Saturday, May 25, 2013

Janet Frame's brilliantly funny novel about a Literary Trust - already spawning copycats?



Fergus Barrowman, publisher at Victoria University Press,  tweets the news this week that Frame scholar Professor Patrick Evans is writing a novel about a Literary Trust

Well, well, well. Looks like the bully boys of NZ academia are lining up for another piece of sport at somebody-or-other's expense. Here's the commander-in-chief of the small Victoria University Press deriving a little too much enjoyment, it seems, from the panic he probably hopes this announcement will cause amongst the ranks of all the 'Literary Trusts' that might be expected to be lampooned, and even in this tiny country of New Zealand there are quite a few, if by 'Literary Trust' [sic] the incorrigible buffoon Evans and his master enabler Barrowman intend to denote what is more accurately referred to as a literary estate:  there's the Tuwhare Trust, the Baxter Trust, the Curnow, the Frame, the Brasch estate, the Glover estate, to name the big boys (and girl), but there are others, naturally. Lots of material there for amusing portrayals of the avarice and envy that attract to those literary estates like flies on dog shit.

Of course, not having yet seen any of the work in progress, I can't assume that by 'Trust' Evans meant to suggest 'Estate'. Evans may well have as his subject the kind of Literary Trust that is not the legal entity that any famous author has themselves authorised to represent them, those poor faithful and usually misunderstood souls that try to carry out a late author's wishes despite constant attacks from the vultures, parasites and snakes that are so affronted by the reality of copyright and moral rights, or even basic human respect.

No, perhaps Evans has in his sights that group of interested persons, usually a larger group than the formal literary estate, that forms itself around a dead author who may be in or out of copyright. Some of the New Zealand-related groups that have aggregated for instance, around the glory of the name of a fallen author, hold such local literary saints as Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson as their reason for being. Other literary associations glorify lesser lights such as Robert Lord or Lauris Edmond or Nigel Cox or John Caselberg, etc etc.

Some trusts touchingly promote virtual nobodies, but most of the Literary Trusts that I know of, named for the great or the small, do excellent work either to 'promote' their author, or to help out aspiring writers, or both.

Other Literary Trusts form not in the name of an author but for some special purpose - for example the excellent Wellington-based Randell Cottage Writers Trust which promotes a relationship between French and New Zealand writers.

I can't imagine Fergus would be sniggering if the joke was at the expense of his close friend Nigel Cox, so I guess we can rule out the establishment of the Nigel Cox award in 2010 (there has apparently only ever been one of them) as inspiration for Evans's fictional Literary Trust.

We haven't all forgotten, have we, the vociferous outcry from Fergus Barrowman when he thought that CK Stead had said mean things fictionally about Barrowman's late friend the author Nigel Cox? ("It's a revenge fantasy!" complained Barrowman.) There was a literary furore at the time with many column inches dedicated to the cruelty and unfairness of Stead's prizewinning short story in which all names and facts were changed and yet Barrowman managed to detect the grossest of despicable injustices to the late Cox and to his widow. Barrowman, as a leading figure of the feared IIML juggernaut, was able to rally hordes of flunkies and fellow travellers (they are well primed by the processes of incorporation into the Group to rise and act in concert when an outside threat is identified)  to berate poor Stead, who revelled in the attention (which was spookily well-timed to act as publicity for his own latest publication).

It was Fergus's new BFF Professor Pat Evans who later that year taught Fergus that it was OK to piss on the grave of a recently dead person fictionally after all, and that you could even use the victim's real name, as Evans had done in his fictional distortion of Janet Frame. Evans changes most of the important facts about Frame at that time in order to misrepresent her character and to attribute to her an alleged 'theory of language' that she would have found laughable. Fergus published the novel, bringing the IIML guns in to discredit the only voice that was ever likely to have courage to protest publicly against the injustice. That is, my voice. Because I care, because I'm family. And since I, like the author I represent, have never been an insider in any of the cliques, then I have nothing to lose.

Well, it turned out I did have something to lose - my good name. And so that's what they went for, and I think, they did some damage to it, although I have faith that my deeds will speak for me in the end, and I was taught by the best (Janet Frame herself) not to worry about what people think, and just do what I think is right. But I was successfully taken aback, and more or less silenced by the extraordinary viciousness of the campaign against me, that cast me as the bully, ironically.

In contrast to the uproar over the alleged Nigel Cox incident, not one column inch was devoted to decrying the fact that Janet Frame's decades-long detractor and known 'enemy' had written a novel distorting her life and exploiting her reputation. I only saw one reviewer gently query that it might be unusual for Evans to have used Janet Frame's real name. And very few people (even the publisher himself) apparently knew enough about Frame's life to realise that the historical facts had been so distorted. It's without precedent actually, to take such a liberty so soon after a great author dies, and it's always controversial to change the historical facts about a great author, even after decades or even after centuries.

But there you go. Evans had used Frame's real name, had changed crucial facts, creating a travesty of her and violating her agency, and despite all that, he went around claiming that his corruption was more 'true' about her than Frame's own autobiography and Michael King's biography.

And the wider IIML/Wellington/VUP/Whitireia social network (including their moles at the NZ Book Council and Booksellers NZ, nation-wide organisations based in Wellington and well known around the rest of the country to exhibit a strong bias towards towards Wellington-related and Wellington-approved authors and activities, ie, their personal friends) went into bat for Gifted, which was a bitter irony given that Evans was one of the few people who had dared to criticise the IIML/VUP monolith in the past. Evans had identified the fact that even a crappy work published with VUP and approved by IIML would be guaranteed some sales and patsy reviews. He proved himself right by infiltrating the Group himself and ingratiating himself with them. The wider Wellington social network was right behind Gifted, which they were fooled into thinking was a benign 'love letter' to Janet Frame.

The network was also manipulated into participating in a pre-emptive attack against the one possible stumbling block to the success of Gifted - the realisation that the novel was NOT a 'love letter' from an admirer, but in fact an attempt to cast Frame as a liar and untrustworthy, and as someone you do not actually read, that you merely read about.

The big secret was that Frame had feared and despised Patrick Evans, but Evans himself prefers to think of Frame as if she were just another of his angry sexual partners, as you can tell from this report of a literary panel that Evans appeared on:

 'Evans knows her wrath personally. After releasing his Frame biography, he got a bit of hate mail from his subject. “It was the angriest letter I’d ever received from someone I wasn’t in a relationship with,” he remembered. When De Goldi suggested that a relationship did, indeed, exist, Evans could only smile. And nod.'

Now, for Evans to characterise an angry letter from someone who found that his unauthorised 'biography' of her had taken details from her fiction and presented them as facts from her life as 'hate mail' is egregious. And the characteristically sexualised way in which Evans talks and writes about Frame is quite disturbing to me, but obviously the bully boys (and girls) seem to find it titillating.

The bullies knew that the only voices who would be able to deliver this message of resistance would come from within the Janet Frame Literary Trust. Everyone else who sympathised with Frame and her estate, and who knew what was going on, were frankly too afraid to speak publicly for fear of retribution and of becoming themselves the target of the vitriol of the Group.

So how to silence the resistance to this act? What bullies always do when they are on the verge of being uncovered. They get in first and say 'Bully!' when the victim is only just raising their hands in defence.

There were two key attacks on my character at the time leading up to the publication of Gifted.

Firstly there was a NZ Listener article in which Karl Stead was roped in to belittle the Janet Frame Literary Trust and say 'Janet wouldn't mind' either copyright theft or being mocked and misrepresented (as if he was a reliable informant!) Butter wouldn't melt in Fergus's mouth by now, and he obtusely refused to acknowledge that he might be a hypocrite in publishing a novel about Frame by one of her greatest detractors, despite his spluttering outrage only months earlier because of a far less significant case of literary revenge on the part of Stead against Cox. Well, actually Barrowman didn't have to dodge the question very forcefully, because the partisan journalist had already made up her mind about the matter and didn't even press the issue. The question of professional and literary ethics was not even addressed! (I refused to be interviewed for this article because I had not been paid the respect of being shown a review copy, and I had no wish to be used - or more likely, misused - for publicity when I had not even seen the novel.)

One brave person, a prominent NZ literary figure, sent a letter to the editor after that article was published, regretting the apparent unfairness of the suggestion that I was acting contrary to Janet Frame's wishes, when it was obvious that Janet Frame had given me the role, and that I was professionally qualified to do it. She also defended Janet Frame's right to set up her own estate and set the ground rules. It's astonishing that someone needed to say these obvious things, but I was deeply grateful for that single powerful expression of support.

Fittingly in the light of the damaging effect that the discourse around Gifted has had on Janet Frame's reputation in NZ (it was widely taken as all 'truer than the facts' just as I have no doubt Evans intended), Patrick Evans's attempt to misappropriate Janet Frame's persona was published on the same day as the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake, in September 2010. A horrible day for many people, and no doubt Frame rolled in her grave too, unable to defend herself any more from the threat of slander, because you are allowed to lie about a dead person.

Let me qualify that last claim: in New Zealand you are not allowed to lie about a dead friend of Fergus Barrowman, even fictionally. Dead Janet Frame is fair game, fact or fiction. Go for it. Just make it up. The nastier the better, and don't forget the sexual innuendo. You better not piss on Nigel's grave, but you can apparently do what you like over Janet's grave and not only will Fergus not be offended, he'll rush into print with it.

Fergus even published a short story by Patrick Evans the next year in which names were changed, but there was a clearly demeaning portrait of a Janet Frame character who lived in Oamaru, selling hats. She had been given a lobotomy and wrote unreadably dull stories about Gardens, and the narrator (who seemed to be based on Frank Sargeson) had married her, patronisingly. Tacky. I'm guessing that this story was originally included in the very many drafts of Gifted that were reportedly intensively worked over by a few colleagues and collaborators who assisted Evans in his tidying up of the Gifted campaign to make it seem acceptable to the public. The lobotomy sex slave material was probably judged too obviously distasteful for the con job that was Gifted, which had to pass as a 'love letter' in order to be accepted by its target market. But, buoyed up by the hubris of having 'got away' with Gifted, Fergus decided to publish the story anyway. That's my guess anyway, or am I writing my own novel, and do I have to change the names if I say it's fiction?

The second powerful attempt to besmirch my reputation that was associated with VUP's publicity for Gifted took place during an interview by Radio NZ's Kim Hill with my emotionally unstable cousin Janet (who was previously known by the surnames Logan, Kennedy and then Cutmore but has recently exercised her right to use her birth name 'Janet Frame', for the first time in her life). Janet Frame the Fourth (there's a family tradition of bestowing the name 'Janet' that long precedes the entry of the surname 'Frame' into the mix so there are more than four Janets in the wider family tree) was raised by a foster family and had irrevocably disowned her own eccentric father, Janet Frame's brother, in his lifetime, being (as she says in the interview) ashamed of him.  If you listen to the interview, you will be able to tell that Janet Logan Kennedy Cutmore Frame is pathologically envious of my close relationship with our aunt, and of my status as the Frame estate's legal representative. She seems to think of herself as a princess who has lost her rightful place on the Throne of Frame Royalty, and that I am the villain. She does not seem to be aware that the Frame Literary Trust is a legal entity founded by Janet Frame and that positions on it are not gained by heredity but by suitability for the role (having qualifications including education, experience, trustworthiness and integrity). Janet Frame the Fourth has a sad story to tell, but some of what she says in the radio interview is defamatory, and I am grateful to have heard privately that many people who heard the interview were appalled at the lies and the obvious malice she holds towards me.

My cousin has long carried out a campaign of vilification of me, in cyberspace and in the real world, including claiming publicly that I am in denial of my own 'autism'. She has diagnosed me as well as my aunt, and herself, and her father -who she didn't know- and God knows who else, as 'autistic', a diagnosis she apparently prefers for herself more than the one of 'Borderline Personality Disorder' that a doctor gave her once and she has rejected. Her actions in vilifying me and my family for allegedly excluding her from our hearth are classic BPD behaviour, and it is only my pity for her and her sad life that stopped me from suing her for defamation. (I and my parents and aunt kept in touch with her compassionately and generously for her whole life and had no idea of any of the problems she now claims that beset her.) And I was aware that the damage had been done by the interview anyway. It is likely that many people, hearing it all for the first time, believed her false accusations about my ill-treatment of her. She wrote on a post on Kim Hill's Facebook page that she had received admiring correspondence from Karl Stead and from Patrick Evans (I have a screenshot of that and much else to back up these claims.) I know that many people could identify that this was a case of the distant relative-of-the-famous using their family connection to pathetically grab the spotlight and wreak their revenge for slights real or imagined, but I am sure that for many others it just confirmed all the other slurs and lies that they have heard about the Frame Trust (the death by the hundred cuts). I've heard elderly ladies at the table next to me in restaurants, talking about it all, without a single bean of truth to what they're spouting.

Listen if you like. I nearly threw up when I heard it, and it is so abusive of me that I have never been able to listen again. And the worst thing of all? My obviously unwell cousin seems to have been shamelessly co-opted to shore up the VUP publicity campaign for Gifted - because the broadcast of her interview (recorded in September 2010, held back until the 23rd October 2010) was followed immediately by one with Patrick Evans talking about his novel Gifted. And the tweets in praise of the Frame-Cutmore interview all came from within the VUP/IIML family. There was no public defence of me against this attack. Nor even any balanced discussion as far as I could see. I received quite a bit of 'anonymous' hate mail crowing about the lack of public support for me, about how alone I was and how everyone was laughing at me. (Now THAT is 'hate mail' - a letter protesting an injustice is not 'hate mail'!) I've undergone a lot of cyber bullying in this role, it seems to be an occupational hazard for any woman who becomes known to the public, but fortunately I have not been alone, and I knew that 'everyone' didn't hate me, and I did have private support, and a lot of it, and so I didn't expect any of my friends or admirers to put their own heads above the parapet unnecessarily.

I even had counselling to help me with strategies to survive the propaganda campaigns, very useful. And I continue to be inspired and strengthened by my aunt Janet Frame's example of heroic stoicism in the face of treatment that was many times worse than anything I've ever had to undergo!

These two major blows to my public standing - both associated with the publicity for Gifted - were shocking to me and were effective in silencing me. Slander is an effective weapon in the hands of clever people, and I felt that the public opinion had been sufficiently twisted against me to make it pointless to speak publicly against Gifted. Anyway, I was protecting myself by stepping away from the line of fire. So I never have (except here on my blog, which has a wide readership, mostly overseas, but is pretty much ignored within NZ Lit, kind of like Janet Frame herself when you come to think about it).

Also, whenever I am given a soap box in the mainstream media, I always want to forget about this petty and unworthy negative stuff that - let's face it - always accrues around a celebrity the size of Janet Frame's. So I try to keep the focus on all the amazing positive things that I'm privileged to be involved with as Janet Frame's executor. Most people don't pay any attention to guttersnipes and they don't want to either.

I wish I had time to write my own novel about a literary estate. There is plenty of material from my experiences with and knowledge of all of the aforementioned estates and trusts. There'd be the chapter about the vainglorious widow who purloined her husband's letters from the author, disregarded his instructions for their lodgement under embargo, and disseminated them amongst unscrupulous academics. There'd be the psychopathic grad student who stalked the trust members and the author's friends and associates, stealing photos and other memorabilia and then taking part in a cyber hate campaign. There'd be the... oh no, there's too much material. I do often laugh about it all, thank heavens for a sense of humour.

My aunt instructed me to read The Aspern Papers by Henry James as preparation for my role as her literary guardian. It's the best I've ever read so far on the subject of a Literary Estate. Chilling stuff and it has been useful. I think that if Henry James hadn't already written it, then Janet would have probably written something similar, but she just loved the James version.

As for the subject of a hilarious novel about a Literary Trust, then Evans might find himself once again, irrelevant, and too late, in his long career of hanging pathetically off the coat tails of Janet Frame - his burning obsession and the main claim to his fame/notoriety.

Why? because Janet Frame's newly released novel In the Memorial Room is that novel - a hilarious spoof on a Literary Trust. Her satire is based around the adulation of a Katherine Mansfield-figure, although she manages to appear to spoof her own posthumous legend as well, although we're probably many years away from adulation in the case of the late Janet Frame - we're still in the era of the backlash, as might be obvious from the ease with which the bully boys can have their sport with her dead body, unopposed by anyone but the Literary Trust she appointed (most of her other trusted friends being dead now, or wisely keeping out of the firing range).

Evans actually claimed of his distasteful book Gifted that it was 'Janet Frame's last novel'. No, In the Memorial Room is 'Janet Frame's last novel'.

So, here is Frame's last novel, spoken about in publishing and literary circles for more than the past year as a satire on the cult of a dead author, and here is Evans now reportedly writing a novel about a literary trust. Hmmm.  Is Evans in fact again attempting to write yet another piece that he will try to pass off as 'Janet Frame's last novel'? Yet again piggy-backing her reputation, her themes and material, and attempting - as he admitted he desired to do - to write himself into her canon?

The low-rent derivative obsessive activity of writing inferior prose exploiting the work and themes and characters of famous writers is called Fan Fiction - that's when you take your favourite fictional characters and make them have unlikely sexual adventures - and we know what that kind of fan fiction is written for don't we?

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