Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking for Janet in all the wrong places

The latest newsletter from the Victoria University writing academy IIML has this quirky little item:

A possible Janet Frame sighting?

Literary spies of our acquaintance recently visited the St James Station woolshed, a huge 1870s structure, pit-sawn timbers, on the banks of the Clarence River, North Canterbury. The interior is full of shearers' graffiti - names carved, stencilled and written, dating from 1877 to 2008. Writes our correspondent:

'Among the shearers' stencilled graffiti, by a ladder leading to the loft, I found "J. Frame. 1940 41". This was written in red sheep raddle in a cursive style, below it in capital letters was "J. FRAME. 1940" and below that also in the red sheep raddle which is unique in the graffiti, "Pte Adams 1940 OAMARU" and below that deeply carved in half inch letters was "J. FRAME. 1940". Could this be Janet Frame at 16?'

 Our verdict? Could be.

This isn't the first time somebody has assumed Janet Frame is the only J. Frame in the known and unknown universe, despite the fact that Janet Frame had a sister J. Frame (my mother, who more than once found her work reproduced based on the misunderstanding that her poem signed "J. Frame" was actually written by her sister). Janet's father was one of twelve siblings and the aspiring poet JF likely had a brace of uncles and first cousins with the same first initial and surname, let alone second cousins, not to mention the pool of unrelated Frame families that also settled in the South Island.

Why anyone would even speculate that the teenage Frame would spend two years in a sheep shed in Northern Canterbury in the company of an Oamaru soldier beggars belief, especially when at the time she was busy being a prefect of her college, excelling at her school work and being a key member of the debating team.

Oh and by the way, what is "red sheep raddle"? According to Google it's a red pigment used for marking sheep.

This is the kind of "make-a-wild-guess based on the slimmest of coincidences, and that will be good enough" that has characterised the decades-long patronising biographical guesswork made by Patrick Evans in his obsessive search for "clues" to the "riddle" of Janet Frame.

The riddle, or the raddle?

I must say this 'sighting' is at about the level of accuracy that I have come to expect from much of the 'citing' emerging from English Departments of Universities.

This anecdote fits in nicely with the Evans-led current backlash against the historical Frame. Evans (along with, it seems, the Wellington School whose darling he now appears to be despite the fact that he has been their most acerbic critic in the past, deriding them for their churning out of mediocre Manhire-lite overly workshopped monotonous pap), rejects the fact that Frame was a sophisticated, highly educated, self-directed, well-read, intellectual, strong, independent, determined and ambitious author. Evans in his notoriously eccentric academic work and in his demeaningly sexist appropriation of Frame in his fan fiction, attempts to annihilate the real Janet and and replaces her with a monstrous cuckoo: a waif that comes from nowhere, knows nothing and nobody, and invents modern Western philosophy and cutting edge literary movements in her head. She dwells in an unreal world and constructs reality only through language. Accidentally she taps into the avant garde from a rural shed, or an urban one, because she's a bit 'gifted' (and a bit touched too, one infers).

Frame is no threat to the men then, because it all pours out of her without touching the sides, while the boys can pride themselves on their craft. What's more Frame's chief genius appears to consist of ridiculous word games and pathetic puzzles - and Evans really has hit a nerve with this misrepresentation. Because then Frame is no threat to anyone, least of all the kiddies young and old who are fantasising that they will be the next great thing. No wonder they've embraced the fake Frame, you don't even have to read her to claim to have an insight into her....

Let's just make a joke of her instead, and that has long been Evans's chief stance. As far as I know he's still compiling an album of the off-the-wall anecdotes that people tell about Frame ("no need for it to be true").

Do you detect a snide undertone in the IIML newsletter item? Maybe I'm being too sensitive? But you can look back over time and find that this newsletter (and the IIML Twitter account) do occasionally throw in a bit of a Janet Frame snigger. I've noticed from time to time they source something they can have a giggle at from my blog - it seems to interest them more than the serious literary news concerning her work. I can't remember the last time they had a positive spin. Meanwhile on the whole the Wellyterati social network has been furiously promoting the demeaning novelisation of Janet Frame by Patrick Evans that was published by their pet University Press, and the sneering subtext of that novel seems to have infected their attitude to Frame in general.

What a shame the literary spies of the IIML aren't alert enough to have noted the recent publication of a lifetime of Janet Frame's writings and speech about her life and her work. Instead of tweeting another of their bizarre snippets about Frame, they might like to as eagerly tweet about her new book Janet Frame in her own words. It's been disillusioning to observe the eagerness with which the IIML coterie has accepted and promoted a despicable distortion of Frame's theories of writing, but when the aspiring authors have a chance to celebrate the real thing they would rather indulge in a piece of pseudo-biographical trivia.

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