Alan K. Grant


The short story and the poem are the two forms in which New Zealand writers have achieved the greatest distinction. What is not generally appreciated is that, while on the one hand only a rare spirit can write a good poem, on the other hand almost any literate person can write a good New Zealand short story. The reason for this is that there is a finite number of types of New Zealand short story. Their skeletons have been assembled by pioneers and all the modern writer has to do is flesh them out. In support of my thesis I shall list below a number of basic, irreducible types of New Zealand short story, accompanied by suggestions as to the development of the possibilities with which each is pregnant.

(1) The sensitive Maori kid who doesn’t quite know what is going on short story...

Such short stories, as their categorisation suggests, commonly involve a Maori boy of about ten years of age, around whom things happen which he grasps but dimly. They frequently begin as follows:

Waterne sat on the wooden steps of the back door. He could smell the odour of the kumara scones his mother was baking in the kitchen. Outside, his father was tinkering with the engine of the 1937 Ford V8 which his father called The Old Sow. Waterne laughed, thinking of his father calling the Old Sow the Old Sow. The sun warmed his limbs. Waterne felt good.

Following the opening passages of this type of story, an Event occurs. The Event is followed in due course by its acceptance by the child protagonist, even though he doesn’t understand it properly. Alternatively the c.p. accepts and throws his arms around an adult who precipitated or was involved in the event. The whole story should be redolent of the odour of Polynesian sanctity and should condemn by implication the lapsed, unspontaneous nature of the Pakeha, unable to respond to simple events in a simple way.

(2) The Ordinary Kiwi working bloke short story...

A lot of these were written during the thirties and forties. They are narrated in the first person by an Ordinary Kiwi working bloke who explains why one of his workmates drives him up the wall and tells us what he does about it. One should leap straight into the mise en scène when writing such a story:

I knew there was going to be trouble as soon as Fred, our foreman, brought Mortimer over. Mortimer looked a real nong. ‘This here is Mortimer,’ said Fred. ‘He’s a pongo, but he can’t help it.’ He walked away, rolling a smoke between his left ear and the side of his head without using his hands. None of us could work out how he did it. ‘Grab hold of that bloody grubber,’ I said. ‘What’s a grubber?’ asked Mortimer, like a nong. ‘Oh dear, oh bloody dear,’ I said to myself.

This type of story can develop in two ways: (a) Mortimer proves not to be such a nong after all and is eventually, though grudgingly, accepted by the narrator; (b) he really does prove to be trouble and something bad happens – a fight, a work accident – as a consequence of which the gang breaks up and the narrator slopes off back to the big smoke. In order to give the story an historical perspective the incident should occur during the Depression but its narration should be taking place ten or twenty years later. This allows the narrator to append a coda along the following lines:

One afternoon in Queen Street I bumped into Shorty, who had been in the gang with us. I took him to the Prince of Wales, bought him a few pony beers, and we yarned about old times. ‘What ever happened to Mortimer?’ I asked him. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ said Shorty, incredulous. ‘Morty’s just landed a $5 million contract selling wood chips to the Japanese.’ I didn’t say anything. I simply moved on to the top shelf.

(3) Then if you think you’re depressed already just wait till you read this but it may help me to make some sense of my breakdown short story...

This type of short story is directly related to the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The creative impetus behind it more commonly finds its expression in the form of a novel rather than a short story. However short stories of this type do appear. I shall not give an example of one because I am feeling quite cheerful, a frail mood and one easily dispelled by contemplation of the type of short story I am refusing to contemplate.

(4) The lovable housewife and mother coping with adolescent kids in the suburbs short story...

This is much the most meritorious type of New Zealand short story because unlike all the others it does not preserve itself in the aspic of its own solemnity. It was developed almost single-handed by Marie Bullock and begins as follows:

I wandered into the front room. George, my eldest, was lying on the sofa eating a Vegemite sandwich with one hand and plucking at the strings of his guitar with the other. ‘Have you done your chemistry homework?’ I asked. ‘No,’ said George, ‘Chemistry’s stupid.’ What could I say? I agreed with him. ‘Well go and tidy up your bedroom,’ I riposted feebly. ’ Don’t need to,’ said George smugly. ‘I’ve given Donny ten cents to do it.’ ‘Donny!’ I cried. ‘But he’s only three!’ ‘So what?’ said George. ‘He still knows what ten cents is worth.’

(5) The zonked out of one’s skull in Ponsonby short story...

The zonked out of one’s skull in Ponsonby short story was developed in the sixties and production models appear in our literary magazines to this very day. In such short stories the writer attempts to combine the described sexual and hallucinogenic experience without making sense of either and using words rather than language, for example:

... cast off cried the red admiral I put my hands under her buttocks while the heliotrope wall flowed into the Propontis push she cried but I floated bobbing against the stars bobbing prodding oh god oh god yes her heels fused with my calves and we soared into a mauve Van Allen belt while she came out of the unknown I could keep this kind of stuff up forever but you will have taken my point by now...

(6) The sub-Katherine Mansfield ‘At the Bay’ short story...

The first rays of the sun slid over the peak of Mt. Winterslow and stabbed downward to a dew-drop trembling on the tip of a toitoi plume. A faint breeze stirred the top branches of the tall beech tree on the edge of the school playground. Fantails flicked about the branches looking for all the world as though they were attached to the trunk by invisible strands of elastic. An opalescent mist rose – oh so uncertainly! – from the long grass beside the shingle road. The dust of the road had been dampened by the dew and smelled of dew-dampened dust. In the paddock next to the school two horses cropped the wet grass with a sound like pinking shears cutting through velvet. In a corner of the playground stood a square white tent. The flaps on one side had been folded right back. In front of the tent two wooden trestles supported a large flat board. For now the tent was empty, but soon it would be full of teachers noting results and parents inquiring about placings.

It was the day of the school sports.

The above list is not, of course, exhaustive. There are at least four other basic types of short story which I have not listed because I write such stories myself. None have so far been accepted for publication. I am aware of the reason for this. All that stands between my short stores and the acknowledgment of a major new talent is the lack of a suitable nom de plume. A. K. Grant carries no aura or penumbra with it. O. E. Middleton suggests intelligence, Maurice Shadbolt combines the Gallic artiness of Maurice with the no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon sound of Shadbolt, Frank Sargeson is suitably demotic, Katherine Mansfield is the sort of name you would expect a sensitive upper middle-class spirit to have. A. K. Grant – there’s just nothing there. I think I might try Peregrine Raupehu de Vere Stacpoole Whineray.

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