Women’s writing and feminist themes
The women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s was the context for much fiction by women writers who emerged then.
Fiona Kidman’s A breed of women (1979), about a young woman rebelling against small-town conventions, was a popular success and set the pattern for her later fiction, which questioned gender roles, especially in the historical novel The book of secrets (1987). The captive wife (2005) was a fictionalised account of real historical events and placed early settler Betty Guard at centre stage.
Novelist Marilyn Duckworth is the sister of poet Fleur Adcock, who has lived in Britain since 1963. Duckworth edited Cherries on a plate: New Zealand writers talk about their sisters, (1996) and both women wrote a chapter for the book.
Marilyn Duckworth’s fiction has explored women’s relationships with family members and lovers, and challenging topics like incest and paedophilia. Her novel Disorderly conduct won the fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards in 1985. In her 2007 novel Playing friends, Duckworth turned her attention to ageing. In 2016 she received a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for her contribution to New Zealand fiction.
One of the prevailing moods of later-20th-century fiction by women has been irony and satire-fiction that looks critically and often comically at the norms that were established by the New Zealand male writers of the 1930s and 1940s. A prime example is Barbara Anderson’s collection of stories I think we should go into the jungle (1989). Her best-known book, the award-winning Portrait of the artist’s wife (1992), is the story of a woman striving to realise her artistic talent and manage the demands of family life.
Other women writers
Sue McCauley, Shonagh Koea, Stephanie Johnson, Anne Kennedy, Fiona Farrell, Yvonne du Fresne and Sue Reidy have all written fiction which, broadly speaking, analyses and overturns gender expectations in society.
Writing by men
C. K. Stead, Vincent O’Sullivan, Owen Marshall and Lloyd Jones have developed New Zealand fiction in various ways.
C. K. Stead
Stead’s first novel, Smith’s dream (1971), became a cult classic. A dystopian tale of contemporary New Zealand, it extended the man-alone theme into politics and was made into the highly regarded film Sleeping dogs.
Stead’s highly productive career has made him one of New Zealand’s foremost writers. His many novels cover a wide range of subjects: All visitors ashore (1984) is about Janet Frame and has a strongly autobiographical base, Mansfield (2004) reflects Stead’s scholarly work, My name is Judas (2006) re-imagines the biblical story, Sister Hollywood (1989) is set in the 1930s, Risk (2012) is a thriller, and The necessary angel (2018) tackles academic life. Stead has won a number of awards for his fiction, including in 2010 the richest prize for short fiction in the world, the English Sunday Times short-story competition.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s story collection The boy, the bridge, the river (1978) was published after he had become a well established poet, followed by four more collections of stories over the next decade. His first novel, Miracle (1976), was a satire, followed by the prize-winning Let the river stand (1993), Believers to the bright coast (1998) and All this by chance (2018).
Owen Marshall’s short stories take on the small-town male culture so familiar from fiction of the 1930s and make it even darker and more claustrophobic. His first short-story collection, Supper waltz Wilson (1979), was followed by seven more collections before he published his first novel, A many coated man, in 1995. His prize-winning Harlequin rex was published in 1999, followed by The Larnachs in 2011, Love as a stranger in 2016 and Pearly gates in 2019. Marshall is generally regarded as the living master of the New Zealand short story.
Lloyd Jones’s first novel was Gilmore’s dairy (1985), set in the well-traversed locale of suburban New Zealand but distinguished by elements of fantasy, dark humour and satire. His award-winning Book of fame (2000) increased his public profile in New Zealand and his 2006 novel Mister Pip was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.