on NZ writing

On the whole, the reason I don’t read much NZ writing is no one ever recommends it to me, and I’m not actively exploring it. Maybe I should be, but largely, when I do, I’m somewhat disappointed. Somehow I have acquired the impression that the mainstream NZ lit scene features work that can be characterized at best as being competently enough written but lacking something to say, and hence a sense of interest or excitement, or a reason to read it.

For instance, I picked up a sampler of “New Writing from Random House NZ 2008” somewhere. None of the pieces I read was even slightly interesting. None of it inspired me to seek out any of the books. Not boding well, and certainly not the ideal outcome for a sampler.

Helen linked to Best NZ Poems 2007, which, while I suppose were better than average, were hardly inspiring to me. (Massive disclaimer there, in that poetry is not my thing as a reader.)

Now sure, I’m just one random among a sea of many. My tastes and predelictions are my own affair and not necessarily subject to widespread interest. So why should NZ writing speak to me? However, I want it to. I want it to be good, and I want it to be relevant, and I want it to matter. I am willing to accept my opinions are of ignorance, but want the proof.

So once again I ask, please recommend me something good by a New Zealand author. I’m willing to believe it’s out there. (I’m kind of been planning to read Stonedogs by Craig Mariner for a few years now, just cos it looks different.) What are good NZ novels?

13 Responses to “on NZ writing”

  1.   michael
    April 27th, 2008 | 8:16 pm

    I think Maurice Gee is excellent, but he’s about as mainstream NZ lit as you can get, so I guess you’ve investigated and think otherwise? I would’ve thought there would at least be some things you’d find interesting about Plumb, for example…

  2.   Administrator
    April 27th, 2008 | 9:02 pm

    Cheers, Mike. I loved the Halfmen of O trilogy when I was a kid, but haven’t read anything else by him. 🙂

  3.   Scott A
    April 28th, 2008 | 2:12 pm

    I really, *really*, enjoy Lloyd Jones, and his “The Book Of Fame” is probably one of my favourite novels ever, for it’s beauty, sparseness and poignancy.

    Of course, I don’t know if you’d enjoy him, but I do.

  4.   Andrew
    April 28th, 2008 | 3:20 pm

    I’ve never read it, but maybe you’d be interested in “Tarzan Presley”? Since you thought Stonedogs looked different…

    NB: why do you want NZ writing to speak to you?

    And a couple of questions that project my own notions and experiences over your post: as well as wanting it to speak to you, do you think it *ought* to speak to you? And *do* you want it to speak to you, or do you think you *ought* to want it to speak to you?

  5.   Administrator
    April 28th, 2008 | 3:57 pm

    Andrew: Stonedogs looked different in a way I found interesting; Tarzan Presley looked different in a way I didn’t 😉

    Many tangled questions you ask; I think the clarification of what I meant or not by “speak to me” came in the lines following it – in terms of having the qualities of being good, relevant, and mattering, themselves concepts which could be unpacked. There was a certain amount of rhetoric in the flow, definitely

    Hrm. I guess I’d like NZ writing to speak to me in the sense that it is written by people who are through near co-occurence in space and time likely in some sense to be experiencing something like what I am and could thus have something to say to me that I’d find interesting or useful.

    What NZ writing have you read that you would recommend?

  6.   Pearce
    April 28th, 2008 | 8:48 pm

    My favourite NZ novel is Broken October by Craig Harrison, about a Maori terrorist group that steals the Treaty of Waitangi and how that sparks a series of events that leads to NZ becoming a US-dominated police state. It’s quite old now, and is very much about the time it was written in (the tail end of the Muldoon era; the writer’s sympathies are very much with the “terrorists”). Harrison also wrote The Quiet Earth, which I thought was a lot better than the (still pretty good) movie based on it.

    I second Scott’s admiration for The Book of Fame; I don’t give a toss about rugby but this unconventional account of the first All Black tour of the UK was beautifully written.

    The only book I can think of that fits your “speaking to me” definition above was written by you, so maybe you could re-read that. 😉

  7.   Helen
    April 28th, 2008 | 11:16 pm


    Oddly, the authors I was thinking of when I read your post have both been mentioned in other comments. I think my favourite NZ book is Plumb, by Maurice Gee. I read it shortly after my religious crisis, and it really resonated with me.

    I was also going to mention Lloyd Jones. I haven’t read as much of him as I ought, but I’d recommend Biografi. It was a while ago that I read it but I was struck with how beautifully it is written – so sparely. In that, and the other book I’ve read by Lloyd Jones, I’ve been impressed at how in control he is of his language, and I like that sort of thing.

    Another writer I think is worthwhile is Tim Corballis. I feel that he’s still on his way to his full literary powers, but I like that in his novels he’s aiming for something higher than I feel many writers, NZ or otherwise, are doing.

    I would like to be mentioning some NZ woman writers, but I can’t think of anyone appropriate just now. Will think further…

  8.   Andrew
    April 29th, 2008 | 11:57 am

    Bill: yep, I figured that’s what you were after when you said “speaking to me”, though the questions only partly came from that – there’s a whole…. ummm…. discourse (sorry) around the idea that the literature of the place you come from ought to be relevant to you (or that it *is*, and if you can’t see that it is it means you fail at being a fully rounded person). Your post (“you” going from generic to particular now) intersected some of that discourse, and I was wondering if part of your issue was that you felt… hemmed in by it.

    See what I mean about projecting? 😉

    As to what I’d recommend… dunno. There’s a fair bit of stuff I’ve enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to recommend it. Hmmm. Okay, more as a test than a real recommendation, “The High Jump” by Elizabeth Knox, semi-autobiographical “novel” (really three novellas collected in a bumper edition, and I recommend reading them in order of publication, rather than in order of narrative chronology) about growing up in the Hutt and Porirua in the late 60s/early 70s. I did enjoy it, even if it took me 14 years to get round to reading it (I’ve been meaning to since the second novella was published). That said, I felt that the second and third novella got a bit “Young Adult” – “Dealing with SERIOUS ISSUES” – though don’t take it from that that my tastes are “belles lettres”.

    Also, I am going to recommend Geoff Cochrane. For his prose, try the novels “Tin Nimbus” or “Blood” – the two collections of stories are a bit later, a bit more experimental, and might seem a bit more pointless if you’re not into that. For me, the novels have more “shared place” resonance in that they’re set in a Wellington that doesn’t exist any more but that I can remember – back when Courtenay Place was the warehouse district, and “Blair Street” meant fresh produce, not nightclubs. That may have no resonance for you.

    Flipside, I grew up on Wellington, rather than Porirua and the Hutt, and wasn’t born in the 60s, but “The High Jump” also has that sense of a shared heritage. I never got that from Mansfield, though this is how we were forced to feel about her at school (because she was a Wellingtonian and wrote about Wellington), and it wasn’t till I decided that the shit the teachers were full of had nothing to do with Mansfield’s shit that I could enjoy Mansfield.

  9.   Administrator
    April 29th, 2008 | 12:15 pm

    Andy: yeah, I kind of see what you mean. Part of what motivated the request is my consciousness that I have so little knowledge of NZ writing, and I feel like I ought to have some knowledge of it at least, regardless of whether it speaks to me.

    Off the top of my head, aside from The Halfmen of O trilogy, some random Mansfield short stories and a Patricia Grace novel forced on us in school, Man Alone by John Mulgan, stuff people I know have written, and random stuff I have browsed in shops, there isn’t anything else I can think of that I’ve read from NZ.

    Also, I guess I’m interested on an identity level, in that as a writer from NZ, the label “NZ writer” seems to apply, but to me it doesn’t really have any meaning other than “writer from NZ”, and I’m curious as to what if anything it means to others. (eg) what set of ideas are invoked if I approach a publisher claiming to be a NZ writer?

  10.   Scott A
    April 29th, 2008 | 3:45 pm

    I’ll also second Pearce for Craig Harrison; but he might be hard to track down. But, you never know, there could still be copies lurking around libraries.

    Even rarer would be another old favourite of mine, Ronald Hugh Morrieson. He’s probably most well known for “Came a Hot Friday,” which was made into a film that almost completely missed his back-country southern gothic style. I’d recomend “The Scarecrow” and “Pallet on the Floor” for a rather unique talent, and some very creepy New Zealand fiction.

  11.   Administrator
    April 30th, 2008 | 2:13 pm

    Cool. I has a list.

    I will add it to the lists.

  12.   jack
    May 3rd, 2008 | 9:49 pm

    not lit, but still good NZ writers (non/fiction/auto/biography): Nicky Hager, Michael King, James McNeish, Lauris Edmond, Henry Feltham

  13. September 11th, 2008 | 1:50 pm

    […] Oh, and a few months back I read Plumb by Maurice Gee, which was really good (like in an international comparative sense good) mature, thoughtful, and so on. Easily the best NZ novel I’ve read, probably. So my vague quest to read more NZ books is underway. Also read the start of The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones, which I was enjoying, but busy-ness and the due date prevailed. Though I figure someday I’ll buy it for my Dad, since it is enough all about rugby that he will probably read it. Struck by the apositeness of the subject matter, too – the Invincibles tour is the start of a prime national myth. […]