The Kiwi-Aussie literary divide

Why don't the Australians like our authors?

This article was commissioned by the NZ Book Council Te Kaunihera Pukapuka o Aotearoa and first published in the Sunday Star-Times and on on 25 July 2015.

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?

One problem 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, Kiwi 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."

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 New Zealand.) 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 actively working against this trend is Michael Heyward, the publisher at Text Publishing, 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 Kiwi writers such as Janet Frame and David Ballantyne. Heyward says: "historically, New Zealand writers have been undersold and underpromoted in Australia, and vice versa … New Zealand 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 [in April]; it seems to have been largely invisible in Australia in its first New Zealand [by Victoria University Press in November 2013] edition."

The news isn't 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 Young Adult (YA) novelist, or a 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 New Zealand'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.

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 New Zealand, 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."

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'."

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 champions in the marketplace". He recommends more cross-Tasman interaction between publishers, booksellers, critics and literary agents.

Aussie and Kiwi writers can also apply for residencies and suchlike 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 New Zealand speculative fiction community. It is vibrant and welcoming - and definitely punching above its weight."

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. This article was commissioned by the New Zealand Book Council.

 - Sunday Star Times