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Is fic­tion writ­ing inher­ently sub­vers­ive? Surely it’s a dar­ing pro­pos­i­tion, to stake claim on the con­tested space between page and eye – and doubly auda­cious to offer to fill that space with words every­one knows aren’t even fac­tu­al, and which we thus hold to a far high­er stand­ard of Truth. To make that title page con­tract with an author is to court a nov­elty nev­er entirely sterile.

But stor­ies can just as eas­ily affirm as sub­vert. A tale over­heard might com­pel us to change our beha­viour, chip away at cal­ci­fied val­ues that no longer serve – or, like many hero-stor­ies, it might reas­sure us that the ways that got us this far are fun­da­ment­ally the right ones.

When Elean­or Cat­ton won the Man Book­er Prize for The Luminar­ies this year, Prime Min­is­ter Key tabled a motion in Par­lia­ment recog­nising “a hugely sig­ni­fic­ant achieve­ment on the inter­na­tion­al stage for a New Zeal­ander”. Key wasn’t alone in sug­gest­ing that Catton’s achieve­ment should be cel­eb­rated with all the vigour of a nation­al sport­ing win.

Cat­ton her­self invoked the lan­guage of Lewis Hyde, whose work of non-fic­tion The Gift explores the role of cre­ativ­ity in bridging the gap between (mon­et­ary) value and (cul­tur­al) worth. Else­where, in Trick­ster Makes this World, Hyde makes the case for art­work as the ulti­mate dis­rupt­ive tech­no­logy: an invis­ible tool to slip “between the gaps” of lan­guage and cul­ture, pry­ing open spaces for the seed­ing of novelty.

Our Ellie might have brought the Man Book­er Cup home for New Zea­l­and, but her truly sub­vers­ive art­work has been to pry open that gap for writers and read­ers: to make space for some­thing lar­ger and more intric­ate – as much a chal­lenge as it is a reward.

Else­where on the nov­elty beat, three of Wellington’s fore­most pur­vey­ors of same have joined forces to sug­gest that you (or someone you know) might like to try some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent. The Cul­ture Vul­ture vouch­er, which by now should be filling out plenty of wal­lets and gift pack­ages, is the ini­ti­at­ive of Aro Video’s Andrew Armit­age. Togeth­er with Slow Boat’s Den­nis O’Brien and Unity Books’ Tilly Lloyd, Armit­age hopes that the three stores’ inter­change­able $25 tokens will sound a fresh note in a gift-giv­ing sea­son often soundtracked by a sheep­ish chor­us of “sorry, didn’t know what you’d like”.

You could say we’re loc­al­ists,” sug­gests Lloyd: “We share a now sub­vers­ive appre­ci­ation that not everything import­ant hap­pens online.” She delights at the thought of someone unwrap­ping a Vul­ture or two, walk­ing up the road and pick­ing up some vinyl from O’Brien, or a few discs from Armit­age. And why not? As Hyde reminds us, the god of art­work was once the spir­it of the untrav­elled road: the first and final fron­ti­er of sub­ver­sion, of unset­tle­ment, of the new.


Decem­ber Book Recommendations

OneHumanInHeight_coverOne Human in Height

Rachel O’Neill

(Hue & Cry Press)

O’Neill deliv­ers poet­ic meter in decept­ively pro­sa­ic short-short-story chunks, imbuing the mundane with an absurd­ist flour­ish and explor­ing cut­tingly con­tem­por­ary ques­tions of gender, fam­ily and queer iden­tity-the­ory with­in a milieu of fourth-peri­od biro doodling.









I think I am becom­ing a New Zeal­ander’: Let­ters of J.C. Beaglehole

Edited by Tim Beaglehole

(Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press)

John Caw­te Beagle­hole, one Grand Old Man of Wel­ling­ton, nur­tured a zeal for cor­res­pond­ence as fer­vent as his curi­os­ity into the then nas­cent nation­al char­ac­ter. Beagle­hole the Younger’s new offer­ing is an epis­tolary por­trait of the fath­er to sit along­side his acclaimed 2006 A Life of J.C. Beagle­hole.



Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.

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