On Saturday night, at the first National Writers’ Forum (organised by the NZSA and held in Auckland), I was a speaker in the debate, arguing whether New Zealand books need special treatment. Te Radar was the moderator. Arguing for: Toby Manhire (Poldark lookalike) and Michele A’Court (funny, complicated name). Arguing against: me and Leilani Tamu (poet, woman of world). Leilani and I won, mainly because the room was loaded with my students, who are both loyal and loud.
Leilani and I had concentrated on one issue: the controversial ‘New Zealand table’ in book shops here. (Toby and Michele tried to make it much broader, so they could accuse us of being Trump acolytes, ACT party members, and/or the soft drink L&P, trying to take away everyone’s grants and fellowships, and destroying NZ lit. This played well with about half the room.)
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Catherine Robertson and I were being chastised online – which is the contemporary version of the Spanish Inquisition, complete with hypocrisy and manufactured outrage, except with ‘comments’ instead of bonfires – for daring to be women who ran focus groups of (mainly) women asking about their book-buying habits. We were sure, being women and all, to have done it wrong; we were sure to have had no experience running focus groups; we were sure to loaded the groups with women over 35, just because they buy books; we were sure to have asked leading questions, and goaded people into trashing Important New Zealand writers; we were sure to have excluded genre fiction, and tried to further our Industrial Literary Complex agenda; we were sure to have locked men out, and ignored library statistics, and to have kept the sample wilfully small, and proclaimed an end to all further research ever – even though our report explicitly addresses the next step, and that our key finding was about visibility rather than boringness, and so on.
Yawn. Catherine’s done a good job of responding.
So, back to that New Zealand table. Charlotte Grimshaw, top New Zealand authoress, emailed me on Monday with the following:
I see there've been a couple of articles about no one liking NZ novels, and booksellers having trouble selling them. My question re this is: Why do booksellers insist on having a separate NZ Fiction section in bookshops?
In the same way, there used to be a Gay Fiction section, before Alan Hollinghurst, say, which suggested it was something other than just "fiction".
If booksellers struggle to sell NZ fiction, why do they segregate it from other fiction, often in a small, distant shelf, as if it is a different thing from International fiction? It seems to me this must only make it harder to sell, and there's no logical reason to do it.
Do you think this is an issue?
Indeed I do. Here is an abbreviated version of my debate speech.
New Zealand books DO NOT need special treatment – not because our books aren’t special, but because they’re not basket cases.
Consider the situation we have now. Consider our poor, poor New Zealand books. There they lie, on their own little table in shops around the nation, too weak to stand up, too sensitive to be placed alongside their genre peers on the regular shelves. No wonder so many people think our literature is lame. Our books need to lie down!
In some shops, even more care is taken to ensure that New Zealand books get the special treatment the poor, feeble things need. The shop staff gather New Zealand books together and hide them away at the very back of the shop, in some dark corner, so the sun won’t fade their covers and no oafish customer can sully their pristine pages with impertinent fingers.
At the moment, in fact, our books are SO special that many of them have been stowed away for safe-keeping in warehouses in Australia, too special even to order. Think of it as a spa retreat, maybe, or some kind of sanitorium, where our ailing, limp, delicate books must spend months on end, away from the harsh glare of public commerce.
They’re so special that a print-on-demand request has to be flown by carrier pigeon across the Tasman before one single copy will consider venturing forth from this sanctuary, and only then after weeks of deliberation, in the hope that the customer will have lost interest and cancelled the order. Really, our books may never recover from so much special treatment. I’ve even heard rumours that increasing numbers of mercy killings are occurring in these Australian facilities. Books have to be pulped, just to protect them from the cruel world with its ‘shops’ and ‘readers’.
Fellow writers, is this what we want for our contemporary national literature? Segregation? Seclusion? Closed wards? Assisted suicide? I know we’re all very busy, squabbling on Facebook and writing ill-judged angry blog posts called I Am Not Famous and it’s all Creative New Zealand’s Fault. But pause a minute, and ask yourself: is this special treatment really in our interests?
Sure, for some of us readers it’s convenient to have a New Zealand table in a book shop, especially if it’s prominently positioned. We are champions of our local literature, keenly interested in local new releases, eager to browse new titles of whatever genre – fiction, poetry, essays, history, cookbooks, art books, biographies, books about trees and birds and gruelling, fly-plagued walks through the South Island, academic books about Treaty reparations or the 1951 Waterfront strike, collections and anthologies and journals, pamphlets and tomes, and those nostalgic photo books with pictures of dairies or old caravans on the cover – whatever it is, we’ll want to browse through it, as long as it’s from New Zealand.
Appraently, we are readers of catholic tastes and deeply patriotic feelings. We’re also quite lazy, so everything on the one table is really ideal. We don’t actually need a book shop – a book stall will do. Kind of like a cake stall at a school gala, with a similar amount of profit.
So, anyway, those of us who make a beeline for the New Zealand table in a book shop: that’s about 20 of us nationwide.
The rest of us shop normally. You like crime novels? You look in the crime section. You like fantasy? You look in the fantasy section. I’ve discovered, through extensive research, that books tend to be organised in alphabetical order. If I wanted to look for Pat Grace’s latest novel, say, I should be able to find it quite easily on the general fiction shelves somewhere between Nadine Gordimer and Günter Grass. And this is the company, I feel, that Pat should be keeping.
Hear about a new book on the radio or read about it in the Listener? Book shops have a new releases section to make the book easy to find. Then, when the book is no longer quite so new, the book can be found alongside its kind on the regular shelves. Pretty straightforward, yes? Not so for our ‘special’ New Zealand books. At some point the poor New Zealand table will start groaning under the weight of the 95 genres it must include at any given time, and older books will be sent to spend their twilight years in the retirement village of the New Zealand shelves. These are generally either close to the ground, so you have to get down on hands and knees, or very close to the ceiling, so you’ll need a ladder.
But wait: lots of bookshops are quite small. Time Out in Auckland, for example, is the size of an olden-days pantry. You see their problem? These shops already have a New Zealand table. Now they have to have New Zealand shelves as well. So much New Zealand! SO much special treatment!
And this is the problem. Most of their shelves are taken up by books that don’t need special treatment, books that can stand upright and jostle each other, brazenly staring the reader down at eye-level, spines turned in haughty unison.
So what happens is this: a few of our ‘special books’ get stuck on some hard-to-reach shelf, and the rest get sent away to a rest home. The euphemistic term is ‘returns’ but we all know what it really means. There’s no returning back to the book shop. Like greedy adult children desperate to get their hands on the family home so they can renovate and flip it, book shops have already filled the space with new books. Bye bye, special books! We gave you your chance on the 95-genre table! If only you were strong enough to hack it on the regular shelves, but no. We can’t risk it. Off to the rest home with you!
Those of us who write books don’t want to be THAT special. If we’re going to be shuffled into categories, then make them work for us and for our existing and potential readers. Nicky Pellegrino, for example, writes books that are set in Italy, their stories revolving (according to her web site) around friendship and food, passion and family secrets. Some people might call it chick lit, or woman’s fiction, or entertainment or escapism. I don’t think Nicky would mind any of that.
But I suspect she would much rather have her new book, Under Italian Skies, sitting alongside other books of that ilk rather than next to something like Peter Godfrey: Father of New Zealand Choral Music or Striking Gold: New Zealand Hockey’s Remarkable Victory at the 1976 Olympics. These are both actual recent books, and I mean no disrespect to them.
But I’m sure that Nicky’s potential market would find her books more readily if they came across them alongside, say, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter or The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley or The Italian Matchmaker by Santa Montefiore – rather than next to Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014.
Of course, it would be different if every book shop in the land could carry 20 copies of Nicky’s new book, and some could be shelved in general fiction, some in new releases, some in an end cap possibly dedicated to ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘great summer reading’, and some on the New Zealand books table. But most shops have taken a handful of copies. And they’re giving them the Special Treatment.
Special treatment, however well-intentioned, is killing us. Please, I beg you, hear our cry to stop this segregation, this separate-but-equal sham. We’re tired of cowering on the table. We’d like the chance to stand upright.
The New Zealand book table in a shop is not a tempting buffet table of local delicacies, but a bed in an extremely overcrowded hospital, piled with bodies. Don’t blame the customer if they suspect the bodies on the bed to be weak and pathetic.
It’s time we rejected this notion of specialness that condemns us to the isolation ward. Writers don’t need readers’ patriotic pity. Let us take our chances with the rest of our peers – and these peers are writers all over the world, dead and alive, writing now and in the past, writing in English and in translation. Salman Rushdie has talked about the ‘folly of trying to contain writers inside passports’ and here in New Zealand we take that folly one step further: we try to contain the vastness and diversity of our contemporary literature within one lumbering giant of a category, New Zealand books, and then cram it all onto one table.
Let us stand upright and clamber onto the shelves where we belong, alongside the other writers of the world. I know, I know – they’ll try to squeeze us out! They’ll jostle us for position. They’ll try to elbow us onto the floor. But to quote an Australian comedian, with apologies for his salty Australian language, it’s time to harden the fuck up, New Zealand. And if we truly care about the books we’re writing and publishing in this country, that’s exactly what we’ll do. We’ll kick the special-table habit and join the fray with all the other writers. We will fight them on the book shelves. We will fight them on the end caps. We will never, ever surrender.