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'Off-road literature'.

Review of Telling the Real Story: Genre and New Zealand "Literature, by Erin Mercer (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017)

In this panoptic study, Erin Mercer surveys the role genre has played in New Zealand literature, analysing the pervasive but overlooked presence of 'non-realism'--such as gothic literature and crime thrillers. Mercer advances two interwoven arguments to counter received understandings of New Zealand literature as genteel, beige, and 'middle-of-the-road'. The first of these contends that non-realist aspects of New Zealand canonical texts have been previously discounted, in favour of critical readings which emphasise the prescriptive social realism thought to express the national literary tradition. The second strain argues that this dominant social realism has also submerged non-realist texts from New Zealand's literary corpus. Naturally eclectic in its source material and versatile in its close readings, Mercer's study is a timely and thorough intervention in the critical asymmetry of New Zealand's literary culture.

Loosely chronological, the book begins with heavyweights Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson in the early-twentieth century and concludes in examining contemporary metafiction. Amongst the authors (some of them surprising) that feature prominently in her study are John Mulgan, Bill Pearson, Janet Frame, David Ballantyne, Keri Hulme, and Paula Morris. Drawing on some of her previous work--published in the JNZL and elsewhere--Mercer compellingly maps the landscape of New Zealand non-realism for the past century, demonstrating it to be a rich and unappreciated body that has been derided by critics for its perceived unseriousness and presumed inefficacy in responding to cultural anxiety around authenticity and 'telling the real story'. The holistic close readings do produce much convincing evidence for this premise, drawing on such diverse iterations of non-realism as romance, dream-narratives, science fiction and fantasy, and the gothic (an especial--but not excessive--interest of the book). The chapter exploring Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Spinster (1958), Jean Devanny's The butcher Shop (1926), and Robin Hyde's Wednesday's Children (1937) is a particular highlight. Complementing earlier reflections on Jane Mander's gendered marginality (85), this chapter shows that a critical slippage between genre fiction and women's writing contributed in casting non-realism in opposition to the masculinist social realism that presided over mid-twentieth century literature in New Zealand.

Whilst perhaps unsurprising for a study concerned with a national tradition, the book imagines a New Zealand that is perhaps a little too sealed. The book's alignment with notions of the 'isolated island nation of Curnow's formulation' (236), transformed by the advent of late-twentieth century globalisation, seems perpendicular to other aspects of her argument. Whilst New Zealand realism sought to portray itself as exceptional, breaking with tradition, and locally organic, non-realism and genre fiction in New Zealand has long had a much more exposed relationship to older and more international narrative modes. Mercer gestures toward this, noting for instance that gothic's 'pseudo-medievalism' evinces the 'cultural influence of Britain' (258). British, Australian, and American connections and influences are also present in the theoretical scaffolding of the introduction, but soon lose much of their salience. Cursory mentions of prolific non-New Zealand writers (such as Anglo-American modernists) do occur, but could have been developed in short and fruitful ways. Mercer's other field of expertise in American literature perhaps makes the absence of American influences slightly more surprising.

Although her argument is both sustained and lucid, it would have benefited from explicit reflections on what can be learned from it. If non-realism is a more significant actor in New Zealand literature than previously thought, what ramifications does this have, politically and pedagogically? This is not to say Mercer has not presented thoughts: for instance, in her reading of Hulme's The Bone People (1985), Mercer argues that focusing on its realism plays into problematic readings of The Bone People as a triumphant (and simple) bicultural reiteration of the 'authenticity' impetus guiding the New Zealand literary tradition. Instead, she argues, critical attention to the gothic elements exposes how the text shifts the referent of 'authenticity', and evidences incommensurability and synthesis, advancing understandings of 'bicultural identity by highlighting its potential fissures, as well as insisting on its connection with a conflicted history' (229). This perspective complements existing readings of The Bone People, by showing that non-realist elements actually underpin those politicised readings--in ways that need appreciating. There are polemical moments, therefore, with which the reader can piece together Mercer's position on the consequences of ignoring the non-realism of New Zealand literature, but perhaps readers would have benefited from Mercer's explicit evaluations.

The book remains an excellent study, supported by demonstrably extensive primary and secondary research, media archives, and appropriate forays into art history and cultural analysis. Mercer's takes on well-known texts are suitably original and erudite. Even if not able to totally wrestle the 'realist' appellation away from some of these texts, such as Mulgan's Man Alone (1939), they loosen its grip. But conversely, the book is enriched by having one eye on lesser-known texts, and the reasons why they are lesser known. Telling the Real Story is an important challenge to canonicity (both critical attention now, and in a historical sense) and its unfair and unfriendly relationship with non-realism in New Zealand literature.
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Title Annotation:Telling the Real Story: Genre and New Zealand Literature
Author:Shaughnessy, Joe
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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