In 2014 the New Zealand Book Council partnered with Australian literary magazine, Griffith Review to publish Pacific Highways, an anthology of New Zealand writing. And then Australian literary magazine Overland published a NZ issue last month.
All of this got us wondering – what are the challenges and opportunities of the Australian literary market for NZ writers? We commissioned freelance writer Elizabeth Heritage to investigate.
An edited version of this article was recently published in the Sunday Star Times, already sparking some debate.
The Book Council is keen to encourage debate and discussion on issues which impact on readers, writers and the wider book industry in New Zealand. We commission occasional features to explore these issues. You can check out our other features here.
Below is Elizabeth's full piece, with its original title: Our cousins to the West: the challenges and opportunities of the Australian literary market. You can read the SST version and compare here.
Australia: so close in so many ways, and yet, in book publishing terms, so far away. Michael King used to tell a story that seems to typify the trans-Tasman literary relationship: Patrick White wrote a fan letter to Janet Frame in the late 1950s. It took her 22 years to reply!
It seems strange that, given our geographical nearness and many cultural similarities, there aren’t stronger links between Australian and New Zealand writers and readers. Why don’t Australians read our books? Why don’t we read theirs? And what can we do to change this?
Australian by default
One of the problems for New Zealand writers in Australia is that they simply become invisible: Kiwis are assumed to be more or less Australian already, and are counted as such.
On the positive side, this overidentification of New Zealanders as being basically Australian could be interpreted as inclusive friendliness. It can provide opportunities for some writers - for example, Aussie literary journals or publishing houses looking for local submissions will often happily accept work from New Zealanders as well. However, it also brings problems: not having a separate identity means you don’t stand out. Martin Edmond, NZ writer and long-time resident of Australia, says: “New Zealand [writing] seems somehow below the horizon – not properly international but not exactly local either.”
Author Tracy Farr disagrees that this is a result of overidentification: “there’s no ‘near neighbour’ preference given to NZ books and writers in the Australian book trade. If anything, it’s the opposite: there can be a degree of antipathy [which] … can result in NZ books and writers being actively dismissed — not just passively failing to be noticed — by Australian industry and readers.”
Australian and NZ writer Rosie Scott says: “it is very difficult for New Zealand writers to get a toehold in the Australian market. We have a great deal in common as societies, and with the very strong literary culture in New Zealand it would seem a natural fit, [but] New Zealand books are not easy to obtain and are not promoted [in Australia] … It means that both countries are missing out on the close cultural ties that knowledge of a country’s national literature brings - which is I think a real shame.”
What is a New Zealand writer?
But - other than being ‘not Australian’ - how do we ourselves define New Zealand writers? Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai) addresses this in her new book On Coming Home (Bridget Williams Books), in which she investigates the vexed question of being a New Zealand writer overseas: does the status of being “a NZ writer” depend on the content of the books? The length of time one has lived in Aotearoa? Where one was born? One’s whakapapa? Where one’s books are read and reviewed?
Even letting writers self-identify as they will doesn’t solve the problem. As Farr says: “I’ve lived in Wellington since 1996, but am from Australia — born in Melbourne, grew up in Perth, lived there until I was in my late twenties, my family’s all still in Perth. So I’m an Australian (and specifically West Australian) writer living in NZ. Or I’m an Australian-born NZ writer. Or a Wellington-based Australian writer. I don’t know any more.”
Go big or go home
One way around this invisibility - or antagonism - in the Australian marketplace is for Kiwi authors to become ‘properly international’, and get to Australia via the big publishing houses in London or New York. It might not make much sense geographically, but there’s no doubt it adds cachet, and helps fight the cultural cringe factor still alive and well in both Aotearoa and Australia of being ‘just a local author’.
Australian readers are more than happy to read the work of New Zealand writers that have made it on the world stage, particularly books that have attracted film deals or major awards. Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff, the works of Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, CK Stead, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, Anne Kennedy, Witi Ihimaera - all do well in the Australian market. (It’s worth noting, too, that Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s first two books were originally published in Australia after failing to find a publisher in NZ.) And of course The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was celebrated across the Tasman - until Richard Flanagan trumped her the following year by both winning the Booker Prize and being properly Australian.
One person who is actively working against this trend is Michael Heyward, the publisher at Text Publishing. Text is a small, independent Australian publishing house which, as well as publishing new fiction, also republishes older works in its Text Classics series - including those of some NZ writers, such as Janet Frame and David Ballantyne. Heyward says: “historically, NZ writers have been undersold and underpromoted in Australia, and vice versa … NZ is crawling with literary talent, but doesn’t have the same avenues to market … the problem is with the quality of attention from critics and so on.”
Farr concurs about the lack of publicity, giving this example: “Elizabeth Knox’s Wake has been getting some press in Australia recently (e.g. it was reviewed in The Australian in June 2015), but only since its UK publication (Corsair, April 2015); it seems to have been largely invisible in Australia in its first, i.e. New Zealand (VUP, November 2013), edition.”
Finding your people
The news, though, is not all bad. Although it may be difficult to break into the Australian market as simply “a New Zealand writer”, it can be much easier as, for example, a NZ Young Adult (YA) novelist, or a NZ horror short story writer.
Kiwi YA authors – such as Margaret Mahy, Kate de Goldi, Bernard Beckett, and Karen Healey - tend to do well in the Australian book trade. Eva Mills, who runs the YA list at Allen & Unwin in Melbourne, attributes this to Aotearoa’s strange status of being simultaneously local and international: “The YA market is currently dominated by books from the US, so it’s refreshing to read something that relates more closely to our part of the world. NZ [as a setting] is perfect for Australian teens as it is familiar in many ways, but still exotic in others, which adds a point of difference.”
The Australian market can also be very fruitful for Kiwi writers of speculative fiction (that is, science fiction, fantasy and horror). Recently, New Zealander Debbie Cowens won the Australian Shadows award for Best Short Story, and Wellington publisher Paper Road Press won Best Edited Work for their horror anthology, Baby Teeth: Bite-sized Tales of Terror (edited by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray). It is easier, perhaps, for readerships to gather around a genre or a specialism than a nationality.
Does nationality matter?
Given the difficulty of defining New Zealand writers, and the apparent lack of advantage this brings us in the Australian market, does an author’s national identity matter? Do readers care?
Jennifer Fallon, an Australian author living in Aotearoa, thinks not. She says: “I don’t think [NZ writers] are thought of as being “NZ” writers particularly, unless they brandish it across the cover. I have never heard anyone say they wouldn’t read a book because a Kiwi wrote it ... Australians are keen to read good writers and don’t really care where they come from.” Tehani Wessely, editor at FableCroft Publishing in Australia, concurs: “I don't believe most readers, librarians or booksellers take a lot of notice of the nationality of the author.”
Fallon notes that one’s nationality can even be a disadvantage: the dreaded cultural cringe. “I think there is probably more prejudice against Aussies in their own country. I remember walking into a bookshop once in South Australia, and being greeted by the shocked staff who told me ‘you sell so well we thought you were an American’.”
Opportunities on our doorstep
Arguably the best way for Kiwi writers to get noticed across the ditch is to lead by example. What are we in the New Zealand book industry doing to support Australian writers?
As well as celebrating each other’s writers (and each other’s book awards) at festivals and the like, we can also submit work to each other’s literary journals and other outlets (including reviews of each other’s books). For example, Australian literary magazine Overland recently released a NZ edition, as did Griffith Review.
We can also write with one another in mind. Giovanni Tiso, who guest-edited the special issue of Overland, says: “what do you think you can say that will be of interesting not just to a local audience, but to an international one? How can you frame your topic in a way that makes useful, broader connections than might be the case if you were writing for New Zealand alone? As the publishing industry changes, these are crucial questions for writers ... I view the opportunity to engage with an overseas audience as a positive thing, as I do anything that helps us break out of the provincialism that sometimes affects us.”
Some forms of literature do not always benefit from being written with the market in mind, however. Edmond notes: “investigating subject matter that interests readers on both sides of the Tasman would help New Zealand writers build an audience here. But then, why would you do that? Most writers are happiest following their own inclinations, cutting their own path through the undergrowth, if you will. You can’t really write well if you are always second-guessing who your audience might be.”
Many writers and publishers I spoke to, both Aussies and Kiwis, recommended that writers put more effort into self-promotion, particularly via social media, but Heyward says: “writers should [just] sit in empty rooms and imagine things and write them down … writers need others to be champions in the marketplace”. He recommends more cross-Tasman interaction between publishers, booksellers, critics and literary agents.
Aussie and Kiwi writers can also participate in cultural programmes in each other’s countries. For example, Australian writer David McDonald was the most recent recipient of the Fan Fund of Australia and New Zealand, which supports Aussies and Kiwis to attend each other’s national sci-fi and fantasy conventions. He says: “I was extremely impressed with the NZ speculative fiction community. It is vibrant and welcoming - and definitely punching above its weight.”
What it’s all about
There can be no doubt that Australia and Aotearoa, by their geographic closeness and chunks of shared history, will always have a special relationship. Edmond says: “Australian and New Zealand writers are like country cousins who are preternaturally aware of one another but absolutely focused, beyond present needs, upon some far horizon over which proper recognition might one day come.” Ultimately, though, as Fallon says: “Don’t get hung up on nationality. It’s not about that. It’s about the storytelling.”
Elizabeth Heritage has decided, after much thought, to describe herself as a New Zealand writer. She writes book reviews, criticism, and articles on various book industry matters. She is also a publishing professional based in Wellington, where she works with a variety of small presses and other booky institutions, usually at the marketing and publicity end of things.
Elizabeth Heritage, photo by Tim McSweeney, 2015. Licensed CC BY