What's so wrong with NZ fiction?

Elizabeth Knox is one of NZ's most successful successful authors.
Elizabeth Knox is one of NZ's most successful successful authors.

It seems we all profess a love for Kiwi fiction - so why don't more of us actually read it?

Pia White had more than 500 readers fill out a survey questioning their reading tastes and views about New Zealand literature.

She found that most people wanted to support it, but few actually read it.

"The results suggest that most readers feel extremely supportive of New Zealand writers and believe it is important that we read their work.

"However, this strong level of feeling appears to be at odds with the extent to which New Zealand fiction is actually read and enjoyed," she said.

According to Nielsen BookScan, fiction - both New Zealand- published and international titles - comprised 24 per cent of the book market last year, and New Zealand- published fiction accounted for 4 per cent of that. This year sales were tracking similarly, a spokeswoman said.

Only four Kiwi novels have made it to platinum bestseller level by selling 50,000 copies: Once Were Warriors and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? by Alan Duff; and The Whale Rider and Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera.

Of those, three have been turned into films, which usually boosts sales.

White found some people viewed Kiwi literature as "too literary or highbrow, very New Zealand- focused which doesn't allow for much escapism, or lacking in variety regarding subject, genre and style".

Books set in New Zealand teeter on a double-edged sword, with many respondents saying they liked the fact it was relatable, while others said it was too commonplace.

Sixty per cent of respondents said they either "liked" or "really liked" New Zealand fiction.

Sixty-seven per cent thought it was important to read books by New Zealand authors, but 72 per cent said they read such books "rarely" or "sometimes". Only 23 per cent said they read them often.

This mirrored what had previously been reported, White said, but she was surprised at how strongly readers felt that New Zealand fiction should be supported.

"Far from being completely uninterested in it, many readers would love to read more New Zealand- written fiction - but they want to read it because they really enjoy it and because it is good, not just because it is from 'New Zealand'."

Random House fiction publisher Harriet Allan said New Zealand readers were looking for good writing and often books that were too "lowbrow" didn't sell.

"These readers also seem to relish works that tell our own stories, be it Owen Marshall's fine craftings, often of small-town New Zealand life, Witi Ihimaera's playful exploration of Parihaka, or Fiona Kidman's astute renderings of local characters - they can and do sell well."

There was a perception that Kiwi- written books in genres such as sci- fi, fantasy and crime thrillers were not as good as their foreign counterparts, she said.

"[It] is nonsense. We have the quality and we have the range, but if readers who say they want wider genres don't actually buy them, then the range will by necessity become narrower."

Victoria University of Wellington English and New Zealand literature professor Mark William thought the fact readers were not reading New Zealand fiction simply because of where it came from reflected the increasingly global society we live in.

"Maybe it's unreasonable to expect that New Zealanders should buy local fiction because it's local.

"We're aware of New Zealand writers as part of the international range of fiction available to them and, taking in the choices, [New Zealand fiction] is probably doing quite well."

The 1980s sparked a flourish of nationalism, and out of it came distinctively Kiwi authors such as Janet Frame and Keri Hulme, who were lapped up by the public.

"New Zealand developed confidence about itself in terms of the world. And the world was beginning to look here and see it as an interesting place," William said.

By the 1990s, New Zealand authors were seeing themselves in an increasingly international context.

The public were proud of their overseas success but were aware of the range of work available from authors like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan.

This has continued to develop and now authors including Emily Perkins and Lloyd Jones were no longer restricting themselves to writing within a Kiwi setting, he said.

New Zealand readers and publishers traditionally looked at North American and British novelists as the benchmark, but Asia was becoming increasingly dominant, William said.

"In the next 10 years and 20 years we will see a lot more energy in terms of that kind of national culture."

The Dominion Post