels that were testing my stamina were the very ones clamouring for my attention. Full of thrilling atmosphere and lurid incident, all vaudeville and freak show, they seemed explicitly designed to keep me up all night. So why was I nodding off by lunchtime?

A few off-the-record conversations reassured me I wasn’t alone. (Also, that we all felt a bit stink about it, so if you’re a publisher or author breathing into a paper bag at this point, give thanks for the enduring power of the national brand.) Then I stumbled across a pithy quote, from 19th-century American orator Wendell Phillips, that gave me some hope: “Boredom is, after all, a form of criticism.”

All right: perhaps my resistance to this hectic prose was not a failure, but a hint. Witi Ihimaera’s The Trowenna Sea helped set my compass. Frankly, the borrowings were the least of its issues. This was a novel I was excited about reading, based on a powerful, heartbreaking local story that Ihimaera had boldly expanded across a stage the size of the British Empire.

The result was, alas, a sentimental hodgepodge. A heavily foreshadowed romance never eventuated, while fascinating historical events came festooned with needless grotesquery. I’m still trying to erase from memory the deeply peculiar death scene of the poor hunchbacked Scotsman.

A few months earlier, I had read Gillian Ranstead’s Girlie. Like Ihimaera’s novel, it promised to interrogate the parallels between dispossessed Highlanders and Maori. In practice, it buried its considerable light under a bushel of such unremitting misery and disaster — visited particularly upon children — that I struggled to finish it. Not for the first time I wondered why, in our multigenerational stories of settler families, there’s never anything nice in the woodshed.

Meanwhile, other writers were raiding the colonial cabinet of curiosities. Which is, it must be said, a great place to find material, but there’s a fine line between rewriting and recycling. Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey’s foray into the German colonial adventure in Papua New Guinea (see review, page 102), might almost be a satire of the frontier romance, but left me
unsure whether to laugh or sigh.

The indigenous people so invisible in Quinine were at least present in Rachael King’s lush but troubling South American adventure The Sound of Butterflies and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, but (Matilda aside) mainly as voiceless victims and/ or perpetrators of capricious violence. Oddly, none of this gruesome slaughter affected me as much as the matter-of-fact death by hanging in Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew.

And it wasn’t only the novels set long ago and far away: even authors tackling the way we live now went a bit Hudson and Halls, over-egging their puddings and sometimes over-saucing them too. Jones’ ambitious Hand Me Down World, which UK reviewers generally loved, ranged widely but struck me as implausible at almost every turn (except for the bit about sleeping in the railway station: I could have read a whole novel about that).

Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded The Rehearsal is a three-ring circus fizzing with genius. Still, more than one reader told me they got through it only by skipping an entire thread. I fantasised about slicing it into three perfectly stunning books: a drama school exposé, a girls’ school story, and a dark lesbian romance for those who like their Muriels sparky. Thrice the readership, thrice the profit.

And when Emily Perkins wove a ghost story and a fallen woman and an orphaned infant into Novel About My Wife, her deliciously dark portrait of property speculation and procreation in contemporary London, I couldn’t help wondering if it would have worked just as well if it were Novel About My House. I read it in one sitting, and was never bored — but I might have re-read it a few times already had it been a slightly less hyperbolic novel of manners.

Obviously, I’m tugging at a single thread here, just part of the wider fabric of our literary landscape. If a dedicated literary locavore tires of an overly fruity diet, there are perfectly good alternatives: the thrills of genre fiction; the cooler-headed chroniclers of modern mores, like Paula Morris, Chad Taylor, Charlotte Grimshaw; or new classics from the old guard, models of narrative decorum and wit.

But the surfeit of incident in current novels, and my own stubborn indifference to it, set me thinking about the “sensation novels” of the 1860s and 70s. These racy potboilers, full of intrigue — murders, kidnappings, blackmail, bigamy, stolen inheritances, double identities, orphans — were devoured all over the Empire, including our rural hinterland, as recounted in Lydia Wevers’ Reading on the Farm (full disclosure: I edited the manuscript).

For colonial readers, Wevers argues, such colourful fare was not just escapist, but often reflective of the world they lived in. It was also disposable: very little of it survives in the canon.

This “new sensationalism”, though: will it last? And where is it coming from? It’s not exactly what critic James Wood waspishly called “hysterical realism”, the sprawling, busy novels into which Zadie Smith and other writers tried to cram the vast panorama of modern life. (Wouldn’t you love to see a New Zealander have a go at that, though? Debra Daley’s millennial Cruel World comes close, but languishes unpublished.)

Ours feels more like drama for its own sake. But is it a reaction against the old laconicism, or just a new form of it: so much sensation, so little feeling? I wonder if these pyrotechnical plots spring from the same source as my readerly impatience. You know, ars longa, vita increasingly brevis: reading as a zero-sum game. Squeezed off the shelf by dragon tattoos and Leonardo codes, aware that readers’ attentions are finite (but infinitely catered for), are our authors just throwing everything they’ve got at us and hoping some of it sticks?

The novel is in crisis, as usual, although our writers have never been better trained or had more opportunities to promote their wares. Even as the publishing world hunkers down behind cookbooks and sporting biographies, the advent of e-books opens up a world of new fiction readers. The internet could be to our literary exports what refrigerated shipping was to our mutton trade. It’s a great time to be bored with New Zealand literature: anything could happen and it could be right now.

What to do in the meantime? The Atlantic Monthly’s critic B.R. Myers recently suggested avoiding new fiction altogether “unless it promises to be as good as the classics we thereby leave unread”. That’s bonkers, but he’s onto something: let’s compare what we’re buying off the shelves because we think we have to, with what we’re taking back down off the shelves because we want to.

I asked my online circle what New Zealand novels they’d re-read lately. The twitterati responded with a number of classics from the usual suspects (mine were Patricia Grace and Robin Hyde), with a surprisingly strong vote for Ngaio Marsh. One wit nominated The Hobbit. But most popular were young-adult novels, especially by Margaret Mahy, Maurice Gee and Kate de Goldi. Why? Nostalgia, yes — but also, I suspect, a joyful re-engagement with stories about recognisable, complicated people on the cusp of brave action.

That’s the kind of sensation I’m after: I read novels in order to feel something, but I want to spend time with characters who do something, rather than relentlessly suffer things done to them. This isn’t a retro manifesto. I adore technical bravado and stylistic risk, but without a beating, plausible human heart, they’re a largely mechanical exercise. And atmospheric plot machinations alone won’t keep this reader coming back for more.

All the special effects are wasted if we lose sight of what’s especially affecting. I want to care for, fear for, cheer for the people on the page as they stumble into their ordinary, shining, all-too-finite futures — all of us with eyes wide open.

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