Thursday, December 4, 2014

Canon Fodder: a response to a paper by Jane Stafford

Jane Stafford is inaccurate and misleading in her recent paper ('The signs, the traces of my feeling’: editing the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature') in the Journal of New Zealand Literature (2013; v.31:2) concerning the absence of work by Janet Frame in the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012) which Stafford co-edited.  

            Stafford implies that she and her co-editor Mark Williams had ‘much correspondence’  with Frame’s estate. They did not. They made no direct approach to the Janet Frame Literary Trust (the legal entity responsible for Frame’s copyright), leaving Auckland University Press staff to mediate negotiations. Stafford in her apologia states that:
‘In the end, after much correspondence, intervention on our behalf by others, and our offering entirely new selections, including one which had an almost exclusively Frame section (something entirely at odds with the way in which the rest of the anthology was organised), we felt that we were unable to represent Frame in a way that was appropriate or adequate to her work’.

            That the editors were ‘unable to represent Frame in a way that was appropriate or adequate to her work’ is something that the Frame executors can agree on! Stafford goes on to say that ‘In retrospect we do see ...  our selections did ‘read’ Frame in a particular way’. But she does not seem to see anything wrong with that. The editors’ prime selection criteria for their anthology was not quality but the suitability of an author’s work to fit into their theoretical framework: ‘we believe that literature is seen at its most interesting in context ... authorial brilliance was not our first concern’.

            This of course conflicted with the Janet Frame estate’s own agenda, which (happily) is very much concerned with authorial brilliance, and with the author’s reputation and the integrity of her body of work. Quite apart from their desires for the rest of their project, the editors of the AUP anthology had constructed a flawed and unbalanced de facto ‘canon’ of Frame’s work, that we the estate knew from our wider experience of non-academic publishing was likely to be extracted from much of the rest of the anthology, especially internationally, where Frame is one of the few New Zealand literary names known, and where reprints of her work can command market prices. The publisher was seeking international digital rights along with carte blanche for the formulation of subsets of material from within the anthology for unstated purposes and within undeclared contexts. We could not allow this inadequate Frame corpus of over 12,000 words, weighted heavily towards her early career, to represent Frame’s output over her entire career. At that stage our concern was not with the major flaw at the heart of the AUP Anthology, later identified by numerous critics: that the book which claimed on its cover to offer the best New Zealand writing (‘our guide to what’s worth reading – and why’), was in fact not selected with the ‘best’ work in mind, but rather selected because they were the best pieces to showcase [the editors’ view of] New Zealand’s sociological and historical makeup. Our concern was as it should be (by definition) for a responsible literary estate, to agree on an appropriate and high quality and representative range of Frame’s best work. We did attempt to be generous and flexible but this was not appreciated. The editors did not seem to want Frame in all her glory – they wanted her as a muted and submissive wallpaper ‘to add lustre’ to the new generation (consisting largely of staff and alumni from their own university) - but not to challenge or outshine it.

            The ‘intervention on our behalf by others’ instigated by the editors consisted of an emotionally manipulative email sent by a friend of the editors to the trustees and an indirect approach via a family member of one trustee. Frame herself warned us while preparing us as her representatives, about such indirect approaches, and even clearly stated her own principle: you need to discourage the attempt to get to you by flattering or otherwise leaning on a close friend or family member. In that case her answer was always no. In our case, we had already said no before the attempt to rope in a family member (who, to their credit, did not really want to be involved in such business matters anyway). There was no conversation or direct communication between the editors and the trustees at any stage of the negotiation. The trustees only received each new list of proposed excerpts by email from Auckland University Press staff.

Early dust wrapper design with the iconic Caxton Lagoon cover prominent, even though the proposed selection of texts included no Janet Frame short stories

            Though the Anthology’s original cover design (pictured above) included part of the cover of Frame’s first book The Lagoon and Other Stories published by Caxton Press in 1952, the editors’ initial selection of Frame’s work did not include any short story at all by Frame from any of her several collections, despite her undeniable status as one of New Zealand’s finest short story writers. There were only extracts from longer works, not all of which in our opinion worked very well out of their own context, and there was only one slight poem, which was not at all representative of Frame’s poetic contributions to literature. She only published one book of poetry in her lifetime but it was a very influential one, published in many different editions and selling at least 25,000 copies around the world. Most of her novels also contained enough poetry within them to fill several slim volumes. Her posthumously published poetry volume The Goose Bath has sold more than 8,000 copies in several editions and reprints.  This is not the record of an insignificant poet and her work has continued to reach a substantial and appreciative audience since her death in 2004. Stafford and Williams did not seem to want to include self-contained works by Frame, or to represent the breadth of her oeuvre across time or across genres.
             The editors ‘thought that the Frame pieces we chose in our first selection were brilliant’. They were probably brilliant for the purpose of assembling a quirky and anecdotal history of New Zealand, but they were not brilliant as a selection of the work of a major world writer in what purported to be a serious anthology of New Zealand literature. The editors selected a fifteen page long section from Owls Do Cry (of over 5,000 words) featuring the character Chicks, a deliberately flat and ironic treatment of a shallow social climber that works in the context of the whole novel, but not when ripped out and inserted in another context. They slotted this passage into their thematic sub-section Suburbia within their 1945 to 1960 chronological section entitled Fretful Sleepers.  Frame did not favour abridgement of her work, especially where this was to suit a wider agenda. She  was especially careful with any treatment of Owls Do Cry having repeatedly turned down requests to make film adaptations of her first novel because of her distaste at the persistent misreadings of it as if it were non-fiction rather than fiction.
            A knowledgeable and sensitive editor would have been aware of these historical (and still valid) issues but Stafford and Williams didn’t know or care about the deficiencies of the Frame canon they had gathered together to present to the international literary and educational community as a representation of what was ‘worth reading’ of her work. They seemed to expect the authors and estates at the other end of their own decisions to quietly sign their assent without demur: ‘the overwhelming majority of authors and estates responded positively and in a business-like manner – that is, they signed the permissions form and returned it promptly.’ Although there was quite an outcry after publication when some authors and copyright holders regretted the eccentric context their work had been set within, and several of them have privately contacted the Frame trustees to praise our stand and to say that if they had known the agenda of the anthology (or in some cases, if they had not already ceded their authority to some publisher who rubber-stamped the excerpt without even notifying the author or estate), they too would have withheld permission.
            Stafford and Williams’ proposed Frame selection did not include any non-fiction except two passages from her autobiography that related to her early life. The Trust suggested via Sam Elworthy, Auckland University Press’s publisher, who mediated negotiations, that the editors choose one of Frame’s essays instead. Frame published several substantial essays, only one of which did she later dismiss, namely the essay ‘Beginnings’ published in Landfall in 1965. Though a clear explanation of the author’s position on this early work is detailed in Michael King’s Frame biography Wrestling with the Angel (as well as in the volume of Frame’s non-fiction Janet Frame In Her Own Words where Frame clarifies that ‘I didn’t explain properly and I was too melodramatic’), Stafford and Williams decided to select this very controversial item for their anthology. Again they were being either wilfully ignorant or arrogantly dismissive of the considerable baggage carried by such a provocative last minute choice. It was hard for us to tell because we were not party to their reasoning.
            Stafford declares in her paper that their initial selection included Frame poems. Untrue. They selected one poem, the brief ‘Instructions for Bombing with Napalm’ (a 59-word piece of political word play employing puns and anagrams) which they put into their thematic sub-group The Bomb is Made within their chronological section for the 1960s called From Kiwi Culture to Counter-Culture. The editors seemed to consider that by selecting this poem they had, ‘represent[ed] Frame in a way that was appropriate or adequate to her work’. They didn’t seem to notice that they had placed the poem about napalm – Frame being as usual, ahead of her time - among post-war poems by Keith Sinclair and Hone Tuwhare that referred to the advent of nuclear weapons. Her own one belonged thematically (and stylistically, perhaps) with poems by Ian Wedde and David Mitchell, located a decade later and entitled ‘BECAUSE HE WAS A MAN: SPEAKING OF WAR’ (you can see why Frame didn’t fit there – and this example shows how awkward and arbitrary the Stafford & Williams thematic categories are, and how they conflict with the chronological overlay).
            The editors eventually, and by all accounts reluctantly, suggested a handful of short poems to add to ‘Instructions for Bombing with Napalm’. They also selected a longer poem, ‘The Landfall Desk’, first published in 2002 (two years before Frame’s death) but miscategorised as ‘posthumous’ by Stafford and Williams. This is also not one of Frame’s major poems but had the virtue of fitting into their scenario of works that ‘conversed’ with works by other writers. The editors stated in various interviews that the ability to ‘enter conversations’ with other works was a key criterion for selection. The protagonist of the poem, the Landfall magazine desk that Frame had owned, now resides in the foyer of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington, the institution attended by a majority of the writers chosen for the last chronological section of the anthology. In the poem, Frame speaks to the desk; in the anthology, the poem about the desk was selected to ‘enter into conversation’ with the works of Victoria University alumni.
            The editors’ selection of Frame items showed a pattern: they chose Frame texts that fitted into a theoretical framework of New Zealand literary correspondences and echoes. Stafford and Williams proposed as the epigraph to their anthology an excerpt from Frame’s posthumously published novel Towards Another Summer in which she writes of the enthusiasm of the main character for Allen Curnow’s influential anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945). This epigraph, in its focus on a New Zealand literary event involving literary figures, mirrors the editors’ initial selection of a three page long extract from Frame’s autobiography describing her first meeting with Charles Brasch. Frame was of course, so prolific and so versatile that one can understand the editors' temptation to fill gaps in their grand narrative by plugging them with Frame's word on the subject, but it led to a narrow representation of her range and style.
            There are many other aspects of Stafford’s article concerning Janet Frame and her Trust that are incorrect, or falsely speculative; too many to cover here. Stafford frequently employs innuendo rather than facts. In making the comment that ‘Trustees have an unenviable job when it comes to issues for which they have been given no guidance by their author’, Stafford implies that the Frame trustees have had no such guidance. Yet Stafford, who has definitely received no such guidance from Frame, hypocritically presumes to know better than Frame’s trustees what Frame wanted. In an interview on National Radio that Stafford and Williams gave soon after the publication of the anthology, she stated that Frame would have approved their selection of Frame extracts. And in her JNZL paper Stafford makes the extraordinary claim that the editors’ replacement epigraph (a passage from Katherine Mansfield) ‘is a quote that she [Frame] would have felt at home with’, having a few pages earlier ridiculed Frame’s trustees for relying on ‘some vaguely conceived notion' of 'what the departed would have wanted'. The trustees are professionally and academically qualified for the task, they were the author’s intimate friends chosen by Frame (after decades of preparation and conversation) to be the executors of her estate and the guardians of her copyright, yet Stafford here claimed to know better than them 'what the departed would have wanted'.
            Frame provided her trustees with a great deal of guidance. She made clear what she wanted: by personal communication, by repeatedly expounding her principles, and by her own practise. She planned for posthumous publication. She spoke often and publicly of the various manuscripts that would have to ‘wait’ until her death. For example, Frame named her posthumous poetry collection ‘The Goose Bath’, and she spoke about her plans for it to be published posthumously to each of the three co-editors, including Professor Bill Manhire, whom she telephoned about the project shortly before her death, asking him to agree to advise on the edit.  Yet Stafford compares the posthumous Frame publishing to ‘hawk[ing] a man’s buttons and pins after he is dead’. She tells horror stories about misadventures in the Katherine Mansfield and other estates, implying that all this is also true of the Frame estate. She complains that ‘[the executors] seemed to be urging upon us a number of pieces that they themselves had published in their posthumous collections” as if Frame had not written the works and had not herself (mischievously, perhaps) deliberately planned to continue her own unique ‘conversation’ with contemporary New Zealand literature, inconvenient though that may be to her former colleagues as well as to academic theory builders and literary empire builders. Stafford then goes on to belittle the various posthumous Frame publications as a whole, yet all of them have been published in multiple countries and editions and almost all of them have already been translated into several languages. All have been highly acclaimed critically and several of the titles have had commercial success as well, not that we would want to judge the quality of the posthumous work by sales alone.
            Stafford accuses the Trust of ‘an anti-academic stance’. This is not true – the Trust is only ‘anti’ misrepresentation. Over the last decade, the Trust has worked professionally and fruitfully (in a ‘business-like manner’, if you prefer) with many academics as well as with dozens of editors, researchers, composers and musicians, artists, film-makers, journalists, biographers, publishers, literary historians, conference organisers, literary festivals, teachers and students.  It is interesting that as an academic Stafford feels comfortable in lambasting Frame’s executors in print and on the radio and at lecterns around the world, but if the Frame estate raises any criticism whatsoever it is described in words such as ‘scorn’, ‘denigration’, ‘outraged’, ‘abusive’, ‘vituperative’. In fact Stafford says this: “The Trust will castigate anyone who says anything they deem to be negative or misleading about Frame’s work, or about Frame herself.” Anyone who says anything. This is the closest that Stafford gets to the pouting intonations and childish whining of the kindergarten playground. If the Trust bothered to castigate everyone who got anything wrong, we would have had no time at all to achieve the outstanding results that we can proudly point to, of the past ten years of substantial publishing and translation of Janet Frame’s work in dozens of languages and countries around the world, including bringing all her work back into print in New Zealand, cleaning up some rather murky publishing arrangements, and finding new markets and outlets and audiences for work that is reaching an increasing number of admirers. And if it is so wrong to castigate and criticise when one identifies a perceived injustice, what double standard has led Stafford to compose this vicious attack on the Frame executors in the first place?
            Stafford’s exaggeration in this critique of her seeming bête noir the Frame estate can be illustrated by one of the many unwarranted accusations she makes against the Janet Frame Literary Trust. She claims that: ‘The homepage of the Trust’s website has a warning not to read the Wikipedia entry on Frame’. A warning not to read. Wow! How unreasonable! How controlling is that! One can almost hear the rapid intake of breath, the shock and awe among the scholars and expats in London on hearing of these monstrous interlopers who ‘took over’ on Frame’s death and who dare to tell you what to think and to censor your reading! Using the phrase ‘took over’ of the people who were long-time intimates of Frame’s, and whom she had personally appointed to the task of trustees five years earlier, is unreasonable rhetoric, but the audience apparently lapped it up. There was an online report after Stafford’s London talk from someone present who was suitably and predictably - given the false propaganda he was fed - shocked and horrified to learn of the outrageous behaviour of the Frame estate, and happy to say so publicly, as if he did not realise he had been mostly been presented with good old fashioned slander. So, what does the website ( actually say? It says what any reputable academic should say about Wikipedia anyway:
We do not recommend the Wikipedia article on Janet Frame. It is incomplete, it has a non-neutral bias, it gives unwarranted prominence to fringe theories and it quotes unreliable sources. Details concerning posthumous publications are missing or inaccurate. (Please note that Wikipedia does contain an important and oft-overlooked disclaimer to the effect that no information on the collaborative encyclopedia can be guaranteed to be reliable.)

            To sum up: our website does not say ‘don’t read it’. It says 'read it with a grain of salt'. And we did actually say why we don’t recommend the Wikipedia article in some detail but that does not stop Stafford from speculating on our reasons, which she thinks are: ‘perhaps because it says that her [Frame’s] critical reception was mixed; perhaps because of the biographical notes.’ Right. We have to be acting out of wounded pride or from shame and denial of some ‘truth’ that only the obsessive compulsives who patrol Wikipedia apparently are in possession of, with their constant tinkering at technical minutiae and their blindness towards the huge errors and biases (such as the institutional sexism) of the do-it-yourself encyclopedia. Sure, that’ll work. Stafford does not discern from our explanation that we have valid intellectual objections to the mess that amateurs and professional rivals have made of the Janet Frame article, including the bibliographic errors and oversights.
            Stafford also spitefully but quite seriously suggests that the Janet Frame estate has been derelict in its duty to let the author ‘be read’. Our vigorous record of publishing and of promoting Frame’s work (old and new) speaks for itself, and her misrepresentation of our achievements approaches character assassination. She has already shown her inability to comprehend one small paragraph about Wikipedia; clearly she is also unable to comprehend the objective and tangible size of the local and international publishing record that the Janet Frame Literary Trust has chalked up in ten years, including using the profits from royalty income to gift over 100,000 dollars to the next generation of New Zealand poets and novelists.
            Stafford certainly crosses the line into defamation when she misrepresents the legal action the Frame estate took against CK Stead when he published a previously unpublished manuscript and unpublished excerpts from letters in his memoir without permission (or even the courtesy of notification). Janet Frame had instructed her estate to sue the first person who published an unpublished manuscript without permission, no matter who it was, and so we did – or at least we threatened to, in order to seek an apology and to discourage the other vultures who were circling, keen to exploit Frame’s private life rather than celebrate her literary output. Stead and the Frame estate settled that action; we won: we secured an apology from him and the publisher and we all agreed to a confidentiality clause, although Stead has shamelessly violated the spirit of that agreement subsequently by publicly lying about the facts of the case. He hasn’t violated the law of the agreement, because he has not revealed the truth, only his minimised version of it. Stafford, blithely ignorant of the facts, repeats some malicious gossip she has heard, summing up the whole legal case in words that are untrue, grossly unfair to the Frame estate and frankly actionable if the estate could be bothered.
           Stafford makes another false and libellous claim, that the 'Trust's website' had made 'outraged and abusive' and 'vituperative' attacks on a blogger and on Fergus Barrowman, the editor of Victoria University Press. Conveniently, these 'abusive' attacks were allegedly 'later taken down' (which is also a lie) therefore very conveniently there is no evidence for them, only the exaggerated and malicious hearsay that they occurred, which Stafford repeats and embellishes. This false accusation about the Frame Estate's website is based in fact on a blog post Pamela Gordon made not on any official Janet Frame website or blog, but on her semi-anonymous personal blog Schroedinger's Tabby, in which Gordon did let off steam, referring angrily to a group of predominantly 'mommy bloggers' and 'Tweeps' who were loosely associated with Victoria University Press and the Victoria University creative writing school, who had been part of a 'blog-up' and tweet-up' social media campaign to promote an exploitative fan fiction novel based on Janet Frame, that had been published by Victoria University Press. The campaign was orchestrated by the then publicist at the Press, Helen Heath, who claimed on Goodreads that the fan fic novel was 'honestly, the best New Zealand novel I've read in years'. (Not a good sign for the other novels Heath was paid to promote). Gordon called the group (who also included some men) 'flunkie bitches pissing on [Frame's] grave'. Susan Pearce (a literary blogger whom Gordon had never heard of until then) apparently took this nasty accusation personally. Delicate sensibilities indeed for someone who affects to have the intellectual and emotional stamina to understand the issues involved. Certainly Pearce had no idea of the history of misogyny behind the egregious project she vigorously defended. The Frame executor's blog does contain stringent intellectual criticism, and some honest emotion, but none of that approaches the hostility of Stafford in her 'refereed' article of which genre one might expect higher standards and more objectivity than in any blog post. As for the personal, semi-anonymous blog, it was clearly written by an aggrieved family member of a recently deceased celebrity whose identity had been hijacked and reinvented, and anyone who sided with the perpetrator of such an insult should expect some fallout.
              Stafford and Williams were never willing to be explicit about their unconventional selection strategy and their idiosyncratic thematic divisions.  The wide-ranging and outspoken critiques of their unconventional ‘anthology’ when it was published seem to have come as a surprise to the editors (and the publisher). Although Stafford’s article in the Journal of New Zealand Literature did not appear on library shelves until earlier this year, it predates the storm of criticism. The paper is based on an outpouring of self-vindication and vindictiveness that Stafford presented to the inaugural seminar of the New Zealand Studies Network in London in July 2012, four months before publication day. As far as Stafford seemed to be aware when she gave this talk, the absence of Frame was the only problematic issue with the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, and she took pains to make sure her audience was clear whose fault that was. In retrospect her paper appears now as a case study in hubris.  

Final dust wrapper without Lagoon cover and without any texts by Janet Frame
NB: This is the first time that anyone from the Frame estate has spoken publicly about the AUP Anthology and we do it in self-defence. We deliberately remained silent at the time of publication two years ago despite unfair accusations made about us by the editors and those who believed them. We were quite sure by then that the absence of Frame from the Anthology was not the worst problem with Stafford & Williams, and we resisted the attempt of the editors to bait us into a time-wasting argument played out in the media. We did not want to fan their obvious rage against the Frame estate, or let them use us for publicity.  We were hoping to leave plenty of room for the other valid critiques that might have been overwhelmed by such sensationalist tactics. Fortunately plenty of voices were raised to acknowledge the weaknesses and failures and the other serious omissions of what seemed to us an ill-conceived project that had a basic contradiction at its heart: the publisher had a bright idea to produce a nice generous (and hopefully bestselling) anthology of the best of Kiwi writing; unfortunately this goal conflicted with the editors’ self-indulgent plans to subvert the anthology project for theoretical reasons, and while they did produce a monstrosity that does provide in parts a thumping good read, because it does include a lot of good writers and a lot of good writing (although you can find most of that elsewhere in more palatable formats) it fails to provide all the best writers, all the genres, and all the best work, because the editors never intended that it should.
 ‘The signs, the traces of my feeling’: editing the Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, Jane Stafford, Journal of New Zealand Literature: JNZL No. 31:2, Special Issue: New Zealand's Cultures: Histories, Sources, Futures (2013), pp. 145-162 

Reviews of the AUP Anthology:


wellywood woman said...

Thank you Pamela. I'd like more New Zealand analysis and discussion around issues like this, in public; and hope that people who know more about this issue than I do will respond to you.

Pamela Gordon said...

Thanks, M.
Frank public discussion on New Zealand literary controversies is difficult because this country is so small that people are aware they may never be published by certain presses or journals again if they offend any member of the major coteries. Honest book reviewing is also a minefield for the same reason.

Pamela Gordon said...

Concerning CK Stead's downplaying of the legal action the Frame estate took against him for serious copyright violation by publishing previously unpublished personal material without permission, there is an interesting parallel in the recent scandal in New Zealand where the complainant in a sexual harassment case was bound by a confidentiality clause but the perpetrator felt free to minimise the facts of the case in public. The guilty party made light of the actual events, claiming he was just an affectionate sort of guy, whose hugs and sexualised banter were 'misunderstood'. Stead has used similar minimising language, claiming in a NZ Listener interview that "Janet wouldn't mind" when Frame did mind about being selectively misquoted and she certainly wanted strong restrictions over any publication of letters or manuscripts.

wellywood woman said...

Yes, it can be hard to debate and to review.

I sometimes hold back because I don't want to hurt people I love. I'm not sure what, if anything, would make me engage more fully in this kind of debate, as someone who has absolutely nothing to lose in the NZ scene because most of my readers are outside NZ and I very rarely submit anything for publication here. And I don't review films or books anywhere because I'd only review women's work that inspired me to think critically about a particular issue and in my experience if a woman write something critical in a context that addresses another woman's work that tends to be used against both. So it's not simple.

But you've raised so many important issues re best practice for editors of anthologies and I'd love to know how other anthologists in NZ work, including the people who developed the recent Te Ara Creative & Intellectual LIfe section. Do they start eg with Creative and Intellectual Life and seek out and read everything they can find, with an open mind? And see what happens to their thinking? Or do they start with fixed views about Creative and Intellectual Life and hoover up what fits with those views? Probably different anthologists do it differently at different times. But I think there's also a kind of conditioning that goes on here, over decades. There's 'talking up' too. And there's spin. And I suspect that it's time that lots of us took a fresh look at Janet Frame's contributions to New Zealand writing, took her out of the box(es) she seems to be in at the mo.