Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?

I was really looking forward to this session, and I was not disappointed: authors Catherine Robertson, Witi Ihimaera, Paul Cleave and Paula Morris in conversation about the fiction of Aotearoa.

witi ihimaeraAlmost immediately, we ran up against the problem of nomenclature. Ihimaera talked a lot about ‘New Zealand literature’, by which he seemed to mean ‘New Zealand literary fiction’. He was obviously reveling in the role of provocateur, and delighted in lobbing conversational grenades such as “I write New Zealand literature, they [fellow panellists] don’t”; “New Zealand literature is dead (when you think about it statistically)”; “I can’t write crime fiction because it’s too far below me”. It was (mostly) received in good humour, though, and it was gratifying to see Bats Theatre packed out with people keen to join the conversation. The room was buzzing for the whole hour.

Cleave articulated a common problem when he said he was put off NZ fiction at school by being forced to study Owls Do Cry, which was not the kind of story he was after when he was a teenager. It gave him a long-lasting (but, he realises now, erroneous) impression that that’s what all NZ fiction is like. Cleave suggested that we need to get into schools and educate kids about the entire spectrum of our writing. Morris pointed out that the new initiative Hooked on NZ Books aims to help do that by providing a forum for young people to review NZ YA literature.

We heard a lot of ideas about what young people should or should not be doing and reading. Ihimaera suggested that literary festivals should have two-for-one tickets where adults have to bring a young person with them. He said “our young people like to see things, they don’t like to read things”, so we need to use visual media to reach them. He worries that the whakapapa of NZ literature isn’t being passed on. Morris bemoaned the fact that she sees tertiary students who still have Harry Potter notebooks, and says young people need, at some point, to put the things of childhood away and graduate to adult literature.

paula morrisI see her point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with Morris there. During this session no one mentioned fan culture, and how it influences NZ readers’ behaviour. One of the reasons young adults continue to read Harry Potter despite no longer being children themselves is that they value being part of the fan community: it’s much wider than just the books. Perhaps some fruitful questions to consider in future literary festivals might be, which NZ authors are inspiring a fan community? How does that influence New Zealanders’ reading behaviour? Who is reading NZ fan fiction? How does NZ fan fiction fit into the wide and diverse landscape of NZ literature?

My fellow festival reviewers Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer – both in their 20s – have also made some interesting points about young people at literary festivals, which I think are pertinent to the question of who’s reading NZ fiction.

Graham says: “everyone wants to know both how we get more young people (a) along and (b) buying books, so that the industry will not die, but at the same time they don’t REALLY want young people there because they enjoy the whole Q and A at the end just being about how young people are crap and obsessed with their phones and Breaking Bad (which would be awkward in a room full of young people).

“Most of the young people I know read literary fiction (yes, on their phones) and also watch Breaking Bad. Yesterday, I finished a book of literary fiction and tonight I plan to binge-watch House of Cards. It’s just that a lot of us don’t feel like literary festivals are really for us. I don’t know how exactly this happened, but it is important when, as Witi pointed out, book awards and writers fests are the main ways that New Zealand writers get attention and promotion.”

Falconer said she really valued the Taking Form event at Writers Week (a panel discussion with writer Courtney Sina Meredith, graphic novelist Mariko Tamaki and artist and curator Kerry Ann Lee, chaired by Sarah Laing) because “the speakers are about 5-10 years older than me, and ask themselves a lot of the same questions about their work and life as I do my own.”

Catherine_Robertson_150There is also the problem of elitism. Robertson made the point that YA fiction is presented as all being on par, but when we become grown-ups, we’re expected to specialise and distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ qualities of writing. Ihimaera criticised literary festivals for being elitist, but at the same time insisted that we must have a literary canon to “write New Zealand into existence”. He said we’ve only a had a 30-year window (in the mid-to-late twentieth century) to say ‘this is New Zealand literature’. He finds it frightening to let that go. I was glad when Morris pointed out that there are lots of writers engaging with New Zealand-ness still, and producing all kinds of really interesting work.

It was fascinating to see the ways in which the panel members made value judgements about their own work. Morris, who has written both YA and literary fiction, frankly admitted that she considers her work for adults to be worth a lot more: people will forget her YA books but “Rangatira [a literary novel] is my contribution to the conversation about NZ literature”. She notes that authors have much more freedom in writing adult literary novels – but the penalty you pay is that publishers may not publish them and readers may not read them.

Cleave, PaulCleave, who writes crime fiction, said he would leave writing NZ culture to others. He has made a conscious decision not to market his books as NZ novels. Robertson, who writes romantic and contemporary fiction, pointed out that many commercially successful NZ authors are not well known here because we tend to celebrate the literary authors more.

Robertson made the excellent point that people read for many different reasons and should have all kinds of different books available to them to fulfil their varying needs. She said we need to scrutinise our own biases and our leftover colonial mentality that tells us that NZ writing isn’t as good as writing from overseas.

On the subject of internationality, I was intrigued to learn from Morris that in May she will be launching an Academy of New Zealand Literature. It will include genre-crossing work and Pasifika writing, and will help position and promote NZ writing overseas. Watch this space for more news on that.

Towards the end of the session, Ihimaera graciously told Cleave and Robertson that, contrary to what he had said earlier, “you do write New Zealand literature”. I agree with Morris that our books should and can contain everything about Aotearoa – and every Writers Week I discover a new aspect of that. Huge congratulations and grateful thanks to everyone involved in making it happen. See you next year!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?
2pm, Sunday 13 March, BATS Theatre
Part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Book Reviews: Five Minutes Alone, by Paul Cleave

cv_five_minutes_aloneAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Award-winning Christchurch crime writer Paul Cleave is back with his eighth book, and I’m relieved to say it’s every bit as good as his previous works.

Former ‘Coma Cops’ Theodore Tate & Carl Schroeder are back amongst the land of the living. Or at the least the land of the functioning members of society. Supposedly. But after that many years on the police force, seeing what they’ve seen, doing what they’ve done and time in Coma Land? Well it’s not surprising that things feel a little off, like they don’t fit anymore.

When a vicious rapist is found dead under suspicious circumstances, and another two are found shortly afterwards, it appears that a vigilante may be helping victims of horrific crimes exact revenge by giving them five minutes alone with those responsible for causing them misery. Obviously that makes the vigilante a criminal too, someone who should be taken off the street – or does it?

Showcasing his trademark plotting prowess and knack for exceptional characterisation, Cleave has once again crafted a book you just don’t want to put down until you’re finished.

While it’s a little unnerving to read about a Christchurch without an earthquake, you can quickly bypass that and lose yourself in the story, one that flows on easily from Cleave’s previous books; but I think would still be enjoyable and understandable to someone picking up one of his novels for the first time. (Though I recommend of course you start at the beginning – treat yourself!)

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan

Five Minutes Alone
by Paul Cleave
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143572312

The Great NZ Crime Debate, WORD Christchurch 30 August

The Great NZ Crime Debate

This year the Great New Zealand Crime Debate was convened to debate the moot “Crime Doesn’t Pay”. On the affirmative team were lawyer Marcus Elliott, crime writer Paul Cleave and US novelist Meg Wolitzer. On the negative team were Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel, journalist Martin van Beynen and satirist Steve Braunias. The debate was MC’d by writer Joe Bennett.

It was a highly enjoyable night of silly fun. The emphasis was on jokes rather than arguments; name-calling rather than logic. All participants spoke well, although no one came close to Bennett in terms of sheer showmanship. A grand night was had by all.

After the debate was the presentation of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. The finalists were Joe Victim by Paul Cleave (Penguin), Frederick’s Coat by Alan Duff (Random House), My Brother’s Keeper by Donna Malane (HarperCollins) and Where the Dead Men Go by Liam McIlvanney (Faber).

And the winner is! Where the Dead Men Go by Scottish Kiwi Liam McIlvanney. Although he has only lived in NZ for few years (and still has a very strong Scottish accent), McIlvanney says he is proud to be a New Zealander and loves seeing his books in the NZ section of bookshops. Resident in Dunedin, he told me that his favourite bookshops are UBS Otago, Scribes, and Unity Books Wellington.

Lots more WORD festival fun to come. Bring it on!

Reported by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance Writer and Publisher

Book review: The Laughterhouse by Paul Cleave

This book is in bookstores now.

Poor old Christchurch. Fortunately the Christchurch in Paul Cleave’s latest thriller hasn’t been devastated by earthquakes. Instead its citizens are facing an entirely different terror – a spree killer running amok in the crime-riddled streets, slaughtering seemingly random victims and leaving cryptic messages inked on their lifeless foreheads. I can’t imagine international readers will be flocking to our poor Garden City; Cleave’s book is no travelogue. What it is though is a fast-paced action-packed thriller of a story.

Fifteen years ago, a young girl was found murdered in an abandoned slaughterhouse (the gruesomely re-named Laughterhouse of the title). The murderer was found and arrested. Now someone has decided that justice wasn’t properly served and has taken matters decisively and violently into his own hands. Private Investigator Theodore Tate becomes very personally involved in the ensuing hunt for the so-called spree killer. Tate is a former homicide detective, having been thrown out of the police force, serving time in prison for crimes of his own. He is uniquely placed to solve the puzzling link between the victims in order to track down the killer.

Tate is a complex and very human character with a fascinating back story of his own; he has appeared in two earlier novels. I don’t believe I lost anything by not having read the Tate stories in order but I do now feel compelled to go back and read the other books to fill in some tantalising gaps. I desperately hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Theodore Tate.

I first heard of Paul Cleave a few years ago and had been meaning to add him to my “To Read” list. There was a great article in North & South magazine a while back about Cleave and his success internationally. What do the Germans know that we don’t? Why isn’t Cleave more widely read in New Zealand? If you’re harbouring any traces of cultural cringe about reading New Zealand authors, and have a liking for crime thrillers, then one of Cleave’s books would be a very smart starting point in overcoming any outdated notions about Kiwi authors being inferior to overseas writers. Cleave easily holds his own.

Laughterhouse is a gripping, gritty and very disturbing read. One of the spree killer’s victims is kidnapped, rather than killed, and then forced to choose which of his three daughters to see killed and which to save. This isn’t a book you will want to put down. As a parent, I couldn’t sleep until the awful tension had been resolved. A very good book to save for your Christmas holiday or a long flight when you are able to read it in one sitting.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Laughterhouse
by Paul Cleave
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143568292

Thanks to the generous folks at Penguin Books we had a copy of The Laughterhouse to give away – congratulations to Lesley McIntosh who was the winner of this book.