It hasn’t even been officially launched yet, but already the AUP Anthology of New Zealand Literature is generating considerable controversy. Critics reckon Maori, South Islanders and other minority groups are underrepresented, while graduates of the Manhire school, among others, are supposedly overrepresented. For Bookman Beattie, the most surprising omission is Michael King. Paula Green has noted the less than adequate coverage of New Zealand historians generally: no Judith Binney, James Belich, Anne Salmond or Claudia Orange. Keith Sinclair does get a look in, but only as a poet. Apirana Ngata is here, but not Ranginui Walker.
I doubt that even the editors would suggest they have provided anything like representative coverage of non-fiction New Zealand history writing. But that got me thinking about the relationship between history and literature. If the former is a subset of the latter, then surely it is entitled to fair representation in works such as this; if it is not, then why include it at all?
Perhaps the problem lies in how we define ‘literature’. My Concise Oxford Dictionary provides a number of definitions, including one whose measure is largely subjective (‘written works, esp. those whose value lies in beauty of language or in emotional effect’) and another that is purely descriptive (‘the writings of a country or period’). So if we apply the latter definition then all history writing is part of some body of literature. The aesthetic definition is a more exclusive club. Basically, the answer to whether history is literature is that it depends what you mean by literature.
The problematic relationship between history and literature is summed up in Creative New Zealand’s funding criteria. Writers applying for an arts grant are required to submit projects that will result in ‘publication of high-quality New Zealand literature’. In practice what that seems to mean for authors of non-fiction is: biographies of poets and novelists — good. A history of combine harvesters in South Taranaki from 1940 to 1967: don’t give up your day job, mate.
What it comes down to is the age-old debate about whether history is art or science. All manner of historical methodology textbooks ultimately end up with a variant on the answer that it is a bit of both. For all of the science behind rigorous research methodologies, in the end the act of writing involves a creative or artistic element. As Richard Evans says in his brilliant work In Defence of History, ‘History is not only a science in the weak sense of the word, it is, or can be, an art, in the sense that in skilful hands it can be presented in a literary form and language that achieves comparability with other literary works of art’.
A number of current or recent New Zealand historians whose works approach such status are mentioned above. But if we went back much further cases could also be made for the likes of James Cowan, Elsdon Best, Te Rangihiroa, and George Rusden. Perhaps we need an Anthology of New Zealand Historical Writing? No doubt the arguments over who was included or excluded from that (and the criteria for deciding) would prove just as heated as those over the AUP Anthology are shaping up to be!