Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A new collection of Frame scholarship

The field of academic commentary on Janet Frame continues its dramatic expansion. The latest issue of the journal Commonwealth Essays and Studies has been devoted to a study of Janet Frame's short fiction. Some prominent names in international Frame studies are represented in it. We are always in safe hands when Belgian Marc Delrez - who, according to Peter Marsden, easily earns the status of "primus-inter-pares" of Frame scholars - is involved in the project, and there is much good research and analysis to recommend in this volume.

I feel the volume is blighted by the odd obsessive touch of biographical myth-making, but that is always going to happen when the subject is all things "Janet", which, let's face it (and I'm quoting here from her biographer Michael King in his more 'off-the-record' mode) "can be a bit of a nut-magnet"...

Even worse from my perspective, than the idiosyncrasies of pseudo-psychiatrists, is the fact that in two of the papers [Williams, Wevers] there are blatant examples of product placement - two academics from the same university both give astonishingly insupportable endorsements to a highly controversial fan fiction novel published by their own institution's academic Press. The novel exploits the publicity value of the myth of Janet Frame and stretches it beyond credibility for anyone who is actually familiar with her biography, as these 'experts' have proven themselves not to be, by their apparent swallowing of the deliberate and demeaning distortions their colleague has stitched together in order to "stitch up" Frame. The scholar-cum-novelist Patrick Evans has been "notoriously"  plodding away at his campaign for decades, never letting the facts interfere with his speculation. He's finally realised that the truth is too much of a straight jacket, and has opted for outright fabrication. Both these commentators fondly quote his fanfic novel as if it contains valid insights into Frame's life or her attitude to language, and they seem to prefer the fictional caricature to the real Frame, and cite Evans's clumsy imitations rather than Frame's own texts. They even bypass Frame's posthumously published fiction (including a short story 'Silkworms' in which Frame herself fictionalised Sargeson, surely ripe material for synthesising!). For these parochial academics to favour an inferior copy of Frame as rendered by one of their cronies is a 'Framean' phenomenon indeed.

In context, the Commonwealth Essays and Studies volume offers gripping reading for the student of Frame, and makes a solid contribution to the burgeoning bookshelf. Don't forget to read Frame herself though guys! Many of the papers don't show any evidence that their authors were aware of or flexible enough to handle, the steady posthumous publishing of finished works that Frame either would not or could not get published in her lifetime. Where is the reaction to a delayed masterpiece such as Gorse is not people, crushingly rejected when Frame was at her most vulnerable?  In her autobiography Frame even prepared her readers for the eventual release of her unpublished works such as Towards Another Summer and Gorse is not People, by telling the stories around them. As Maria Wikse recently pointed out in a review of another excellent volume of criticism, Frameworks (ed Cronin & Drichel), there does seem to be a peculiar reluctance on the part of some academics to go back to the drawing board and consider the 'new works'. (The argument that there hasn't been time to assess the posthumous works yet won't wash when one considers that the ripped-off novel Gifted written by an elderly male Professor, seems to have wormed its way into the discourse - thanks to the patsy recommendations, with no hint of a rigorous critique - after less than a year.)

Another sadly neglected work of Frame's is of course her autobiography, frequently relegated here to the status of warehouse to be plundered for real-life correspondences to fictional events, but not a text to be trusted where the author makes any claims that contradict the legend. This attitude is aptly illustrated by the footnote on page 98 (Oettli): "John Money is the person who inspired the character of John Forrest in Frame's autobiography". Inspired the character? There seems to have been precious little learned from Michael King's biography Wrestling with the Angel, either, and this distrust of the veracity of the non-fiction written by Frame as well as by her biographer has led to errors of fact that range from the merely sloppy to the scandalous.

If there was any overall process of editorial fact-checking in this volume of essays, it appears to have missed the extraordinary claim made by Simone Oettli in discussion of  'My Last Story' (written in 1946 along with most of the other Lagoon stories, while Frame was working as a housemaid-waitress-nurse in a rest home) that: "As far as we know, it will be ten years before Frame starts to write again"... The romantic belief that Frame and her fictional narrator in 'My Last Story' are one and the same, appears to take primacy over the historical facts. The facts are not hard to come by, and I am quite disillusioned to discover that even a Frame 'expert' can seem to be so unfamiliar with Frame's writing and publishing history. The facts are available to all via Frame's autobiography and the King biography, but the story of these "ten years" that seems to be quickly gaining traction, among the NZ academics at least, is the made-up one from the Evans novel (quoted at length in this volume by Lydia Wevers) in which an unknown and unpublished young woman arrives unannounced on to the great Frank Sargeson's door step. He is perplexed but takes her in. This is all lies, as is to be expected in fiction, but the reinvented story is treated by at least two papers here (written by Wevers and by Williams) as if it were an enlightening portrait of Frame and Sargeson.

In fact by 1955 Frame's reputation was striking awe into her countrymen. So much so that Frank Sargeson had sought her out and asked her to stay with him, and her presence there created a minor sensation, with the troops flocking by for a look at the "mad genius", as she had already been typecast. She had been publishing regularly, poetry (in The Listener in the early 1950s) and two book reviews, and had read a very well-received story on the radio, had of course won the prose fiction prize for The Lagoon. From the very first, she had been ambitious. Her first adult story had been published in The Listener without John Money's help, and there's an entirely valid argument available that it wasn't until Money started intercepting her stories (the legend says he "rescued" them from her), that she ran into the terrible five year delay between the acceptance of The Lagoon and its being published. Even while she was waiting for Denis Glover to publish her manuscript, Frame continued to send work to editors such as Charles Brasch. We now know, for instance, thanks to letters published in Dear Charles, Dear Janet (2010),  that Frame sent Brasch a story for consideration in 1949. Brasch passed the story on to Glover without even replying to Frame. (Now there's something that deserves investigation! Why do we only hear how Frame was helped and mentored, when a cold hard look shows her being as often rejected, blocked, and being subject to delays despite her unfailing persistence in her vocation?) Now, much of this writing history between 1945 and 1955 is covered by Frame herself, and more is revealed by King, and some more has been uncovered by Frame's estate. If a 'Frame scholar' can be as wrong as to say "As far as we know it will be ten years before Frame starts to write again", about this period, what else are they getting wrong? 

As a family member, of course I will be disconcerted when I discover that people are saying biographical things that I know to be incorrect. I know first hand how much it annoyed my aunt to be lied about, and misunderstood, and I know what some of the lies are and why they are so virulently defended. But my pleasure in reading the overall carefully argued and intelligent criticism in this collection is not diminished, and I do look forward to the continuing evolution of the arguments and the expositions.

As Jan Cronin says in Frameworks - "These are exciting times for Janet Frame studies."

33.2 (Spring 2011): Janet Frame: Short Fiction


Marta DVORAK, Foreword
Marta DVORAK and Christine LORRE, Introduction

'The subject of words'

Marc DELREZ, The Literal and the Metaphoric: Paradoxes of Figuration in the Work of Janet Frame
Jean ANDERSON and Nadine RIBAULT, Why Two Heads are Sometimes Better than One: Collaborative Translation of Janet Frame's The Lagoon and Other Stories
W.H. New, S(words)tories

'External landscapes and geographies of the mind'

Allan WEISS, The Form and Function of the Modern Fable in Janet Frame's Short Stories
Lydia WEVERS, "A girl who is not me"
Mark WILLIAMS, "Tending the ovens": Janet Frame's Politics of Language
John THIEME, "Making chalk marks on water": Time and the Sea in Janet Frame's Faces in the Water and "The Lagoon"

The 'watching self'

Christine LORRE, Secrets in The Lagoon and Other Stories
Simone OETTLI, Janet Frame's Conceptualization of the Writing Process: From The Lagoon to Mirror City
Cindy GABRIELLE, Fences of Being: The Child in the World in Janet Frame's "A Note on the Russian War," "Prizes" and "Royal Icing,"

'(Inter/meta)textuality and the ontology of authorship

Janet WILSON, The Lagoon and Other Stories: Storytelling, Metafiction and the Framean Text
Marta DVORAK, Frame-breaking: "neither separate nor complete nor very important"


Peter MARSDEN, Frameworks: Contemporary Criticism on Janet Frame. Ed. Jan Cronin and Simone Drichel
Marc DELREZ, Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence. Ed. Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold
Christine LORRE, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Vol. 5, 1922-1923. Ed. Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott
Jean ANDERSON, Reading Pakeha? Fiction and Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. By Christina Stachurski


The Writing of The Lagoon Stories, by Pamela Gordon, Literary Executor, Janet Frame Literary Trust


cindy said...

How come I haven't received my copy?

Pamela Gordon said...

Ah - waiting for the gratis copy - a familiar story! Sometimes they get lost in the mail you know...

I enjoyed your essay on Janet Frame and Buddhism. IT's so hilarious that CK Stead doesn't now seem to remember that Janet Frame was actually a Buddhist, even though he made the fictional character he based on her a Buddhist. I think the discrepancy is a symptom of the way Stead's discourses about Janet Frame have hardened and darkened in the ensuing decades, that he now thinks his unflattering characterisation of the Frame figure in ALL VISITORS ASHORE is "romanticised"! He appears to regret now having made Cecelia a Buddhist as it doesn't fit with his current portrayal of Frame as incapable of such agency and wisdom. Hehe.