Essays & articles

Creative Reading

By Andrew Johnston

Afterword to Writing at the Edge of the Universe, edited by Mark Williams (Canterbury University Press, November 2004)
Essays from the ‘Creative Writing in New Zealand’ Conference, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, August 2003

New Zealand writing has gone up a gear or two since I left the country in 1996 (I do hope the two things are not connected). The number of sophisticated, competent novels and poetry collections coming out each year has increased, and the buzz in the media around literature and writers is louder. I know this from regular trips back, and from reading New Zealand magazines and journals. I wouldn’t necessarily know it, though, if I stayed away and relied on British and American review pages for my information. A new generation of writers—some of them fostered by creative writing courses—are raising the standard of writing within New Zealand, but the rest of the world doesn’t know that yet, apart from a few good reviews in The New York Times Book Review. One obvious reason is that the country as a whole shares the characteristic reticience of many an individual New Zealander—a little backward about coming forward; wanting to be noticed but not to stand out; proud but quiet about it, and proud of being like that. In cultural terms, the national expression of this trait is the failure of Creative New Zealand to promote New Zealand books and authors abroad the way Australia does. But perhaps there are other reasons. What would it take for New Zealand books to break through internationally the way New Zealand films sometimes do, and the way Australian novels regularly do? The books have to be better still, of course—both weirder and more wonderful, taking more risks, playing with form and with fire. I suspect that the cultural climate in New Zealand is not particularly conducive to such books, and I would suggest that the reason is a lack of something I would call creative reading.

When I was editing the books page of The Evening Post, in the first half of the 1990s, reviewers often delivered two responses. There was the review itself, more or less lively but usually couched in the safe, deliberate language one finds in such a public forum. And there was the covering letter—or phone call—in which the reviewer told me what they really thought of the book, which was often far more interesting and more pungent. As an editor, my first responsibility was to the reader of the newspaper, so I saw my job as trying to get more of the covering letter into the review, because the result could be a much more personal, vivid and engaging piece of writing. A good review, whose very tone and rhythm conveys enthusiasm or its lack, is also more useful to the potential reader of the book concerned. And in the case of New Zealand books, I was also conscious of the effect that reviews had on writers.

As both editor and writer, I discovered the havoc that cruel reviews can wreak. But somewhere between a cruel review and a kind review is the practical review —the kind that a writer not blinded by ego might conceivably learn from. Such practical criticism, the result of reading with the writer in mind, could be called creative reading because it imagines for each book what other paths it might have taken, how the book might have been richer, more complex, more satisying, more resonant for the reader. It also happens often to be the most engaging review for that mythical species, the general reader, who wants to know, above all, whether a book works or not.

The problem in New Zealand is that it is hard to find people to write such reviews. As the English critic and novelist James Wood pointed out in a recent essay (‘The Slightest Sardine,’ London Review of Books, May 20, 2004), this kind of review is most often written by writers themselves, who are preoccupied with questions of aesthetic value and authorial intention. That many writers shy away from reviewing is understandable in such a small place, but irritating when the same writers bemoan the paucity of good local reviewing.

A parallel disappointment is the unwillingness or inability of many academics to comment publicly and usefully on new books. (Among the notable exceptions, several contribute to this book.) It’s not a problem confined to New Zealand, though James Wood’s eloquent description of the decline of literary criticism applies here as much as anywhere. Was it naive of me, as a books page editor, to expect that university lecturers—their salaries paid by the taxpayer—might feel some kind of obligation, and even some enthusiasm, for the task of assessing and analysing new literature? And that they might be able to do it in an interesting, informed, accurate way? Probably. But I continue to believe that the health of the cultural climate in New Zealand depends on people pitching in to perform the kind of practical criticism that raised standards, and awareness of what might be possible.

The need for imaginative reading, in fact, extends right across the process of literary production and consumption, and in New Zealand the need is great. It starts with the way the writer—and by extension the book itself—reads and re-reads genres and traditions. Milan Kundera suggests in his book ‘The Art of the Novel’ that in order to succeed, any novel has to be aware of where it has come from. But there is surprisingly little evidence of the novel’s rich history as a form to be found in New Zealand fiction, which is dominated by dogged realism, often linear in its shape and plain in its language. If many New Zealand novels are not well read, one might say it is because they started out that way.

New Zealand books might be better read if publishers treated the manuscripts they received as work in progress rather than simply giving each one the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I know there are economic reasons for the decline of editing in publishing houses, but it can make business sense for a publisher to invest time in the editing process. If a writer is good enough to write something that a publisher might accept, then he or she is also good enough to make that something even better, given the advice of an editor who took the trouble to try to imagine as many ways as possible in which it might be improved. Instead, it seems to me, many New Zealand publishers pump books through with little editing—and I’m talking about real, wholesale editing here, not simply line-editing—and then wonder why their titles languish unbought. Is blind hope— the hope, for example, that they might unwittingly publish the next Bone People—the reason they release too many books? It does a writer no favour to have a poor novel published. It is a favour to a writer, however, to turn that book down with solid reasons and advice for making the next one better.

Two other places where imaginative reading is desperately needed are on Creative New Zealand panels and among Montana award judges. Arts funders should be able to imagine how an artist might go in new directions, and have to take risks, so that artists can, rather than spread funding thinly in the quaint belief that talent is somehow democratic. And award judges should be able to imagine which books will last—not easy, but not impossible. Year after year, competent but ultimately unexceptional books triumph at the Montana awards, while gems miss out.

These, then, are some of the places where creative reading seems to me to be lacking—and where more of it could pay dividends. It is already reaping rewards in the very setting that has done the most to bolster New Zealand writing in the past 10 years: creative writing classes, and especially the original composition courses at Victoria University. Imagining how a manuscript might be better is the essence of the collective work in these courses, whose exchange of views mimics the kind of supportive community that writers sometimes managed to stitch together. So it is particularly ironic when academics and writers who might otherwise pretend to be working in the service of New Zealand culture take such courses to task, as if they somehow amounting to a form of cheating. What heartens me, from my distance, is that such voices seem to be an embattled minority—and that the kind of imaginative discussion that helps bring exceptional books into the light is growing in volume and sophistication, as evidenced by the extraordinary range and depth of essays in Writing at the Edge of the Universe.

© Andrew Johnston / Canterbury University Press