Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Listener review

There's a review of Janet Frame in her own words in the NZ Listener (26 November - December 2), on newsstands currently but it's not online yet.

The full text of the review will be archived on the NZ Listener website on the 5th Dcember2011.

Considering the literary and historical significance to New Zealand of a new work of non-fiction by arguably its greatest writer and certainly one of its most famous cultural 'icons' Janet Frame, the space given to the Listener review is fairly ungenerous. Reviewer academic Kim Worthington perhaps reflects a little frustration by saying:
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the sheer force and power of Janet Frame's many writings, or her often incisive and insightful comments, especially when she discusses her own work
The issue of shrinking space allocation for literary features and reviews is of course one that breaks the hearts of book page editors and their readers in this day and age, not just the reviewers. But the watchful reader might note that the Listener has found plenty of room in the recent past to squander on squalid appropriations of Janet Frame, and in association with that, on critiques of the Frame estate that appeared quite unfair to many readers (as I have been told privately), so much so that a prominent literary figure was prompted to write a letter to the Editor in our and in Frame's defence.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent review and it lays out the relevant points, especially that in this groundbreaking collection Frame is allowed to "speak for herself" and to "challenge the stubborn myths" that have "built up around her". Worthington is simplistic in identifying what she understands those "myths" to be, confining them to the realm of the mad genius and the social recluse, and overlooking the many other common misconceptions about Janet Frame that this book disproves.

FYI these other 'myths' would include: that Frame didn't have a sense of humour, that she was depressing and depressive; that she never spoke in public; that she never spoke about her work; that she only did a handful of interviews with the success of those attributable only to the exceptional sensitivity of the interviewers, without whom Frame would have been unable to utter any coherent thoughts; that she was incapable of appearing at festivals and socialising with other author and industry personnel; that she consistently refused to and was unable to promote her work; that she was a weak, lost, passive person always under the care of some guardian or mentor; that her books didn't sell well in NZ,  when in terms of literary fiction she was one of the highest earners in NZ; or that her books didn't sell well overseas when she was one of the few NZ authors who could even get published internationally, and her works were widely translated; that she wasn't well known here in NZ, or that she was little known 'overseas'; that she moved restlessly from place to place with no reason; that she only wrote about a limited range of subjects and that those were all concerned her own tragic life; that she was a 'primitive', uneducated, who stumbled upon the great themes of the twentieth century only through contemplating her own misery; that she had fled teaching because she was too afraid of the inspector, that she had 'fled' teaching because she was incapable of functioning in the real world; that she constructed reality only through language (a particularly toxic myth rampant currently); and I haven't scratched the surface of the myths, here are more: it is commonly said that Frame only came to prominence because a movie was made of her autobiography, when the genre of autobiography is the province of the already prominent person; that the reading public are more interested in her life than in her work; that she had an unhappy childhood; that she never had sexual or love relationships; that she was 'pathologically' or 'cripplingly' shy, when in fact she was just [no modifier] shy, and she wasn't always shy, she was 'shy' only when people were being jerks. And she was not, by her own declaration, 'fragile', but she was in fact of a strong and cheerful disposition, opinionated and didactic. Etc. These kinds of myths are even harder to fight because the public don't even know they are myths. The "mad genius" legend is easy enough to ridicule, but these others that derogate Frame's professionalism, belittle her career successes, call into question her vocation, her dedication and her ambition, are more insidious.

I guess time will tell whether this volume really manages to slay any of these myths - the response to Frame's own attempts to "set the record straight" through her three volumes of autobiography was for some Frame 'scholars', such as Patrick Evans, to claim that Frame was a liar and couldn't be taken at face value in her non-fiction, that you really need to look into her fiction to find the 'truth' about her (his truth, that is, his patronising biographical speculations that had Frame close to suing Evans: "I resent this myth", she says in this new book, and "I have even contemplated legal action to subdue it.").

But now of course, Evans would rather you eschew Frame's work altogether and instead read his novel about 'Janet' and become acquainted with a completely false Frame - a cuckoo of his own invention that he has laid in a nest he seems to have assumed was by now up for grabs.

As Worthington says, there's a lot in Janet Frame In Her Own Words, a lot to absorb; so I am predicting it will take a while for the aficionados to digest, and even to comprehend the ramifications of this massive amount of new information, and of the old information stripped of its cottonwool wrapping, for the future shape of the Frame Legend.

Meanwhile, please enjoy "the sheer force and power", the "sly wit and generous humour", and so much else.

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