In response to the Chris Else thesis that NZ fiction is plotless drivel

Best-selling novelist Catherine Robertson very patiently and with good grace responds to Chris Else's essay last week at ReadingRoom about the state of New Zealand fiction by tearing it into little pieces.

Back before I was published, Chris Else and Lloyd Jones saved me from standing on my own at a flash literary do where I was a guest of the sponsor. Unlike Lloyd, Chris didn't immediately run away when I uttered those words of terror, “I’m an aspiring writer.” Since then, we've met many times, and Chris continues to be kind, generous and supportive. So it's with considerable respect and affection that I now rip into his recent essay lamenting the decline in this country’s fiction.

Else propounded his theory that New Zealand fiction has been going downhill for 20 years, and that part of the problem is that, in his words, “our best young writers have failed to learn – or abandoned – the art of telling stories”.

He lays the blame for this squarely at the feet of the International Institute for Modern Letters (IIML) and its “professor in charge”, Damien Wilkins. Else claims that Wilkins “is not one for traditional storytelling…remarks he’s made suggests he’s actually strongly against it, that it’s old hat and should be avoided at all costs.” The evidence presented is an analysis of one of Wilkins’ novels The Fainter, which culminates in the accusation that it “deliberately and wilfully, avoids the patterns of traditional narrative”.

The essay’s big point is that Wilkins infects his IIML students with the same wilfulness: “Judging by the acknowledgements in the novels of graduates, Wilkins is a fine and respected teacher. But if your teacher despises traditional narrative, what value do you place on it in your own fiction?”

And here be the first cracks in this theory. Damien Wilkins has not taken the IIML Masters in Creative Writing since 2012. The current ‘teacher’ – I have issues with that phrase – is Emily Perkins.

Is Perkins, then, Wilkins’ willing acolyte? (NB: It’s very hard to write Wilkins and Perkins without picturing butlers.) Let’s look at her novels: Leave Before You Go, Novel About My Wife, The New Girl and The Forrests. The one that takes the most untraditional approach to narrative is The Forrests, but it's still most definitely a story. But does Perkins teach story? That is the question?

There’s a wonderfully satisfying moment in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, where Fanny is listening to the wives of other Oxford dons bitch about Lady Montdore, insisting that she cried and screamed at her daughter’s wedding. Fanny finally speaks up and tells them that Lady M did no such thing. How do you know, they ask her? Her answer: “Because I was there.”

I was there at the IIML in 2015, studying for my Masters in Creative Writing under Emily Perkins. There were 10 in my class. Our projects were: a dystopian sci-fi novel, three contemporary fiction novels, a collection of short stories, a speculative fiction novel, a non-fiction book that snuck in there, one highly experimental work, and two theses, including mine, that blended short pieces of fiction and non-fiction into a whole. Score for traditional narrative: six. Non-traditional: four. Although mine and the other blended work did tell an overall story, made up of many smaller stories, so perhaps the score should more rightly be eight to two.

On social media, several people commented on the IIML’s crabby reaction to Else’s essay, and suggested gleefully that it was because Else had “touched a nerve”. That the IIML – and its joined-at-the-hip publisher, VUP – knew the accusation of anti-narrative bias was true and was being overly defensive. Some went so far as to say that the IIML and VUP deserved to be taken down a peg for producing far too much (Else’s words) “self-regarding fiction” and, worse, being snooty about it.

The IIML has every right to be crabby because the accusation is entirely unjust. I know, because, like Fanny, I was there. Never was my class pushed in any one stylistic direction. Never were we told that traditional narrative had no place in today’s literature. Never was this even implied. I cannot stress this enough. It’s why I have an issue with the term ‘teacher’. We weren’t taught in the pedagogic sense. A truer description is that the year was a class-wide collaboration facilitated by Emily, a mutual building up of capability and confidence. We had respect for every project, every approach, no matter our personal tastes and preferences. I may never read Roberto Bolaño again, but I’m glad a classmate introduced me to him.

More cracks in the theory. Else cites the works of five IIML MA graduates as evidence of anti-narrative bias: Pip Adam’s The New Animals, Amy Head’s Rotoroa, Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child.

But then Else immediately names four other graduates – me, Paula Morris, Tina Makereti and Kate Duignan – as storytellers. And I can name more: Felicity Price, Annaleese Jochems, Carl Shuker, Kirsten McDougall, Rachael King, Sue Orr, Anna Smaill, Gigi Fenster and Brandy Scott, who has just published her debut commercial fiction novel, Not Bad People, and sold it internationally via Harper Collins. And let’s not forget Elizabeth Knox and Emily Perkins her very self, who completed the pre-IIML creative writing course under Bill Manhire.

Score for ‘anti-story’ graduates: five. Storytelling graduates: fourteen – and all those were off the top of my head.

(Wilkins isn’t a graduate, but it’s only fair to point out that while Else may decry The Fainter, Wilkins’s most recent novels, Dad Art and Lifting, are indisputably, and very pleasingly, stories.)

Else also co-accuses New Zealand’s main literary awards of favouring “fine”, aka self-regarding, writing. In the awards’ current incarnation as the Ockhams, two of Else’s anti-narrativistes, Pip Adam and Catherine Chidgey, have won. But this year’s big winner was Dame Fiona Kidman, a storyteller if ever there was one, with This Mortal Boy, and in 2016, it was Stephen Daisley’s cracking yarn Coming Rain complete with dingoes. Score for the Acorn Foundation fiction prize: a draw.

And then we get to the part of the essay that troubles me most. If traditional narrative is so vital to the health of New Zealand fiction, why look for it in only one place, the IIML, a tertiary creative writing course where you’d be very surprised not to find experimental writing? Why did Else completely ignore our thriving and full-to-bursting range of genre fiction, where story rules?

You could infer that Else doesn’t believe genre writers should be included in any discussion of quality fiction. I know that’s not his view at all, but the omission does his theory no favours.

Else says narrative is important because it’s what readers want, and it’s true that while they’re not necessarily all high quality, as Else points out, the books that sell in the highest volume are overwhelmingly narrative driven. The health of New Zealand fiction, then, is measured by numbers of readers.

So why not look at New Zealand fiction as a whole? Our crime writers are winning international publishing contracts and awards. Our romance writers dominate the world stage in traditional as well as self-publishing. Our contemporary and historical commercial fiction writers are hardly ever out of our best-seller lists. Measured by readership, New Zealand fiction is going gangbusters.

In British artist, Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lecture, Playing to the Gallery, he posits that the gatekeepers and arbiters of taste, the art galleries, are necessary to keep the bland at bay. If the masses were left to decide what they wanted in an artwork, they’d pick a nice painting of a landscape with a bit of water. This was proven in an international study carried out by Russian-born conceptual art duo, Komar and Melamid, who were thoroughly disheartened by the result.

Keeping the bland at bay is why experimentation and innovation are welcomed, nay demanded, in other art forms. I say we can allow them into our literature, too, without fear of failure. We can allow the IIML and our other excellent tertiary creative writing courses to encourage all kinds of writers, and publishers like VUP, Mākaro, and Lawrence and Gibson to give us the opportunity to read non-traditional works.

We can allow it because, if you count our multitude of successful genre writers, New Zealand fiction is not in decline. It is, in fact, in rude good health. All else (pardon the pun) is a matter of taste.

Postscript erratum: Subsequent research reveals that the IIML itself stayed completely out of the social media debate and the "crabby response" was made by numerous graduates. This distinction was not made by social media commentators but we are happy to make it now.

What You Wish For by Catherine Robertson (Penguin Random House, $38)

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