Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Zealand Book Month.

Unless you have your head in the sand or you're not from New Zealand, you'll know that it's New Zealand Book Month this month, an initiative that it is hoped will have the same impact on NZ books as NZ Music Month has had on NZ music (ie a good one).

Last week, the Sunday Star Times ran a story with statistics of what people are buying when it comes to books: of all the fiction sold in New Zealand, only 5% of it is from New Zealand. On the one hand that looks like an appalling ratio, but on the other, when you consider just how much international fiction there is out there, it's not so bad. Surely only 5 % of novels available are from New Zealand?

That optimistic view aside, once I had finished the article, which interviews some well known literary types about why this might be, I was surprised that nobody mentioned this: if we want New Zealand fiction to sell as well as international fiction, bookstores are going to have start putting New Zealand books alongside 'real' fiction. Walk into any bookstore and you find a 'fiction' section, and a 'New Zealand fiction' section. I imagine that Joe (or more likely Josephine, as women buy far more fiction than men do) Public, when they go into a bookstore looking for a novel, make their way to the fiction section for their browsing. They find a book and they are happy. It might not even occur to them to make a special trip over to the NZ fiction section.

Perhaps bookstores think they are doing NZ books a favour by singling them out like this, giving them their own special showcase section, but I disagree.I think it makes the average buyer see New Zealand books as somehow second-rate. By all means have a NZ fiction table, or a section, but can we please see NZ books put alongside the Peter Careys and the Hilary Mantels and the Sarah Waters? Otherwise they are just not seen, let alone considered, by the buying public.

It seems obvious to me. Thoughts, anyone?


Rachel Fenton said...

That's so true: coming from the UK I thought it odd that the fiction was separated into world fiction and NZ fiction - as though NZ had polarised itself from the rest of the world - and NZ fiction seemed to be portrayed more as a novelty rather than serious fiction that could pull its weight with the heavyweight names.

I get that NZ, like Australia, wants to push its own grown talent, but having the fiction displayed in camps does not keep the competition down, it makes you forget about the "tourist" section - which is what I assumed the NZ shelves were for the first few months I lived here! - in favour of the one with the fiction from the rest of the world.

I don't recall ever going into a bookstore in the UK and finding a UK only fiction section, because, to many British people, that would be seen as culturally shortsighted: especially as Britain is (much as NZ is from my perspective) such a multi-cultural country.

NZ fiction should be up there with those big names - where it well deserves to be! Instead of presenting itself as the "poor relation", or the "I'm just too good to be on the same shelf" attitude, or "we are for tourists" branding! Come on NZ, take on the competition and show the rest of the world what you've got!

Anonymous said...

At my local, I have seen your book Rachael ( SOB) at it was in the regular fiction section, yet Peter Carey was in the Australian book section....

However, I did notice a few copies of Peter Carey's work also in the regular fiction section I wonder what that means - he is an Aussie writer with an international reputation so has two homes in the bookshop?

Vanda Symon said...

I've always been anti segregating the New Zealand books only into their own section, like they're in quarantine with some questionable disease.

I think NZ books there should be in with the general fiction, so they can stand on their own merits.

Bless the book shops that do both, though.

The v-word was blebonic, which could be a type of plague the NZ books are being isolated for.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've just finished Death of a Superhero by the New Zealand writer Anthony McCarten. I was dead pleased when I discovered it because I don't think I've read anything by a New Zealander before, and do you know what, it was set in Watford, England! It was still a good book and it really could've been set anywhere so why not in New Zealand itself? I have to say I was a bit disappointed about that.

Marianne said...

I like the idea of NZ books being shelved both in the appropriate section by genre and in a special NZ fiction section. That would be my ideal - to find TSOB in the NZ fiction section AND alongside other contemporary fiction. Of course, these days I'm noticing where NZ literary non-fiction is shelved, which is often with NZ biography or travel writing. I'd love to see those books mixed in with other literary non-fiction as well as being featured in NZ sections.

Rachael King said...

Thanks for your comments everyone, seems we're in agreement. Now we just need to get a petition going...

Jim - that's weird. I'm sure I had heard that book was set in Wellington. Maybe he rewrote it for a British readership. It's a sad fact but so many novels set in NZ get rejected by UK publishers for being "too New Zealand". Maybe McCarten was avoiding that issue. It's a shame because I'm sure readers would be delighted to get a slice of contemporary NZ life.

Marianne - I so agree with you. Interestingly, what I didn't mention was the fact that 30% of non-fiction titles sold are NZ. So we don't have the same cringe factor when it comes to non-fiction. I don't have such a problem with an NZ non-fiction section as much because I think people choose their non-fiction by subject, so they will go there specifically to find NZ books. Having said that , the same doesn't apply to things like literary memoir, as you say, which I think should be mixed in with international books. Your book, for example, will not just be a 'New Zealand' book.

I had a thought, which i wish I'd put in my original post: our newspapers are so inward-looking, devoting a few pages to huge international stories and mostly to the most mundane of NZ stories. If we like our own stories in the news, why not in out fiction. Hm?

I am proud to say that this has been a good year for me and NZ fiction. 17 novels read, 7 of them NZ (all women, most debut), and that's not counting the manuscripts I have read and given feedback on!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, if I find that to be the case you can be sure I'll make a point of it in my review.

Rachael King said...

Hey Jim - this is where I got the idea it was set in Wellington. Seems I was right. How odd that he changed it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Rachael. I am seriously annoyed about that I have to say. I seems so petty.

Anonymous said...

I think it depends on whether they really are showcasing NZ fiction or just relegating them to the bottom shelf in some obscure corner. Take Unity Books in Wellington - NZ books first display on your left as you enter the shop, difficult to go past without something catching your attention.