New Zealand fiction? I just don’t like it!

“No, I don’t read New Zealand fiction”

Having heard this over and over again I thought I would ask a few people why not?

It’s all dark and gloomy.

It tries too hard.

Most of our writers come out of that Bill Manhire course, and then they all write the same.

Crime fiction set in Christchurch? Those sort of things might happen in somewhere like Los Angeles, but it’s just silly to set it here.

It’s just a bit … well, I don’t know – I just don’t like it.

So much for the scientific survey, I am none the wiser.

CoverCultural cringe is something that has always dogged the New Zealand arts. The visual arts seem to have found a place in recent years, but New Zealand fiction is still out in the cold. A colleague suggested it might be because there is not enough popular genre fiction written, she cited the success of Jenny Pattrick’s historical saga series Denniston Rose, and maybe she has a point?

I have certainly read plenty of New Zealand fiction – some I’ve liked, some I haven’t. Surely it is the same when reading any book – some get discarded others become lifelong treasures. For some reason though, when a New Zealand book doesn’t quite come up to scratch it is a slight that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. Are our expectations too high?

My interviewees did say that they liked Shonagh Koea as she has something original to say, Settlers Creek by Carl Nixon also made the cut and the earlier Witi Ihimaera. La Rochelle Road by Tanya Moir was also mentioned – Historical fiction set on the Banks Peninsula. “A very nice read” apparently. High praise indeed!

15 thoughts on “New Zealand fiction? I just don’t like it!

  1. Roy 12 March 2012 / 9:07 am

    “Denniston Rose” is a wonderful book. “Heart of Coal” felt so try-hard and artificial it was hard to finish it — I should have stopped at the first book.

    Other NZ fiction feels, I don’t know, sort of self-conscious. The constant references to specific places often gives the impression that the author really really wants you to know that their work is set in NZ.

  2. Laraine 12 March 2012 / 9:18 am

    The colleague who suggested there is “not enough popular genre fiction written” could have a point, though I would change that to “not enough popular genre fiction PUBLISHED”, because I’m sure it’s being written. But New Zealand publishers seem to hate it! Most genre fiction written by New Zealanders seems to be published overseas. One thing I’ve noticed is that so many of our writers get “stolen” by Australia (starting, arguably, with Ruth Park, who is the earliest example I know of). Somebody wrote or said something to the effect that Australia steals all our things because we don’t look after them. From where I’m sitting we are not looking after our writers.

  3. Stephen 12 March 2012 / 9:57 am

    Damn skippy.

    My beef with most New Zealand fiction is that so much of it is, well, dull. It’s written by middle class New Zealanders who don’t have many concerns, aren’t embroiled in anything of particular importance, and they write what they know – which inevitably leads to fiction that is about on par with popping over to my neighbour’s house to hear what he got up to last week. Except if I do it through a book then I’ve shelled out $30 and eight hours of my life for the privilege.

    Of course, this does mean that the books that are exciting and fresh that manage to get published really do stand out. And as Laraine above said, it’s not that this isn’t getting written, it’s just that it isn’t getting published, or at least not locally.

    The other thing that I think we need to remember is that we see 100% of what’s published here, but only the best of what’s published overseas because they don’t bother importing the dross. This means that any comparison will inevitably be skewed..

  4. robertafsmith 12 March 2012 / 11:26 am

    When I arrived in New Zealand about 11 years ago, one of the first things I did was to read New Zealand fiction. Up to that point in time, the only New Zealand writing I’d had any exposure to was The Bone People by Keri Hulme and based on that I felt positively predisposed to the writing that awaited me.

    I found I loved a lot of what I read, I could feel New Zealand through the writing and the land that was made more visible to me through this fiction was so different from South Africa, it was like a head-clearing inhalant. I loved LLoyd Jones’ Here at the End of the World we learn to Dance and almost everything by Laurence Fearnley – Butler’s Ringlet in particular.

    So, for what it is worth, New Zealand fiction has been a good reading experience for me. Maybe Kiwi’s are too hard on themselves?

  5. Claire at Latitude 12 March 2012 / 2:24 pm

    Unlike your “Crime fiction set in Christchurch?” respondent and Roy above, I don’t necessarily find fiction with local settings implausible or try-hard. If it’s done well, it really enriches my reading in a way that I would never have known had I stuck to books from the other side of the world. And remember, it’s been only a few decades since we had the choice!

    One of my recent favourites from NZ is Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town.

    • Stephen 12 March 2012 / 3:20 pm

      Oh yes, definitely seconding Hokitika Town – and in fact anything by Charlotte Randall. It’s writers like her that show me (at least) what New Zealand writing should be like. Kiwi settings and characters, but interesting ones!

    • bronnypop 12 March 2012 / 3:35 pm

      And I loved Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead, partly because of its very real sense of place. Not only did I recognise the setting, but had actually walked many of the same roads and paths. And the fact that she combined Maori myth and legend that I remembered from my childhood reading with European fairy tales AND modern settings made it seem like the very best of all worlds.

    • Simone 13 March 2012 / 4:11 pm

      I agree, anyway, and don’t get me wrong I love Christchurch, but there is plenty of crime here to choose from. Ironic that the next post down is about our most infamous murder.

  6. Mark F 12 March 2012 / 4:47 pm

    The last NZ novel I read was Wulf by Hamish Clayton … I thought it bloody brilliant, having also read The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachery Mason (USA) I found Clayton’s book far more engrossing and inventive, and I guess a more relevant book. Like anywhere, the number of novels published is large, and of course there is the good with the bad, and they don’t all appeal, and we do need to break the cultural cringe factor. Much NZ fiction does tend to have a dark theme, as do our movies, but also many are uplifting and inspirational. I must admit that I don’t now read a lot of NZ fiction, but what I have read definitely stacks up…

  7. Rich 12 March 2012 / 4:48 pm

    Historical fiction set on the Banks Peninsula

    There’s an awful lot of “historical fiction set in ”

    the author really really wants you to know that their work is set in NZ

    Also very true, and often with a received narrative that is, IMHO, rather different to how I perceive NZ.

    I think this also happens globally – how many books get published because formula X sold big and publishers lust for anything similar: the with the , etc. But with NZ it’s more concentrated – you get a whole rack of very similar books.

    Paula Morris and Craig Marriner are, I think, writers that have gone outside that – and, not by coincidence, written books that are set someplace other than NZ.

  8. purplerulz 13 March 2012 / 10:16 am

    I think we are too hard on our local authors, not all will be great, as not all authors are great irrespective of where they come from. I find the need for them to shout ‘set in’ a bit tiresome.
    I like dark, so any dark NZ novels appeal to me, not for being from NZ but for being ‘dark’.
    While it’s good to have writers telling our stories and speaking with familiar voices and from shared expereinces, they should also stand up as good writer, their place of origin not as important as their ability to enthrall.

  9. jane 13 March 2012 / 10:21 am

    A sence of place is very important to me when I read fiction. I don’t mind really where that place is as long as it is vivid. Perhaps we get too caught up in NZ fiction being about NZ?

  10. Tina 16 March 2012 / 2:15 pm

    I don’t think you’ll find writers are doing any shouting of where their work is ‘set’ – perhaps the marketing dept or the reviewers like to point that out. For the writer it’s something that’s a necessity, like character or plot or point of view – and for some the setting comes first.

    I find this all a bit sad really. If NZers didn’t write NZ, who would? After all, who can evoke uniquely NZ stories the best? The most dull thing for me is that great fiction is out there (funny, engaging, dark if you want it, light if you don’t) but if you have a preconceived notion about it, you’re not going to find it, are you?

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