Not all contemporary New Zealand writers have set their fiction in New Zealand, and none of them are constrained by the requirements of establishing a national literature like their predecessors of the 1930s and 1940s. However, the innovation and freshness of their work is tribute to a lively literary culture.
The exponential growth in numbers of New Zealand fiction writers and titles published since the mid-1970s has been remarkable. Between 1975 and 1985 the number of literature (fiction and poetry) books published increased by 59%, whereas numbers were fairly static in the early 1970s. The growth since this period is attributable to a variety of causes, including:
- a growing readership for New Zealand work, including internationally
- more publishing outlets
- creative writing courses, especially the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington
- financial support offered to writers of fiction in the form of awards, residencies and scholarships.
A prominent figure has been Elizabeth Knox, whose seventh novel The vintner’s luck (1998) was published in the UK and the US, won numerous prizes and was made into a film. Knox’s fiction shows great diversity, from autobiographical novellas to a vampire novel, Daylight (2003), and the highly successful young adult fantasy Dreamhunter (2006) and its sequel Dreamquake (2008).
Another internationally successful writer is Emily Perkins, whose first book, Not her real name and other stories (1996) won multiple awards including the Faber Award. Perkins’s fiction has been widely praised in the UK, where her later novels are published, such as Novel about my wife (2008).
Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The rehearsal, was published in 2008 and was translated into many languages. Her second novel, The luminaries (2013), won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. At 28, she was the youngest author ever to win the Booker, and at 832 pages The luminaries was the longest book ever to win.
Damien Wilkins and Nigel Cox have exemplified the productivity and technical sophistication that characterises 21st-century New Zealand fiction.
Wilkins’s first novel, The miserables (1993), won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction. His novels have been adventurously diverse and he is also noted for his screen and television work.
Rumble in the jungle
Nigel Cox’s Tarzan Presley came a cropper when the estate of Edgar Rice Burrows, the creator of Tarzan, threatened to sue Cox and the publisher, Victoria University Press (VUP), for breach of copyright and trademark. Cox and VUP were unable to take on the might of the Burrows estate. They were forced to agree not to export the novel and to change the characters’ names if it was ever reprinted. In 2011 the book was reissued as Jungle rock blues. It starred Caliban instead of Tarzan and June instead of Jane.
Nigel Cox’s death in 2006 cut short a vivacious body of fiction. His novel Tarzan Presley (2004) relocated Tarzan to the Tararua Range in northern Wairarapa, and morphed Tarzan into Elvis Presley. The cowboy dog (2006) imposes the western onto New Zealand’s volcanic plains, complete with Mexicans. Cox’s fiction blends American popular culture with New Zealand realism and is hard to place.
Hamish Clayton followed these innovative writers with his first novel, Wulf (2011), which mixes the Old English poem ‘Beowulf’ with a historical narrative about Te Rauparaha.
Other writers publishing fiction in the 2000s included Catherine Chidgey, Fiona Farrell, Charlotte Grimshaw, Kirsty Gunn, Charlotte Randall, Carl Shuker, Peter Wells, Sarah Quigley and Alison Wong.
Jenny Pattrick and Deborah Challinor are popular exponents of the New Zealand historical novel. Paul Cleave is an internationally successful thriller writer. All of his novels are set in his home town of Christchurch.
Romance writers have also found success abroad. Nalini Singh combines science fiction and the paranormal with romance, a mix which appeals to an international audience. Daphne Clair, Susan Napier and Natalie Anderson have grounded their romances in more earthly settings.