What on earth is happening with the BNZ Short Story competition these days? For something that takes the name of Katherine Mansfield they don’t seem particularly concerned with honouring her memory. Both of last year’s winning stories (in the larger Katherine Mansfield category and the less prestigious ‘novice’ one) are about what it’s like to be white and marginally below middle class in New Zealand. Both are about previously privileged white women now fallen from the lofty heights of home renovations and being a wife to the less lofty heights of facing difficulties with their home renovations and not having husbands anymore (oh no, whatever shall they do?!). One of them faces the additional struggle of having lost a baby (and this – of course – having caused her husband to leave her). Mind you – when it comes to that last plot twist – blink and you’ll miss it.
In fact, miss it was exactly what I did – so bored out of my brains was I by the endless to-ing and fro-ing between the main character inhabiting one of the least interesting internet chatrooms on the planet and looking back with fondness upon the good old days when she spent weekends renovated her house, that I resorted to a friend’s law school tactic of reading every second line in a piece of legislation (it worked out surprisingly well for him in the end) in order to finish it. Then a rather attractive – and significantly more intelligent than me – young woman told me that the story’s ‘punch-line’ had actually been the death of her baby. Forcing me to do a double take and also revealing the pitfalls of my friend’s technique of statutory interpretation (skip a line of legislation and you might miss the part where they kill a baby).
Katherine Mansfield would not only be rolling over in her grave, she’d be filing cases for defamation in the law courts. She abhorred the provincial mindset – and stifling provincial atmosphere – of New Zealand, and now her name seems to be being used to promote it.
Be in no doubt, tales of home renovation and women pining over their husbands, are about as provincial – and predictable – as it gets. The people of Auckland like to believe that this is some sort of new city-slicker-specific activity they have suddenly discovered. Yet it’s not all that far removed from the Farmers of old who bought a piece of land, chopped down a few trees, then sold it to a clueless immigrant. In several stories Mansfield even subtly mocks the small-mindedness of the kind of men who engaged in these activities for a living. In fact, if a husband had left a female protagonist in one of Mansfield’s stories, the protagonist probably would have ended up oddly grateful for the freedom and independence.
Worse still, the writing style of both stories evokes the overpriced chicklit found at an airport bookstore. Except in these stories it’s not so much about Carrie Bradshaw taxiing around New York as it is about Carleen Barrie and her adventures driving the kids to school and back.
I’m not saying the BNZ needs to pick Anna Karenina every time, but surely they should be – and surely New Zealand artists and writers are – submitting edgier, more soul-searching stories than these.
In fact, not only were these two stories dominated by largely provincial concerns, but they had hardly any character development either. The essentials of these characters are largely made clear within the first few paragraphs of both stories, and the remaining paragraphs are lengthy expositions about their respective days. First the character goes to the therapist, then she goes on the internet, then she goes to the therapist again, then she goes home. With barely anything going on between these destinations the stories barely evoke sympathy for either protagonist. The after-thought way in which the death of her baby is mentioned in one of the stories, reminds me of the diaries of the Russian aristocracy where Tsar Nicholas would go on at length about the fabulous outing he’d had with Count So-and-so then insert in a casual one-line remark that he’d dissolved the Duma that day too.
The reality is that it mattered more to the Tsar that he’d had a great outing with a fellow member of the aristocracy than that he’d dissolved the Russian Parliament. That’s exactly the impression you’re left with by the characters in these stories. It matters more to the authors that their character is unable to renovate her house anymore than that she lost her baby. Perhaps that’s exactly how these two stories are meant to be interpreted, but – either way – I doubt Katherine Mansfield would have bothered reading either of them.