Return serve: actually, New Zealand fiction is not “in rude good health”

Part three of our debate on the state of New Zealand fiction continues as Chris Else, whose opening essay was strongly rebutted last week by Catherine Robertson, returns to put the boot in once more.

Catherine Robertson’s gracious and painstaking response to my piece on New Zealand fiction leaves me feeling ragged-arsed, with singed eyebrows, and standing in the smoking ruins of my argument. I do protest, however, that I wasn't talking complete drivel.

First of all, I take issue with her conclusion that "if you count our multitude of successful genre writers, New Zealand fiction is not in decline. It is, in fact, in rude good health." I'm afraid I see no multitude. There are successful New Zealand writers in all the popular genres but most are published overseas. This doesn't prevent them being considered as New Zealand writers but it's peripheral to what worries me – the health of local publishing of fiction for adults. (I'm worried about children’s books, too, but for different reasons.)

The 1990s were something of a golden age in our fiction. Novels like Once Were Warriors, The Warrior Queen, The Vintner’s Luck and In a Fishbone Church were all first published locally and all sold in tens of thousands on the back of local reviews and word-of-mouth. Alongside these big bestsellers were several hundred other novels. This wealth of fiction came through dozens of commercial publishers of all sizes from multinationals to one-or-two person operators. 

From 2000 this situation changed. The number of novels published and the number of publishers producing them both steadily declined. Self and cooperative publishing has begun to reverse the trend but I can think of only one big best seller in the last 20 years with success based in local word-of-mouth: Jenny Patrick’s The Denniston Rose (2003). The three other comparable sellers in the same period all had their sales boosted by means other than their immediate appeal here at home: Whale Rider was a reprint from the 1980s that was revived on the back of a successful movie; Mr Pip and The Luminaries were boosted by international recognition through the Man Booker Prize.

On the face of it, locally published fiction has lost a good chunk of its readership over the last two decades. It seems that these days our readers need novels to be approved overseas before they take any notice.

Local fiction publishing is important for two reasons: it's where our writers cut their teeth and where our stories get told. While it's true that good writing sells anywhere, it's also true that some stories and some voices have more international appeal than others. By "our stories" I don't mean work that is full of bellbirds and sheep or even that it must explore our history. Nor am I suggesting that our writers have some moral duty to consciously focus on our country and our culture. I do, however, think that if they don’t, both readers and writers are in danger of missing out.

Aotearoa-New Zealand is a unique place and a unique people. We're not necessarily conscious of who and what we are. Our stories reveal us to ourselves. In addition, if our novelists are working with half an eye to an international market, then the writing tends to lose the specificity that is the hallmark of good fiction, and its local relevance can easily be compromised. I sometimes think that our novels would be more relevant to who we are if they were all written in te reo. No writer would then be wondering what London or New York or Sydney might think of what they were doing.

Robertson asks why I singled out IIML for special attention and ignored other creative writing schools. There are two reasons. Firstly, IIML has a reputation as the best of its kind and its graduates gain media attention thereby. Secondly it has the services of Victoria University Press, which ensures that at least some of its graduates get published. (I have no complaints about this arrangement, by the way; the duty of a university press is to publish work by its staff and its graduates. I only wish other university presses also published fiction in support of their creative writing programmes.)

I would venture to say that, self and cooperatively-published work aside, VUP produces 30 percent to 40 percent of locally produced fiction for adults and a higher proportion of what is considered literary fiction. Another 40-50 percent comes out of Penguin Random House. If this is right, these two publishers account for 70-90 percent of local commercially published novels; the balance is taken up by Harper Collins and a handful of small presses such as Makaro and Upstart. Because of its association with VUP, IIML has a far greater influence than any other creative writing school. The best of its graduates, in VUP's judgement, get published. The graduates of other creative writing programmes have to fend for themselves in a very tough market. Increasingly, they seem to be turning to cooperatives.

Robertson’s insider’s view of IIML suggests that it's something of a stretch for me to characterise its professor as an eminence grise who casts a dark shadow over its graduates’ story-telling. Her account does little to reassure me, however. She writes, “We weren’t taught in the pedagogic sense. A truer description is that the year was a class-wide collaboration facilitated by Emily [Perkins], a mutual building up of capability and confidence.”

This nurturing, facilitative approach is an excellent way of developing writers’ voices and their creative talent, generally. It may well be sufficient for producing good poets and perhaps even good short-story writers and essayists. I don’t, however, think it's necessarily sufficient for producing good novelists.

Story-telling, especially in the longer form, is a skill and skills have to be learnt. Teaching helps. Without good, old-fashioned pedagogy, writers have to acquire narrative skills by other means; through trial and error, perhaps, or through critical appreciation of the things they read. A facilitative approach in a collaborative environment also depends heavily on what members of the group bring to it. If nobody in the group knows anything about narrative technique or if nobody thinks such matters are important, then the process leaves the production of novels with narrative drive to chance. Robertson’s account does little to convince me that I'm wrong in suggesting that some of our best young writers have failed to learn - or to value - the art of telling stories.

All such considerations aside, the point that concerns me most is this: locally published fiction has lost a significant part of its readership. It's easy to identify external causes for this decline. Writers can see themselves as victims of circumstance, competition from other media and commercial constraints – all things beyond our control. What nags at me is the suspicion that one of the causes of the decline in readership is the way we write, that we are partly responsible for the shrinkage in our market.

I further suspect that what's lacking is skill and confidence in story-telling. It's not that our novels have no stories; it's more that the stories they do have are not told in a way that attracts a wider readership. I think there are questions here that are worth asking. Robertson’s sunny optimism doesn’t help answer them.

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