Listener – October 27, 2001
Apollinaire, if I remember rightly, opined somewhere that the future popular press would be the venue for the best contemporary writing. I presume that he expected imaginatively written up-to-date reports on the psychological landscape would sit alongside the news of the day. Imagine it: novelists, essayists and poets on the full-time payroll of the media barons, with instalments of their work-in-progress published daily, weekly or monthly.
Needless to say, Apollinaire’s early-20th-century prediction has largely been spiked. But this lack of imaginative thinking cannot wholly be laid on the desks of the media mediators, for I don’t know many “creative” writers who would subject themselves to such tight deadlines, or be willing to publish embryonic work that had not been carefully shaped for a literary magazine or grown into a fully fledged book.
So we have columnists of various literary abilities, who bravely (or stupidly) serve us a diet of contemporary consciousness, according to the tone of the publications they write for. They are mostly, but not always, trained journalists who have learnt the art of fast literate writing, or opinionated celebrities who, in an editor’s view, pull the punters. The best columnists tell stories, usually their own, and their readers either love to hate or love to love them. Mostly they make no bigger claims than serial short-distance reads: disposable literature.
Three of our better-known columnists, Helen Brown (these days resident in Australia), Joe Bennett and Steve Braunias are not satisfied with the mass saturation their work receives; they also exist alongside our novelists and poets in book form. Sit is Bennett’s sixth book and From the Heart is Brown’s seventh, while Fool’s Paradise is Braunias’s first. It is a subjective call, though, to rate these books, for their respective writings are a matter of taste, and in these post-modern times it’s fair to say we have literatures, rather than a common literature. Brown, who could be described as a diarist, writes about the ups and downs of her life in a longer form than Bennett and Braunias, who articulate their weekly comings and goings in about 850 words.
I prefer Braunias, whom poet Bill Manhire has called the country’s only working-class journalist. He is an iconoclast – clever, tough, sardonic, cynical and sentimental. That’s not to say his cleverness at times doesn’t annoy me. (There’s a Buddhist teaching that cleverness is deceit). In one of his recent columns, not published in his collection, he quoted from fan-mail that “Braunias rhymes with genius”. He quoted it tongue-in-cheek, but I suggest he is not one to underrate himself.
At best he writes very well, and his love of mainstream New Zealand and its landscape is funny, touching and at times sublime. He is better served when writing about his travels through the heartland and recounting his upbringing than he is at taking cheap shots at fellow citizens, who quite frankly have the ability to hang themselves by their perceived shortcomings. This collection (1999-2001), with its fantastic cover starring a pink lamington, would have been a better book if Braunias had given himself
another year’s worth of columns to choose from. Still, it shows him warts and all, which was no doubt his intent.
Bennett is an acquired but popular taste; a middle-aged “literary bod” a la Bill Bryson or Clive James. Like them, he is adept at employing a sort of mock self-deprecating tone, which gives the impression that he stands outside a world he is actually cosy in. He is usually consistent in telling a reasonably entertaining fireside yarn with his dogs at heel, or snuggled up with them on the couch. He sits well is his genre, which is a tad too smug for my liking.
Brown writes clearly without tricks. Her story, for it is a continous report on her life and times, is at best honest and moving, with accounts of being a wife and mother in the modern world of blended and separated families ringing true. But I found myself wincing at her attempts at humour, perhaps a bad habit she picked up from hack subeditors and their corny headline writing. On a more life-affirming note, her writings on the lead-up to and aftermath of her mother’s death came from a place “beyond pain, beyond loneliness, beyond sorrow”.