Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading and writing locally

Last week I was chatting to another Auckland writer and reader who commented that my work had a strong sense of being of and from New Zealand-Aotearoa. In particular, they said, this came out in the way I described the landscape, and used it to show aspects of character and psychology as well as to give a sense of place. I took this as a compliment and was rather flattered they had paid so much attention to the story. They then went on to say that they didn't want to write like that, that they wanted to appeal to a wider, more international audience, and that they weren't writing a 'New Zealand' story at all, they were writing for a global market. They had been told - and I'm not sure by whom - that anything too local had little or no chance of being published or read.

Well, I've heard that argument a number of times and it reminded me of hearing Margaret Attwood say that when she was starting out as a writer she was told the same kind of thing - that is, no-one would want to read about anything recognisably Canadian, it was too local - I think what that meant at the time was that it wouldn't appeal to an American audience. So whenever I hear these kinds of comments a part of my brain goes: oh, here we go, the cultural cringe argument again. And I think of any number of great writers whose work is steeped in local environments and communities, e.g. Annie Proulx, Katherine Mansefield, William Trevor, Patricia Grace, James Joyce...

It also reminded me of all the times I've heard writers - mainly but not only, unpublished - bemoan how hard it is to get published in New Zealand, yet when you ask them how many New Zealand books they read in a year they say none. They only read books from overseas such as international best sellers. Hmmm...

I'm not concerned that people are interested in overseas literature and popular fiction - I enjoy it very much myself - but I am always shocked and saddened if they aren't interested in the literature (and other forms of cultural expression) of their own communities. Can you demand the right to be heard, and published, if you aren't prepared to listen, read and support others?

Changes occuring in publishing (mentioned in a number of earlier posts) mean that we now have the opportunity to be published much more easily, but the new technologies and opportunities guarantee no-one an audience by right. Audiences are communities built up through shared interests, relationships and connections. They are not just marketing tools to make a buck out of.


  1. Great post Trisha. I just finished reading Tim Winton's Dirt Music (yes, I'm behind the times!) and you couldn't get a story more rooted in Australia. It was magical, his connection to and knowledge of the landscape, the natural world of Australia and the language and vernacular - outstanding. Loved every bit of it (yes, even the adverbs James!) just as much as I love stories like Maurice Gee's Plumb, especially the parts settled deeply in the West Coast. I would totally take that reader's comments as a compliment!

  2. Thanks for your comment Bonnie - yes, I loved Tim Winton's Dirt Music too, and he's a fine example of an author steeped in his own environment and community, both of which he obviously cares about. And it was lovely to be reminded about Maurice Gee's work as well, another excellent writer with a fine sense of place,who has produced many memorable books and characters.

  3. In our global times, writing from the identity of a place and a people becomes intriguing. We learn of each other through such literature. Readers are changing and open to voices different to theirs. Look at the success of African and Indian authors!

  4. Hi Kate
    thanks for your comment - and I agree that 'readers are open to voices different to theirs'. It's one of the reasons we read (and listen and view) stories of all kinds.

  5. I think these issues often get run together when I don't see that they are. Writing with a feel and sound and sense of the landscape you're from shouldn't be construed some sort of statement that a writer doesn't want an international audience. Nor does a writer's wanting an international audience mean they're obliged or forced to not write of the places and with the spirit of the landscape around them. Perhaps a writer's inner landscape reflects and is forged as much by the outer landscape they grow up in as the events of their lives, in as much as the effects and history of those landscapes are both part of a person's psychological 'whole.'

    I see where you come from as part of who you are, and don't see why that should be downplayed or sacrificed in the search for an audience. Anyway, everyone reading this board has likely read and engaged with works set in landscapes we've never been to, and have come to know only through the works. Our unfamiliarity with those places didn't hinder our engagement.