I have made many shame-faced reading habit confessions on this blog. But I consider this one the shameliest of my shames so far - I find a lot of New Zealand literature difficult to read. To take the sting out of my confession, please accept this peace offering of a picture of an ashamed puppy (see below).
I've tried, I really have. There are NZ authors whom I am terribly fond of. Patricia Grace is one - I regard her as our equivalent of Toni Morrison. Anyone who hasn't ought to pick up a copy of Cousins or, if you can find it, her debut novel Mutuwhenua, which incidentally would make a great gift for a moony teenage girl.
BUT (and I won't name any authors here because it would be very unfair, and I already know how incredibly hard it is to scrape out any sort of living from art in this country, like trying to dig a hole with a broken spoon) I've noticed that there seems to be a clear distinction in a lot of the New Zealand literature I have encountered between "literary" and "mainstream" texts.
To the point that the stuff that's marketed as literary is often so highbrow and incomprehensible that I'm almost afraid to crack open the spine, in case they spontaneously combust at the touch of my crass hands. The mainstream stuff, meanwhile, is relegated to genre fiction, like romance or crime, with the appropriate covers and short shelf life.
You don't often find cross-genre Kiwi fiction, or at least I haven't heard of any (if you know of specific titles, please tell me in the comments). I'm sure that publishers are at least partly to blame for this sort of pigeonholing. It's easier to market something if you can find some existing niche to slot it into - "a dramatic tale of courtroom terror in the tradition of John Grisham!" for example.
Many of the best books I've read are a mix of literary and mainstream. Thinking texts, if you will. John Steinbeck's East of Eden, for example, one of my favourite novels of all time and one he considers his magnum opus, is very readable in terms of language, storyline and characterisation, and yet it's also quite experimental and controversial.
Apart from Grace, some of Katherine Mansfield's short stories and Elizabeth Knox, there are no New Zealand authors I have read so far who can capture my interest in the same sense. And I have spent a not-insignificant amount of reading time trying to read New Zealand literature.
I also note that the NZ authors I do like appear to be from an older generation, which makes me a little anxious about the future of our literature.
It's NZ Book Month in March. I had always assumed that the event was like NZ Music Month, a way to get more Kiwis listening to local artists - but after investigating their website, I found to my pleasant surprise and delight that NZ Book Month actually has a broader focus.
Though their core mission seems to be to champion New Zealand authors, the Book Month trust actually also wants to promote reading and literacy in New Zealand in general.
So here is my modest proposal. Instead of us trying to label stuff as New Zealand, which to me somehow smacks of condescension - as if we have some deep-seated fear that our authors might somehow not stack up on the international stage and they need our pity reader dollars just in case - publishers and writers need to start taking more risks.
And perhaps even readers. The number of times I've heard people say to me that they read New Zealand authors out of obligation, or that they avoid it like the plague because of [INSERT REASON], makes me a little sad.
No, I don't think people should buy books by New Zealand authors purely out of some misguided sense of solidarity - that won't help the writers or the local industry at all in the long run - but we all need to start taking chances. And that means grabbing something off the shelves that perhaps looks a little strange, or half-formed, like a cute baby bird that's fallen out of its nest.
I have realised, while writing this post, that I haven't read most of the new crop of up-and-coming New Zealand authors. I haven't read any Eleanor Catton, or Bianca Zander or Hamish Clayton, so I've decided to start a New Zealand fiction reading list. The three books at the top of that list will be The Rehearsal, The Girl Below and Wulf (in no particular).
And for NZ Book Month, I'd like to challenge blog readers to do the same, and research and create their own lists of New Zealand books they would like to explore and share them in the comments below.