The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (AUP 2012), 1180 pp., $75
Sam Elworthy of AUP has said that he had hoped to be able to ‘put down the light weight publishing of Random-Penguin-House’ with this anthology, but when Graham Beattie pointed out that Random House’s Big House, Small House: New Houses by New Zealand Architects weighed in at 2.85 kg, he conceded that in terms of weight, at least, the AUP anthology was not the biggest New Zealand book of 2012, although he still claimed that it had the most pages. But the real controversy concerning the anthology has been not its bulk but its omissions and exclusions (and to a lesser extent its inclusions). In print and radio reviews, interviews and on literary blogs and even on Twitter, who’s in and who’s out has been a hot topic. Other significant (and often related) topics include the inadequate selection of drama, the relative lack of recent non-fiction, the use of brief extracts from a number of novels rather than longer extracts from fewer texts, the undue weighting in the later sections to writers published by VUP and AUP, the relative lack of representation of South Island writers and the grouping of texts in the sub-sections by theme rather than by author.
Before facing that vexed question of who’s in and who’s out it would be useful to look at some of the preliminary publishing and editorial decisions made by Elworthy and the editors. First there are the choices made by the publisher who commissioned the work. There was the choice of what audience the book would be aimed at. Some reviewers, such as Hugh Roberts in the Listener, assumed that the AUP anthology, like the American Norton anthologies, was aimed at university literature students. Roberts was probably right about teachers and students being the ‘primary users’, but Elworthy told Andrew Stone of the New Zealand Herald that he hoped that, like the Australian Macquarie PEN Anthology, the book might be a ‘best-seller’, finding an ‘eager market’ among general readers. Significantly, Peter Pierce, reviewing the anthology in The Australian, thought that it should become ‘for many reading households in Australia … a vital and much used possession’, a reference book for the family library. In the United States the academic text market is so huge that a literary anthology can be aimed exclusively at it; 2,500,000 Copies of the Norton Anthology of American Literature have been sold since the introduction of the first edition in 1979.