WORD: Reading Favourites, with David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

I’ve seen Paula Morris chair a few sessions at various writers festivals, and was reminded again today why she’s one of my favourite chairs: funny, engaging, doesn’t talk over her panellists, keeps discussion ticking along in a lively manner.

Today she was chairing Reading Favourites, discussing with David Hill and Jolisa gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander their favourite NZ books and how more reading of NZ books can be generally encouraged. Unfortunately Chris Tse was unable to attend – Morris quipped this was either because he was sick or because Hill had offended him.

As today is National Poetry Day, each panelist started with a poem. Hill read Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Two Adorable Things about Mozart’, commenting that “there are certain lines I’d give an index finger to have written”.

Gracewood (right, on the right, photo by Marti Friedlander) read from a “very subversive poetry anthology” in which the names of the poets are not published on the same page as their poems. She read us ‘Telephone Wires’, which turned out to have been written by a 12yo girl in the 1950s. Morris read ‘Going Outside’ by Bill Manhire. The audience hummed in appreciation.

The panellists had been asked to bring along their two favourite New Zealand books. Gracewood showed us her copy of Wednesday’s Children by Robin Hyde, an ex-library book that had been stamped every week in 1951. She said it’s about a woman who wins Lotto and can live as she pleases – a “really magical book” that rewards rereading. She spoke about how Wednesday’s Children has “deep historical reminiscence … [and] continues to be fresh”.

wednesdays childrenIt’s also out of print – which, as Gracewood pointed out, is a problem we need to discuss. Her other favourite book – The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy – is also out of print, although Gracewood hopes that the upcoming film adaptation of Mahy’s The Changeover (one of my personal favourite YA books of all time) will incite publishers to reprint these works. About The Tricksters, Gracewood said “I love it when a book asks you to take on faith that there are worlds alongside ours”.

Hill’s two favourite books were Kate De Goldi’s The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle and Maurice Gee’s Going West. Of the former, he said “The writing is crystalline … I really wept, put the book down and wept … [and] I smiled with delight.” He said that children’s writing has to suggest a world order in which there is still hope, and noted the wonderful respect for adults shown in The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.

Hill called Gee “the great chronicler of NZ adult life [and] the least show-off writer I know … [with] restrained craft but also a relentless evisceration of personal relationships.” He said that any book of Gee’s makes him think “Yes, that’s it … He’s so good I come away with no envy whatsoever.” I was thrilled to learn from Harriet Allen in the audience that Gee is publishing a new YA novel next year.

cv_Maori_boyMorris’s two favourite books were The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones and Māori Boy by Witi Ihimaera: “they’re both ‘our story’ books”. She said Lloyd writes in the communal voice and gives a great insight into colonialism: “it is really a great NZ novel”. Ihimaera writes as “someone resolutely from outside the centre” – his is a “very important book”.

Discussion then turned to the general problem of why Kiwis don’t tend to buy large quantities of NZ fiction. I liked Hill’s idea that we should have billboards with the opening sentences of NZ novels on them. (eds note: NZ Book Council did this in the early 00’s in bus stops.) Audience members suggested that NZ Book Month should be just about NZ books, and that our school curriculum should feature more work by Kiwi writers – although it was pointed out that this can have a downside, in that forced reading of books at school can put readers off, sometimes for life. (Although this tends only to be the case for NZ fiction: reading a book you dislike at school by a US author, for example, does not tend to put people off US fiction.)

Morris mentioned that she too had been in the Canadian Tales session earlier with Elizabeth Hay, who had spoken about the difficulties of persuading Canadian publishers to back specifically Canadian books – so this is not just a problem for us here. Morris said that our children aren’t making the transition from reading NZ children’s books and YA to NZ adult fiction.

Gracewood and Morris spoke about research they have done for the NZ Book Council into Kiwis’ attitudes to NZ literature. For some reason NZ literature has a distinctly negative aura. Whereas Kiwis support NZ sports teams because they’re ours, NZ literature runs up against the spinach effect: people reading it because they feel they should. Gracewood said “we get excited about supporting our cuddly native birds; what would it take to make NZ books that charismatic piece of literary fauna?”

Reading Favourites was a lively session with a full house and a very engaged audience – so maybe there’s hope for NZ literature yet!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Reading Favourites, by David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

Enemy Camp
by David Hill
Published by PuffinISBN  9780143309123

Tell You What 2
edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408442

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321117

An open letter from Jenny Argante regarding NZ Book Month

Kia ora,

I keep thinking about the failure of NZ Book Month in comparison to the success of NZ Music Month (now underway).

For something to work it has to have a clear purpose, and the original intention, as I see it, in declaring “We’ll emulate NZ Music Month,” was to do for words what that does for music. In other words, to joyfully celebrate New Zealand writers and writing.

One month out of the 12 when the spotlight was firmly turned upon our excellent home-grown literary talent. Of which we have an abundance.

It is NOT about literacy. That is an ongoing problem that can be addressed within the education system itself and through community education programmes that are focused and meaningful, possibly led by Literacy Aotearoa and other relevant organisations.

It is not about making people read more in general. That is the work of libraries, which are extending their outreach programmes all the time; which are open all year round, and staffed by intelligent, helpful people who have no profit motive when they find the right book for the reader. That is the basic tenet of the library service: every book its reader; every reader his or her book. And we did, until 2010, have a Library Week every year.

It is not about upping booksales in bookshops. Yes, bookshops are suffering – as are all retailers – and naturally they want to increase sales, and this can be a marketing opportunity for them; I am not saying it cannot be. Yet if vouchers, etc., are offered, or if there were, for example, a trophy for the best display window during NZ Book Month, the focus would have to be on displaying New Zealand Books and New Zealand Writers. NZBM is not and never should be Book Month In New Zealand‘. Again, there are 11 other months of the year when the Booksellers Association and the Publishers Association can promote all their non-NZ books. Special campaigns already run for e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Christmas, etc.

Competition in the book world and declining sales is not a problem that can be addressed by a NZ Book Month. In fact, it is counter-productive to claim it is to increase the number and levels of readers. Because that is happening with the international accessibility of books that can be bought cheaper from Amazon, The Book Depository, Booktopia, etc., or as e-books, than anywhere in NZ. You could say that cheapness and accessibility would be the best thing to raise the number and level of readers, if that were the aim of a NZ Book Month.

Perhaps NZSA and NZBM could go back to basics and find a way to start over as a celebration of New Zealand writers and writing, clearly defined.

from Jenny Argante, President of Tauranga Writers, and editor in chief of Freelance magazine.

This reproduction of Jenny’s letter is by permission, and was responded to privately on behalf of the NZ Book Month Trust. 

Great New Zealand books I’ve enjoyed #nzbookmonth

NZBM logo black-on-white

I read quite a lot of New Zealand books – I read them because I like good writing not because of where the author lives.

This NZ Book Month what not buy a New Zealand book to read? It’s easy to download the $5-off voucher from the NZ Book Month website but harder to know what to choose. Here’s some of my favourites (in no particular order)…

Young Adult
Red Rocks by Rachael King
Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee
The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi

Plays
The Pohutakawa Tree by Bruce Mason

Novels
The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley – if you live in Canterbury just buy this one for the descriptions alone.
The Forrests by Emily Perkins – in my non-scientific study people under 50 enjoy this more than people over 50
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – made my cry on the train home
A Boy and his Uncle by Anne Kennedy – I loved this at Art School

Janet Frame
Owls Do Cry
To the Is-land
Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room/The Carpathians 
Living in the Maniototo

Short stories
Coming up Roses by Sarah Laing – the book I judge all other short story books against.

by Emma McCleary, Web Editor at Booksellers NZ.