Why don't we read Kiwi-made?

16:00, Oct 03 2009

MAYBE IT'S because we're so open-minded and outward-looking. Maybe it's because our tastes are too lowbrow. Maybe it's because we're a small English-speaking country facing the marketing might of the US and UK.

Whatever the possible reasons – and they are countless – there's no denying the fact that when we're at the bookstore browsing for a great novel to read, only 5% of the fiction we choose to buy is published in New Zealand.

By comparison, for non-fiction titles, the figure is more like 30%, and for children's books, about 12%, according to Nielsen BookScan.

What does this say about the books our authors are writing? Or is the issue that we're simply not terribly interested in reading stories about New Zealand?

Obviously, book buying is only one aspect of our reading habits. Libraries don't keep statistics on how often New Zealand fiction is borrowed, but as an example, Wellington Library has 77 New Zealand fiction titles produced in the past two years, and of those, 70 were on loan last week, or 90%.

We also seem to consume other local culture more hungrily. The amount of local television content on the six main free-to-air channels in 2008 was around 34%, according to NZ on Air, while the level of local music played on commercial radio in the same year sits at about 19% – although this has been achieved only after loud and ongoing cheerleading efforts.

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The prominent authors, publishers and book industry figures who spoke to the Sunday Star-Times were unanimous in their praise of the quality of New Zealand fiction, and had some interesting ideas about what – if anything – needs to be done.

As Emily Perkins, winner of the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry for Novel about My Wife, says: "A lot of great books are written here and a lot more are published in the rest of the world. We've got a small population and we're fairly outward-looking, so it seems natural that we are open to fiction from everywhere else, as well as from NZ."

DEBORAH CHALLINOR

Successful writer of historical fiction

For some reason New Zealand authors have in the past been hesitant to write in "commercial" genres – perhaps it's the cultural cringe thing again, a fear that only literary writing was "proper" writing – but now that people are, and are doing quite well, hopefully the 5% will grow. The support from both New Zealand publishers and readers is certainly there.

Parallel importing of books has had a negative impact on the publication of New Zealand titles. Also, international titles seem to arrive with bigger advertising budgets.

Or is it because New Zealanders would rather read fiction set somewhere else written by authors who aren't New Zealanders? For the general reading public, this might be the case. Quite a lot of New Zealand fiction is what could be considered literary fiction, and it's very good, but not every reader enjoys literary fiction.

What's wrong with New Zealand stories? Nothing, I say. But it's up to authors to present them in a way that makes them readable, accessible and enjoyable, especially if they want their books to sell. My books sell really well, so I have to assume that people are interested in reading about historical New Zealand, at least.

There is plenty of room here for more quality commercial New Zealand fiction, from all genres. It's called commercial fiction because it sells.

CKSTEAD

Author, poet and critic

There may be a small element of cultural cringe in this idea that something done overseas is inevitably better, more important. But for myself, if 5% of New Zealanders read my books I am very happy, so long as they are the discriminating 5% – the ones with some education, linguistic aptitude, and literary taste as I suspect they are.

I suspect 5% of readers reading good literary fiction would be usual.

It is not my ambition to please or to trouble readers who have difficulty with quality fiction. You make it sound as if our writers are failing in their duty! If we have a Dan Brown among us, let him or her go for it. There is not one public but several, or many. I like my readers very much and I want to please them. They are not a vast crowd, but as Milton said of his, Fit audience, though few.

The readers I meet who come to book festivals and form reading groups are very interested in New Zealand fiction.

CHAD TAYLOR

Author of seven novels

If there are 100 books on a shelf in Dymocks, are five of them New Zealand fiction? If Dan Brown's novel is stacked to the ceiling at the front of the store and there is one copy of a New Zealand novel squeezed on a shelf at the back, Brown will sell more.

The publisher of Marley & Me spent more than a year rolling that title out to booksellers and distribution teams across the US: author readings, presentations, sample chapters, everything.

There is a lot of talk that Brown's sales will bring customers into book stores, in the same way that Transformers doing well at the box office will introduce more people to Jean-Luc Godard, but I've never seen that happen.

Every time one of my books has come out I've been told by friends and strangers that they couldn't find it in the bookstore so they borrowed it from the library.

If a list of "what readers want" exists, I'd love to see it. Do you have a copy of the one from 1997 when they were demanding a series about a boy wizard? Readers don't know. Publishers don't know. They find out only after writers have done the slow, lonely work of writing it.

HARRIET ALLAN

Fiction publisher at the country's largest publisher, Random House

Proportionally there are many more fiction titles coming in from overseas than are being published locally. But also, the titles from overseas often come with huge marketing campaigns, films, the kudos of international awards and profiles, etc. But, there is also a prejudice by many against local works – many people say they don't read local writers, saying they were put off at school, and they see New Zealand novels as dour, and in the usual Kiwi self-deprecating ways – and despite evidence to the contrary – they don't believe local writers can be as good as those from overseas.

Local writers are writing a much greater breadth of genres, subjects and settings than ever. The rise of local historical fiction has happened only in the past six years and has yet to spread to the same extent into other genres.

TV book programmes are sidelined to peripheral channels and impossible time slots. Maybe something is going wrong in schools with regard to the way local writers are taught.

BILL MANHIRE

Former Poet Laureate and director of the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington

We ought to be doing everything we can to increase the audience for New Zealand writers outside New Zealand. Australia ought to be a particular target. If we could introduce Australian readers to the best New Zealand novelists and short-story writers, then we would have a lot more Mister Pip stories to tell. And more of our writers would make a decent living from actual book sales – and depend far less than they do on grants and fellowships.

Every time Creative NZ decides to subsidise the publication of a book of fiction or poetry by a New Zealand writer, they could make an equivalent subsidy available to an Australian publisher, for example. They could make grants available to European and Asian publishers who want to translate New Zealand literature into their languages.

TIM CURNOW

NZ-born, Sydney-based literary agent who has acted for Janet Frame among others

Not many New Zealand writers of fiction have had much success over here. Australians tend to find anything to do with Maori totally foreign. I don't think they really have a sense of Polynesia.

Janet Frame certainly sold well, and anything to do with her continues to get critical attention, but that was because of Jane Campion's film. Because Australian literature and film and drama had a renaissance in the 1970s, there are a lot of writers who have done very well overseas – David Malouf, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally – three Booker Prize winners, and Australians tend to read them. If a New Zealand author really wants to make an impact over here, they really need to get over for the writers' festivals.

FINLAY MACDONALD

Columnist and TV book show presenter

If you look at the 5% figure as a percentage of the total fiction published in the world, it must be a relatively high proportion. In other words, New Zealanders read quite a lot of local fiction, really.

As to whether our writers are too focused on writing the great New Zealand novel and not delivering what readers want, look at the most popular recent local novel, Mister Pip, and the winner of this year's Montana fiction prize, Novel About My Wife, neither of which are set in or concerned much with New Zealand.

Non-fiction and popular history has boomed here. Look at someone like Jenny Pattrick, for instance, who is immensely popular precisely because she has brought to life our history in fiction. Or Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Chad Taylor – all re-inventing aspects of New Zealand in novel form. Or go back to Maurice Shadbolt's big novels.

NICHOLAS REID

Reviewer, historian and author of five New Zealand non-fiction books

I think New Zealanders are very interested in reading about New Zealand. Our production and editing standards here are as good as anywhere else. The great majority of novels written [everywhere] are written to formula. It is not done here any more than anywhere else. For a country the size of a middle-ranking American city, I think we do very well.

What percentage of New Zealand music is listened to on our iPods? How many movies that we watch are New Zealand-made? I don't think it's a tragedy – we are part of an international media and literary mix. There was a time when any given person could read every New Zealand novel ever published. We now have more fiction published in New Zealand than ever before.

I don't think these matters will change because of grants and residencies – they don't create writers, they encourage ones with a proven publishing record.

PATRICIA GRACE

Award-winning author of six novels, five short story collections and several children's books

There was a time that I was able to keep up with all New Zealand fiction as it was produced. This is not so now. There is a full range of themes, ideas, characters and settings being written. There certainly is originality. It is so good to see writing by writers from smaller ethnic communities beginning to appear. It is only once this happens that our writing is able to be a true reflection of who we are.

I used to like it when I could go to library shelves that were solely for New Zealand books. This enabled me to keep up with what was being produced and made access very easy. But I do agree that our books need to be available on general shelving as well. This would mean at least two copies per library.

ADRIAN KEANE

President, Publishing Association of New Zealand

New Zealand fiction competes with the entire world of English language fiction and consumers are therefore provided a tremendous amount of variety. New Zealand consumers expect to be able to access the world's collection of writing, just as we expect to be able to access music from across the globe.

The big sellers in fiction are invariably following patterns established in other markets and it is natural that we follow suit – for example, the phenomena of Harry Potter and the Twilight franchise.

This kind of publishing is heavily commoditised and New Zealand authors tend to target the more literary end of the market. In order to be in the bestseller lists you have to have mass-market appeal, and while all authors would like to have mass-market appeal (or at least the financial benefits that provides), it is only one aspect of several things that motivate New Zealand fiction writers.

Writing in New Zealand does not provide many authors with a sustainable income. It would be tremendous if more funding were made available directly or indirectly through initiatives such as tax breaks for authors and publishers who invest in local works.

What do you think? Do we produce great fiction, or would we rather just as soon read about other countries, other lives? Email: letters@star-times.co.nz

Sunday Star Times