Neoliberalism and Cultural Transition in New Zealand Literature, 1984–2008: Market fictions by Jennifer Lawn (Lexington Books, 2016), 251 pp., $96
In 2014 I tutored a first-year history paper about World War I. During a discussion about war and universities a student asked: ‘Did students pay fees in those days?’ She was born in 1996. For her, the past when students didn’t pay fees was as distant and murky as the battle for Gallipolli. The upheaval to New Zealand’s economy, culture and society created by politicians from both political parties in the 1980s and 1990s haven’t transitioned into public memory. There was a before and there’s a now, but the process is lost to those who didn’t live it.
Jennifer Lawn has explored the neo-liberal transformation of the 1980s and 1990s through literary criticism; this book is an exploration of how New Zealand authors have represented that time in their fiction. She starts by establishing that there was a body of literature that responds to this period and acknowledges that it took some time to develop. She quotes Greg McGee, who found it ‘impossible to write about contemporary politics in 1987, but “the further [he] got from the 1980s, the more politically, economically and socially transformational that decade seemed”.’ The politics and economics of the 1980s and 1990s have been, and still are, discussed at length, but the cultural impact of neoliberal economic restructuring has received far less attention. Her work opens up a new approach to this period.
Lawn’s analysis brings together works that were set between 1984 and 2008 from a range of authors including Maurice Gee, Eleanor Catton, Bob Jones and Alan Duff. Lawn organises her discussion into four topics: social relations, political power, Māori self-determination and art. She opens each chapter with a substantial outline of the historical and literary context. She considers literary work, predominantly from post-war authors who were consciously creating a national literature, as part of the literary history of each of the topics. For example, in her chapter on political power she looks at Bill Pearson’s ‘Fretful Sleepers’ and C.K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream. Her literary history is interwoven with both the longer history of the issue under discussion and details from the period of neo-liberal reforms. In the first half of each chapter, she frames a question or idea; in the second half she undertakes a close reading of three or four works in the context of the questions that she’s raised and the ideas she’s discussed. The structure successfully brings together the wider history and literature and the analysis of individual texts.
For me, the most successful chapter was the one on creativity, which explored how fiction writers represented the creative process in relation to neoliberalism’s effect on artists’ role in society. She pithily opens this chapter by asking why, if creativity is so central to the modern economy, are artists in literature so unhappy? She discusses literary representations of artists in the context of the creative economy and the branding of New Zealand. She argues that the expansion of the market in this period included treating creativity as market products. Using work by Ian Wedde, Paula Morris and Eleanor Catton she underscores writers’ unease with the current role of creativity in the economy. She demonstrates that culture did not just respond to neoliberalism; neoliberalism changed the conditions under which culture was created. Neoliberalism changed the ground authors stood on as well as the society they represented.
I am a historian rather than a literary critic and at times Lawn’s historical discussion left me wishing I could talk with her further about her ideas. I scribbled in the margins while I read Lawn’s introduction, as she makes bold claims about the relationship between neoliberalism and the liberatory movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which she describes as central to her study. That relationship is fascinating, but I often find discussions that use a broad brush frustrating, and Lawn’s work isn’t always an exception. She argues that David Lange and Roger Douglas represented ‘the dual facets of neoliberalism – its progressive politics of difference and regressive politics of class’. Leaving aside the appropriateness of the analogy, progressive politics of difference are not an inherent facet of neoliberalism. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the United Kingdom instituted neo-liberal reforms, while actively suppressing difference. One of neoliberalism’s strengths, as an economic system, is that it is just as compatible with a government that is decriminalising sex between men, as it is with a government that is trying to silence any mention of it.
When Lawn talks about specific examples, her work is fascinating. She discusses the literary magazine And, which was formed to disrupt local literary culture and its emphasis on realism. Leigh Davis, one of And’s editors, worked for Treasury and then Fay Richwhite. Lawn references and extends Emma Fergusson’s argument that there was both literary and actual connections between And – edited by Leigh Davis who worked for Fay Richwhite – and neoliberal reforms. This detail about the connection between cultural disruption and economic disruption helps me understand the 1980s in a way I had not before.
After the introduction, the question of the relationship between neoliberalism and liberatory movements is addressed most thoroughly in Lawn’s discussion of Māori self-determination. She centres her discussion on the idea that the Treaty settlement process and neoliberalism were fundamentally compatible. Here, she makes good use of the work of Evan Poata-Smith. As with her introduction her historical arguments are occasionally over-simplified, however. Her periodisation of Māori struggle only makes sense because she omitted the foreshore and seabed protests. She also writes: ‘Rolling back the state, as neoliberalism seeks to do, is evidently not entirely a bad thing when that state has been literally built on the appropriation of indigenous lands.’ I agree and disagree with that sentence in so many different ways I could probably write an entire review in response to it.
While the first half of the third chapter frustrated me, the literary analysis was perhaps the most strong. She interrogates works by Alan Duff, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace and Alice Tawhai and asks how they envision self-determination. She takes Duff’s controversial Once Were Warriors seriously as she explores how he represents both self-determination and the lack of it. She argues that it is often too simply read as a tale that represents Duff’s politics, and she teases out some of the complications. She discusses Patricia Grace’s Dogside Story as a work that imagines Māori self-determination by making the Pākehā world irrelevant, and uses Alice Tawhai’s stories as examples of what happens when self-determination breaks down. The literary criticism of the second half is particularly well-grounded as she talks about various specific ideas of self-determination. The relationship between the close reading of the text and the questions that she’s asking is very clear and enable her to explore the authors’ understanding those decades.
As I engaged with her argument I realised that my reaction was partly a disciplinary one. I found her historical arguments too tidy. Her literary criticism tends to be messier and more complicated and therefore allows for more complexity than her history. Ultimately this is not a negative about this important book. The ways that I wanted to engage with Lawn’s ideas shows the usefulness of bringing history and literary criticism together.
Jennifer Lawn successfully demonstrates that there is a body of New Zealand literature written in response to neoliberal reforms. Her argument is not just true, it’s also important. Lawn’s work, and hopefully future work that builds on her analysis, strengthens our cultural knowledge about our recent past. Two decades later, the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have done an effective job of making themselves invisible. This invisibility of the past makes the present seem inevitable. Job insecurity, low wages, a housing crisis – an awareness of recent history shows that these things didn’t just happen, they were made to happen.
GRACE MILLAR is old enough to have lived through neoliberal changes, but not old enough to remember what used to be. She’s currently a historian based at Victoria University of Wellington, with a particular interest in how changes in paid-work affect society and culture.