ABDVol.32 No.1

New Zealand Novels and Their Readers
Barbara Else
 

Expanding Scope in New Zealand Writing

When I spoke recently to a seminar of writing students and book lovers, a group of women asked a particular question. "We all read the same local books," said the spokeswoman, "and there is usually some difference of opinion about how good they are. But we want to know why the novels that win prizes are almost always ones that none of us like at all?"
  Whether anyone agrees with the decisions of literature judges or not, the question seemed an indication to me that New Zealand literature has not only become more varied but is reaching a much wider readership than ever before. It is worth saying at this point that New Zealand has very little popular fiction in the sense of 'airport' novels. Local publishers favour serious literature, and this has widened out to cover many different genres: social satire, science fiction, black comedy.
  There are many other signs that New Zealand writing is expanding in scope. Ten years ago there were only two book festivals in the country, the Wellington Writers and Readers Week and, in alternate years, the "Wordstruck" festival in Dunedin. To these have been added festivals in Christchurch and Auckland, and in smaller cities like New Plymouth and Tauranga. There is also a nationwide World Book Day Aotearoa Festival. While writers visiting from overseas are popular at these gatherings, local authors also draw excellent audiences. The New Zealand Book Council, a non-profit organisation devoted to fostering books and readers, tours local writers to all parts of the country. The enthusiasm of readers and the increasingly good sales figures for local books show that New Zealanders are proud of their own literature and that the "cultural cringe" of yesteryear has disappeared. Although most writers still depend on government grants from Creative New Zealand and from other freelance activities, more than before can hope to support themselves by their writing alone.
  In a nation of just under 4 million people, over 1800 books are published each year. In 2000, approximately 48 of these were novels, a rise from about 20 in 1985. Who is responsible for this growing interest? It is of course a synergy between local publishers, booksellers, and writers, and it is difficult to single out specific authors to discuss. However, three novelists who came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s and are publishing regularly exemplify the diversity of New Zealand writing. Maurice Gee, who has won many prizes, and whose first novel "The Big Season" was published in 1961, reached his full powers in Plumb, 1978. His novels about New Zealand's social history and complexity invariably sell strongly and his latest "Ellie and the Shadow Man", (see p. 17), went to the top of the New Zealand bestseller list. Maori writer Patricia Grace, whose third novel "Potiki" (1985) won several prizes, this year published a new novel "Dogside Story", to excellent reviews. Dame Fiona Kidman, with her first novel "A Breed of Women (1979), instigated a steady flow of books by women writers about the value of the female experience. Kidman is one of the most popular of contemporary serious authors.
  A brief survey of novels published over the last two years shows the increasing variety of New Zealand writing. I've selected work that has received critical acclaim, and literature that has sold well. Many of these writers have also been published abroad. (It will please the book lovers I mention in the opening paragraph that, occasionally, good sales and critical praise coincide.)

Male Writers

Contemporary male writers include Lloyd Jones, whose "The Book of Fame" (2000) has been short-listed for this year's Montana Book Awards. This is a semi-fictional account of the tour to England of the 1905 All Blacks, a rugby team that became a New Zealand legend. "Nineteen Widows under Ash" (2000) by Damien Wilkins, about a newly separated woman, set in the United States, indicates a trend among authors to choose overseas locales for their fiction. Chris Else's third novel "The Beetle in the Box" is an exercise in narrative tension where a strand of philosophical argument pulls against a passionate love story. Mike Johnson is a novelist who combines elements of magic realism with science fiction. He has just published "Counterpart" (2001) in which a man returns home one night to find his circumstances inexplicably altered. Last year's winner of the Deutze Medal for Fiction was Owen Marshall, best known as a short story writer, with his novel "Harlequin Rex" (1999), another novel with a science fiction element.

Maori Writers

Novels by Maori writers are of special interest to modern readers. The fusion of Maori oral tradition with European narrative technique in the novels of Witi Ihimaera has won him a solid following. His last novel, "The Uncle's Story" (2000) is about a Maori soldier's experience of Viet Nam. The Maori writer who has become a household name in New Zealand is Alan Duff. His first novel "Once Were Warriors" (1990) shot him to public attention for its uncompromising portrayal of Maori social issues. He continues to publish similar works describing the anger of the underprivileged.

Women Authors

Many women authors are publishing in the context opened up by Fiona Kidman. In 2000, one of these was Sue Reidy with "Four Ways to be a Woman", about the different ways women react to issues of motherhood. Another was Tina Shaw, whose "City of Reeds" is about three sisters coping with a family secret.
  Other women writers who explore social issues in a more satirical form are Shonagh Koea, whose latest novel, "Time for a Killing", (2001) is a wicked romp, and Barbara Else, "Three Pretty Widows" (2000).
  Short-listed for this year's book awards are two women authors who have written historical fiction: Stephanie Johnson with "Belief" (2000) a novel about religious obsession, and Charlotte Randall with "The Curative" (2000), set in the eighteenth century lunatic asylum, Bedlam. Randall's novel sold particularly well.
  Young women writers are enjoying a particular wave of popularity at the moment. Emily Perkins, whose first book was a short story collection, has just published her second novel "The New Girl". Kapka Kassabova's second novel "Love in the Land of Midas" (2000) is a romantic drama set in Greece and Macedonia. Emma Neale's second novel, "Little Moon", has just reached the bookstores. It concerns a girl growing up in the shadow of a family tragedy.
  Undoubtedly the biggest success story among New Zealand writers in recent years is that of Elizabeth Knox. She published 3 novels and two novellas to critical acclaim before her breakthrough novel "The Vintner's Luck, (1988) made her widely known not just in New Zealand but abroad. In this novel she moved from her previous self-reflective post-modern prose to a vividly imagined story about an eighteenth century French winemaker and a fallen angel. She has just published "Black Oxen", set in a chaotic imaginary world, and has yet another novel due in a few months' time.
  In this short space I have had to leave out several important authors. Nor have I been able to mention short-story writers, poets, the variety and quality among writers of non-fiction and work for children. But this introduction at least touches on the choice of locally published books now available to New Zealand readers. The question asked by the book group with which I opened this introduction, could be taken as proof of the increasing interest with which the local audience views its own literature.

Barbara Else
She is writer, editor and co-director of TFS Literacy Agency, a literary agency and manuscript assessment service.