Story: Creative life

Page 6. Writing and publishing

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New Zealand literature

Māori and settler experiences have provided different insights into life in New Zealand, and a rich literature has developed. Writers from diverse cultural backgrounds, such as poet Bill Manhire, novelists Patricia Grace, Albert Wendt, Maurice Gee and children’s writer Margaret Mahy, are prominent in New Zealand and elsewhere.

Māori writing and publishing

Māori people quickly saw the advantages of writing and printing for conveying ideas, in their own language and in English. Song poetry, part of a vigorous oral tradition, was published in collections, notably Ngā mōteatea, compiled by Apirana Ngata from the 1920s. In the 1960s and 1970s poet Hone Tuwhare and novelist Witi Ihimaera led the way for creative writing in English.

Settling in

Nineteenth-century settlers were initially more convincing when they wrote of actual rather than imagined events, as the diaries and reportage of that period show. With the passing of time, however, writers such as Jane Mander, Ursula Bethell, Frank Sargeson, Allen Curnow and James K. Baxter produced poetry and fiction of lasting value. A self-conscious nationalist literary movement beginning in the 1930s influenced writers for several decades. Since then a more international literature has emerged, with exponents such as novelist Elizabeth Knox.

Support for professional writers

The New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ) Inc lobbies for the interests of professional writers in dealing with publishers, broadcasting organisations and professional theatres, and negotiating copyright and royalty issues. The New Zealand Writers’ Guild represents writers in the fields of film, television, radio, theatre, video and multimedia. There are now over 50 awards, grants and competitions for writers, and a growing number of writing courses, many offered by universities and polytechnics. Literary magazines have come and gone since Landfall was founded in 1947; they now include Sport and (until 2019) New Zealand Books.

The book trade

Local publishing houses, including university presses, operate in a small, competitive market. Their concerns are addressed by the Book Publishers Association of New Zealand. Some large national publishing firms like Whitcombe & Tombs have been absorbed into multinational companies. Booksellers New Zealand promotes the sale of New Zealand books and manages several national book awards. 

Talking about writing

In New Zealand book groups – usually consisting of 7 to 12 people – are extremely popular. Members usually discuss a particular book at convivial monthly meetings, where eating, drinking and socialising are often an important component. The Book Discussion Scheme run by the Federation of Workers Educational Associations has been operating since 1973. It has over 640 groups nationwide, and 56% of the membership is outside the four main urban centres.


New Zealanders are enthusiastic readers. According to a 2002 survey, 44% of the adult population had purchased books in the previous four weeks, and 39% had visited locally funded public libraries. They are encouraged by organisations like the New Zealand Book Council, and by local events and national festivals such as the Auckland Writers Festival and the Writers Programme in the New Zealand Festival of the Arts.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - Writing and publishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005