Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Patriotism through fiction

Recently I read an article on Stuff.co.nz called What's so wrong with NZ fiction?. It basically explains (through a bunch of statistics) that New Zealanders love and support New Zealand fiction, but not many of us actually read it.
This article has come about at the most appropriate time for me because I've recently become obsessed with Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand's greatest ever writers, and I've also decided that all the books I read next year, for the entire year, are going to be New Zealand fiction.
Why? Because I am one of these statistics. I love and support our fiction, but for the life of me I cannot think of one kiwi novel I've read, and I'm ashamed of myself for that. I figure that if I'm going to strive to become one of the great kiwi writers, I need to know who my predecessors are - I was going to say "what I'm up against" but that sounds like I have a lack of respect for other kiwi writers and I want to be humble and accept that people like Katherine Mansfield were and probably always will be the best.
The article got a lot of comments, and a main theme I noticed was that people think New Zealand fiction is too much about New Zealand and most of them say things like "When I read I want to escape, I don't want to read about places I know, places I can drive down the road and see".
It's the same with young people going travelling and moving to Australia - people that think the grass is greener elsewhere. Sure, travelling when you're young is something kiwi's do - it's a rite of passage and something that I'll be doing myself soon. But, we have a strange culture... we are a loyal and supportive nation when it comes to things like sporting events, tragedies, and triumphs, but when it comes to the quality of life debate, people start complaining, when really, compared to most countries, we live in one of the best places in the world. Yet people still take off in search of greener pastures. Maybe it's because we're a young nation and we struggle with our identity a bit, or maybe it's because we're so far away from everywhere that we have this great amount of curiosity in us.
I understand where those "When I read I want to escape" people are coming from, but I think there is a lot of merit in learning about your own country, even if it is through fiction.
On the other hand, a few months ago I decided to go browsing through the Whitcoulls New Zealand section to see what I had to live up to with my own novel that is set in Wellington, and, first of all, I think our fiction should take pride of place at the front of the store where it can't be missed (some of our bookstores don't even have a New Zealand section!) instead of being squished on a small shelf in between trashy romance and sci-fi. Second of all, I noticed that every single novel I picked up had some sort of international influence attached to it - whether it was written by a kiwi writer and set overseas, or the characters were here from overseas, having immigrated from England or Scotland or Ireland.
And I thought, how sad that is, that New Zealand writers feel they have to draw on outside influences in order to write an interesting story.
In a way, it was a good thing for me, because I'm writing a story with all New Zealand characters (excluding a couple of minor American characters - soldiers who were in Wellington during WWII) set in Wellington during the present day and during the first and second world wars.
We say we are a loyal and proud country, but reading those comments made me question that a little bit - are we really? Do we actually practice what we preach? I know I do and I know a lot of people who do, but it would be nice if more kiwis did.


  1. I can understand the points of view in this article and it really is a "business" article. I find it interesting that the view of NZ being not interesting enough is very strange. I'm from Florida and there are so many Florida writers and books about Florida because it is a unique place, as is NZ. I would think NZ writers would have one up on the rest of the world for that reason and I'm surprised to hear it doesn't. The islands hold so many different landscapes in such a small space, go figure, people come to NZ to film because of just that! You, as a writer can take advantage of that and introduce your fellow kiwi's to the vast terrain of possibilities to be found right there! Good luck! I'm ready to go read a kiwi writer's novel!

  2. Sarah, this is a good idea. If you blog about the NZ stuff you like as you read it, I will see what to add to my TBR pile. Cheers

    PS I have to admit to having been less than totally impressed with Mr Pip which was the last NZ authored novel I read.... sigh.

  3. I don't think that the problem lies just with New Zealand readers and authors, I suspect that globally there are many who would say I don't read English, Scottish or German fiction and perhaps it's a trait we all share, believing that the literary grass is greener when it comes from elsewhere :-)

  4. This was an interesting post for me because I run a small press in Chicago, and we're publishing a novel by a New Zealand writer, Andrei Baltakmens, this fall--a historical mystery set in 18th-century England called "The Raven's Seal." (Sorry about the plug.) But it does seem to make your point about NZ authors writing about other places than their home. I can't think of a novel set in NZ, which is odd when I think of other far-off, exotic places that have been the settings of popular novels in the U.S. and elsewhere. And people around the world are now familiar with NZ's great natural beauty and diversity thanks to the LOTR films. But we don't know much about the people or culture. I know there tends to be bias in the publishing world that novels set in other places don't always travel well (and sometimes it's true), but a great novel will be relatable anywhere, and if it's set in an unfamiliar place, that can add to its allure. When it comes to bookstores in NZ not featuring NZ authors, it might be a bit of not wanting to appear too provincial. But you also have to remember that there are so many more books published in the U.S. and U.K., and their worldwide marketing efforts and movie tie-ins really create an awareness that's hard to compete with. Ironically, it may take an int'l NZ breakout hit to crack the NZ market. Anyway, kudos to you for writing about NZ in your fiction. Maybe yours will be the one that breaks out.

  5. I loved this post. There is a Philippine blog Simple Clockwork run by Nancy Cudis and she features a lot of the literature from her country. She includes children's book and a super wide variety. I am mot sure if she reads all of them, but she certainly gives the international exposure. I bet you will do the same for New Zealand!
    Bravo again Sarah!

  6. It all depends on why you'd want to read Kiwi fiction. Are you so unsure of your Kiwiness that you feel the need to read work exclusively by your fellow countrymen? Is coming from a country being able to commit to memory work by a well-known native? Is there any reason why you wouldn't want to be aware of the world at large? I would hazard a guess that you need to do 'nothing' extra in order to be from New Zealand because New Zealand is already inside you.
    Just felt like playing Devil's advocate, but if NZ literature is going to be on the map, especially in the current climate, it's probably because someone like you will become popular abroad first.