Oh for God’s sake please just tell us a story
An essay by Chris Else on everything that’s gone wrong with New Zealand fiction, and its apparent desire for nothing to ever happen, slowly, in boring detail.
Sometime over the past 20 years, New Zealand fiction went into decline and has been slow to recover. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that some of our best young writers have failed to learn - or abandoned - the art of telling stories.
The situation is exemplified by the response to a review I wrote last June for Landfall Online of Lloyd Jones’ evocative and disturbing novel The Cage. In it I made a distinction between ‘self-regarding fiction’ that showed ‘attention to the values of fine writing’ and fiction that is ‘driven by matters beyond itself’ and is ‘unselfconsciously about something’.
This rough dichotomy was little more than a hook to hang the review on but it disturbed some readers, sending ripples across the surface of our quiet literary pond. Paula Morris brought it up on the Academy of New Zealand Literature website in an interview with the four short-listed writers for this year’s Acorn Prize and Kate Duignan, in particular, took issue with it.
She suggested that my distinction was not only simplistic (which it was) but was also based on a false dichotomy between mutually exclusive categories (which was not what I intended). She guessed that the ‘something’ that I wanted novels to be about was political (not necessarily) and went on to point out that two of the three books that I suggested were self-regarding were clearly each about something and were, in their different ways, political.
All in all she felt my distinction was unhelpful. I don’t want to defend the terms I used but I do think there is a point to be made here. Whether it is ‘helpful’ or not I don’t know but the fact that it makes some people uncomfortable suggests it might be worth examining further.
My way into this problem is through the work of a writer with a well-established reputation based on some excellent reviews and multiple short-listings in literary awards: Damien Wilkins.
Wilkins is a master of clear, subtle insightful prose; he is observant, ironic and wryly or slyly humorous; you will look in vain for a cliché or a stereotype on any of his pages. I admire his writing and I have half a dozen of his novels on my shelves at home. Why is it, then, that I have never finished one?
My reaction to Wilkins’ longer works takes an invariable course. By half-way down the first page I am impressed by the precision and the nicety, the discernment and the resonating understatement. I am in awe of the man’s literary ability and envious, too. I can’t help but admire and enjoy such skilful prose. Over the following pages this initial reaction gradually palls until, not far in, I start to feel the beginnings of disengagement. This gradually strengthens until I wonder why I am bothering and then, not long after, I give up.
I could waffle on in general terms about this reaction but it seems more pertinent and possibly more convincing to take a fresh look at a particular example. I chose the last Wilkins novel I actually bought: The Fainter (Victoria University Press, 2006). This time I forced myself to read beyond the Mitre 10 receipt for four macrocarpa sleepers that marked, at page 31, the furthest extent of my first attempt.
The book’s prime focus is Luke, a young New Zealand diplomat, who, because of an injury, is subject to fainting fits. It opens with him back in the country on furlough, staying at his sister’s farm in South Canterbury. He meets the neighbours, Alec and Sheila. He dislikes the former and is attracted to the latter. There is a hint of a possible affair but it comes to nought. An incident occurs in which Luke overcomes his syncopal tendencies. Cut to 10 years later when Sheila and Alec are involved in a bitter divorce and she has hooked up with someone called Joe. All the main characters get together in Wellington where Luke is now working. He is in a gay relationship but he and Sheila renew their acquaintance. Again it comes to nought.
The fabric of the novel is woven by means of two techniques. One is digression. Every new character has a little story, a description or an incident that illuminates their personality, their attitudes and their values. Sometimes there are digressions within digressions to add to the richness. The second technique is exhaustive examination by which the smallest incidents are subject to detailed exposition or analysis.
For example, on his first night in his sister’s house, Luke has dinner with her family. The meal is dominated by the fact that the farmhand, Hamish, is absent. The family’s interactions round the table are described over eight pages, around 2000 words, all apposite, insightful and elegant. The following scene is a gut-wrenching description of finding Hamish impaled through the leg by the tines on some sort of tractor and the laborious efforts to extricate him with hacksaws. Clearly, the domesticity of the first scene was a foil to set up the drama of the second but did it need 2000 words? And then again, Hamish’s plight is the only scene in the book in which the reader is engaged so emotionally. The only other comparable incident, 20 pages earlier, in which Luke witnesses a random stabbing on the streets of New York, is filtered through so many layers of memory and report that it is drained of most of its emotional impact.
Apart from these two incidents nothing happens, although that nothing is described with exquisite sensibility and at length. Luke’s first one-on-one encounter with Sheila, in which little is revealed beyond the first tentative breath of an emotional connection, takes seven pages. Their second intimate meeting, some 90 pages later, at which they progress to touching hands, is described in nine pages of subtle observation. Luke asks her to meet him at a shed on their adjoining properties late the same night. She doesn’t turn up. In their third intimate meeting, a hundred pages further on, they manage a kiss or two and something like a declaration of love but the relationship again ends in anticlimax.
I don’t mind novels that maintain a tight focus on the minutiae of everyday life; Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature is one of my favourites. Baker, though, takes 117 pages for his charming evocation of paternal domesticity and his story has an elegant shape. Wilkins’s 340 pages of quotidian rural doings seems sluggish and bloated in comparison. Most of the scenes feel twice as long as they need to be to advance the story and no more than a couple bring the book’s protagonist into focus. The overall effect, given that Wilkins is skilled enough to know what he is doing, is of a novel that, deliberately and wilfully, avoids the patterns of traditional narrative. This is not a book that is unselfconsciously about something. On the contrary, it seems embarrassed to be about anything.
Wilkins is not one for traditional storytelling. His work and remarks he’s made suggests he’s actually strongly against it, that it’s old hat and should be avoided at all costs. The problem is not Wilkins’s writing but whether less experienced writers are taking his influence too far in their own work.
Wilkins is professor in charge of the Institute of Modern Letters established by Bill Manhire in the early 90s and the premier creative writing school in New Zealand. Many of our best known younger writers have come through this institution. Its reputation has become a guarantee of its success. Tens, if not hundreds of people apply, and only a couple of dozen get selected. As Manhire has acknowledged, such a stringent selection process means the input and, consequently, the output from the school is of the highest quality. Judging by the acknowledgements in the novels of IML 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?
This is not to say that the graduates of IML can’t or won’t tell stories. Paula Morris, Tina Makereti, Kate Duignan and Catherine Robertson, to name but a few, are all storytellers. But a number of novels by IML graduates have questionable or unusual narrative structures.
Amy Head’s Rotoroa (Victoria University Press, 2018) is an example. Head writes beautifully; her prose is clear and her characterisation subtly understated but her story is a fragmented succession of small scenes. Of her three main characters only one has any semblance of a narrative arc. The book feels as if it is desperately trying not to be ordinary and, in consequence, is less than it could have been.
Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (Vintage 2013) is similarly fragmentary although more successful. The plot moves back and forth between 1859 and 1974, each chunk providing a window on what is a long and complex story. Cliff is a considerable talent, the winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize for his short story collection A Man Melting (Vintage, 2010). The Mannequin Makers was well-reviewed, the quality of the writing is undeniable. For me, though, it reads more like a series of long, interconnected stories than a novel.
The first three quarters of Pip Adams’ The New Animals (Victoria University Press, 2017) is a multi-faceted narrative from multiple points of view that paints a witty, ironic and marvellously insightful portrait of the vacuous world of local fashion. The rest of the book consists of a single sequence in which one of the characters swims out to sea, a passage that gradually leaves the real world behind and drifts into the realms of speculative or allegorical fiction. A brilliant achievement or a brave failure? The Acorn Prize judges were convinced it was the former but among many readers the latter opinion prevailed. For me, I am not entirely sure. So many people told me that the book didn’t work that I kept waiting to come to the same conclusion. This spoilt the reading experience somewhat; I suspect I might have found the experimentation engaging and engrossing if I had been left to read it without prejudice.
Then, too, there is the case of The Luminaries. Would this supremely successful book have been even more readable than it is if Ellie Catton had not insisted on applying the Golden Ratio to the length of her chapters? Some readers think so.
And, finally, to Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child, a fine piece of work with some gob-smackingly good writing but with a narrative drive that depends more on the dramatic irony arising from the grim roll of historical events than on the doings of its two central characters. In many ways this powerful book reads more like a work of creative non-fiction than a novel.
None of this is to say that these books are failures but they all seem self-conscious and, in that sense, might be seen as self-regarding. They all feel as if part of the reaction they are looking for is admiration. Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. Fine writing ought to be admired and experimental narratives should be welcomed because they add richness to the literature and offer the writers the challenges they need to keep them energised. However, too much experimentation has a damaging effect, especially when our best young writers are constantly engaged in it. It creates an impression that traditional storytelling is better suited to mass-market or popular forms of fiction than to ‘real literature’.
There is an error in such a judgment. The term ‘traditional storytelling’ does not mean a way of writing that is simple, conformist and conventional. It does not necessarily mean following the actions and reactions of a single character chronologically. It can move back and forward in time and can have multiple points of view and all kinds of variations in writing technique. The essential feature is not stylistic or structural, it is dramatic. The traditional narrative tells a good story; it takes the reader on a psychological journey that follows a narrative arc from engagement through crisis to disengagement. Books that exhibit such an arc tend to have narrative drive and are invariably what we consider to be ‘good reads’. Narrative drive does not always go with good writing. We all know books that we couldn’t put down, despite the fact that we thought they were badly written, because we had to find out what happened. On the other hand there is no reason why the finest writing and narrative drive should not go together, as they do in many of the best books.
Which is the most important? For most people it’s the story that matters and many readers are prepared to tolerate a fair amount of bad writing to get their fix; books like The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are thus acceptable. At the other extreme is a group of sophisticated readers for whom the quality of the writing is paramount. These people will tolerate and even enjoy and value significant departures from traditional narrative in the name of innovation and experimentation.
Between the two is a third group who won’t tolerate bad writing but, nonetheless, want the books they read to take them on the psychological journey of the traditional story. This group, in the past, has been the target audience for much of our literature.
Over the past 25 years the audience for New Zealand fiction has declined. There are many reasons – such as the fact that people have better things to do, and the rise of online retailing renders local product invisible in a global market – but it’s curious that this period also marks the rise of the influence of IML. Correlation is not causation, of course, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that an institution that undervalues and even discourages traditional narrative is not going to help retain a broad audience for our fiction.
Our literary awards reward fine writing; our readers want good stories. Somewhere between these two propositions lies our problem.