Why aren't adults reading New Zealand fiction books?

by Elisabeth Easther / 13 September, 2016
A survey reveals we have a crisis on our hands, with adults reading almost no New Zealand fiction.
Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Dark, gloomy, overrated, plodding, dull – a new survey of attitudes towards New Zealand fiction commissioned by the NZ Book Council shows that even before we open the cover of a local novel, many of us have woefully low expectations.

“There is an undercurrent of cultural cringe, the idea that our books can only be seen as equal to those from overseas if they’ve received overseas endorsement,” says writer and essayist Paula Morris, head of the University of Auckland’s creative writing programme. “There’s still a persistence in seeing New Zealand literature as one thing that can be liked or disliked en masse, and if you’ve read and disliked one, you’ll dislike them all. I’ve read plenty of bad American novels, but it doesn’t dissuade me from reading more US writers.”

Such undercurrents are mirrored in sales data. Whereas New Zealand non-fiction sells well compared with its international counterparts – Nielsen Book Scan data puts it at about a third of the total non-fiction sold – New Zealand fiction comprised a mere 3% of all fiction bought in this country in 2014.

Kiwi novelist Catherine Robertson, with a background in qualitative research, and Morris, the force behind the new Academy of New Zealand Literature and in a former life a branding consultant in New York, took on the Book Council study brief to find out why New Zealanders are so down on home-grown literature.

There wasn’t much solid information to go on, aside from a single thesis in 2012. That thesis, conducted by Victoria University master’s student Pia White, found 67% of respondents thought it was important to read books by New Zealand authors, yet 72% said they read such books “rarely” or “sometimes”. White’s report concludes that what is produced “does not cater for a particularly wide range of reading interests”. The idea New Zealand fiction is “needing support” further disconnects readers from “the more reflexive motives of pleasure, personal interest or entertainment”.

Says Morris,“We do have a crisis on our hands. Children read lots of New Zealand books [recent library data shows the majority of New Zealand titles borrowed from libraries are children’s picture books], then teens read some New Zealand books, then adults read almost none.”

New Zealand authors: clockwise from top left, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, CK Stead, Anna Smaill, Patricia Grace and Eleanor Catton. Photo/Simon Young, Hagen Hopkins, David White, Marti Friedlander
New Zealand authors: clockwise from top left, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt, CK Stead, Anna Smaill, Patricia Grace and Eleanor Catton. Photo/Simon Young, Hagen Hopkins, David White, Marti Friedlander

Mixed reactions

The research involved 11 focus groups around the country. The mainly Pakeha female participants were drawn from existing book groups and from a variety of backgrounds and socio-economic groups. Most were aged from mid-forties to early eighties. The results showed deeply ingrained negative impressions towards New Zealand writing. When asked to quickly describe “New Zealand fiction”, about 75% came up with negative words including “dark”, “grim”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “overrated” and “boring”.

“When pressed,” the study found, “participants struggled to give reasons why they felt that way. Some said their view was possibly influenced by what they had read at school (Man Alone and Owls Do Cry were commonly referenced). Others suggested that New Zealand films (Vigil was named more than once) had helped create an impression of grimness around presenting New Zealand in the arts.”

Younger readers were especially down on local fiction, summing it up as growing up in the backblocks “with pohutukawa and jandals”; “everything happening really slowly, no action”; Kiwiana, “a slice of not-very-enjoyable life, plodding and dull. None could say why they felt that way – none could remember a single New Zealand book they had read at school.”

But when people were asked about the New Zealand fiction they had read, they realised they had, on the whole, enjoyed it. So although first reactions were universally negative, says Robertson, “when people came round to discussing the actual fiction, they did a complete flip and said they loved this book, that book”.

Bestselling Kiwi crime writer Ben Sanders. Photo/Simon Young
Bestselling Kiwi crime writer Ben Sanders. Photo/Simon Young

An old brand with legacy issues

Sales-wise, there is some good news: poets Sam Hunt and Hera Lindsay Bird both released new collections this winter, and for some weeks, the pair vied against each other for the top spot on the Nielsen Book Survey.

“But in marketing terms,” the Book Council study says, “we could think of ‘New Zealand fiction’ as an old brand with legacy issues. Can New Zealand literature perhaps do what Telecom attempted when it rebranded as Spark?”

The results do show that a major part of this problem for readers is simply not knowing what’s out there. When asked to come up with titles and authors of New Zealand fiction they had read or heard of, respondents often looked back to the 1980s and further. Most named were long-standing literary authors such as CK Stead, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Keri Hulme, Elizabeth Knox, Albert Wendt, Fiona Kidman, Shonagh Koea, Fiona Farrell, Maurice Gee and Stevan Eldred-Grigg. In terms of titles, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People was often mentioned, as was Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck. Very few works by newer, younger authors were mentioned, with the exception of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes – though most could not name Smaill – because of the publicity they had received from the Booker Prize.

Except for Patricia Grace’s Chappy, no one mentioned any books on the 2016 Ockham Book Award shortlist – and very few, even the librarians surveyed, knew what the name of the new award was.

For Morris, a large part of the problem is the lack of information about our books and writers. “We can do a lot more to get clear, useful information about new books to readers and to make good reviews of new New Zealand fiction more accessible and visible.”

How we select books

According to the findings, most people select books as a result of previous experience with an author, personal recommendations from a trusted source – friends, book group members, bookshop staff, librarians – and local sources for book news and reviews, the most commonly named being the Listener and Radio NZ, followed by weekend news­papers and women’s magazines. The most cited overseas sources were the Guardian and overseas literary journals such as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. Readers also used Amazon’s recommendations and occasionally Goodreads.

Although the study found younger readers were more likely to be connected to global rather than local online book communities – and on those “New Zealand fiction doesn’t even feature” – all ages cited libraries and bookshops as reliable sources of information about new books

The NZ Book Council is now planning a second phase of research to identify ongoing trends in publishing, reading and borrowing in New Zealand.

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