Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by Lydia Wevers

Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame are New Zealand’s best-known fiction writers internationally. Their work is part of a tradition that began in the 1860s and was flourishing in the 2000s.

The first novels, 1860s and 1870s

Fictional works about or including New Zealand appeared in the late 18th century, but the first home-grown novels were not published until the 1860s. These set the pattern for later-19th-century fiction, which followed established British tastes for adventure, romance and interest in faraway places.


The first novel published in New Zealand was Henry Butler Stoney’s Taranaki: a tale of the war in 1861. Stoney‘s ‘novel’ is lightly disguised personal experience and excerpts from military dispatches.

The following year Isabella Aylmer became the first woman to publish a novel about New Zealand. Distant homes; or, the Graham family in New Zealand (1862) is modelled on the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson and is probably based on letters from a family member, as Aylmer never visited New Zealand. It includes many mistakes, including that thermal pools cover everything (such as food and bathers) with liquid stone.

Benjamin Farjeon, who worked as a journalist in Dunedin, published his first book, Shadows on the snow: a Christmas story (1865), a Dickensian melodrama set on the Otago goldfields, before he became a successful popular novelist in London.


Samuel Butler’s journeys in the high country, where part of his novel Erewhon is set, are recorded in the place names of the region, such as Mt Butler and Butlers Saddle. Erewhon Station is near Butler’s Mesopotamia Station in inland South Canterbury.


Samuel Butler, a major British literary figure of the 19th century, began his career in Canterbury, where he lived from 1860 to 1864. Erewhon (1872) – an anagram of ‘nowhere’ – is a utopian novel set in an imaginary country, which begins in the Southern Alps and becomes a version of Italy. It has sometimes been seen as the beginning of the ‘man alone’ theme in New Zealand literature.

Another early immigrant novelist was Vincent Pyke, who wrote novels of the Otago goldfields. The best-known is The story of wild Will Enderby (1873), a lively tale of adventure and romance on the goldfields.

Charlotte Evans’s two light romances A strange friendship and Over the hills and far away (both published in 1874) used New Zealand material but are nostalgically English.

Romance, Māori and pioneer fiction, 1880s to 1910s


Romance was the queen of 19th-century fiction. Even novels whose subject was the New Zealand wars tended to adopt a romance formula. Almost all novels by women in the 19th century followed a romance plot, often interwoven with family saga, which allowed colonial experience, or ‘local colour’, to be reported.

One of the most prolific of these writers was Louisa Baker, who wrote 16 novels under the pseudonym ‘Alien’. Baker grew up in Christchurch. She married at 18, and moved to Dunedin when her marriage broke down. She later settled in London, where she published her first novel, A daughter of the king (1894). Like her contemporaries Ellen Ellis and Edith Searle Grossmann, Baker was part of the ‘new woman’ movement in literature, and believed that raising women’s status within marriage would improve their lives.

Burning books

After Ellen Ellis published the autobiographical novel Everything is possible to will, her son, Willie, bought as many copies of the book as he could find and burned them. He was upset by the portrayal of his father as a drunk.

Ellen Ellis’s Everything is possible to will, published in 1882, promoted women’s rights and temperance. It was largely autobiographical, about a woman who marries a businessman who turns out to be an alcoholic, and moves with him to New Zealand.

Edith Searle Grossmann was a university graduate at Canterbury and a teacher. Like Baker and Ellis, she did not have a happy marriage, and lived apart from her husband. Grossmann’s novels are progressive in their views of female suffrage, the social status of women and equal opportunity. Her best-known work is The heart of the bush (1910). The heroine, Adelaide Borlase, has to choose between two suitors, an effete Englishman and a rough New Zealander, who personify the problems and virtues of colonial culture.


Māori were a constant source of fictional interest in the latter half of the 19th century. John White, official interpreter to Sir George Grey, collected Māori historical traditions and would tell stories such as ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ to sizeable audiences in return for Māori stories. He wrote novels based on Māori oral tradition. The best-known of these are Te Rou (1874), an ethnographic novel about Māori life, and Revenge: a love tale of the Mount Eden tribe, which was published posthumously in 1940.

The most popular subject for novels about Māori was the New Zealand wars. Australian Robert Whitworth’s Hine ra was published in 1887 and followed by Hume Nisbet’s The rebel chief (1896), Robert H. Scott’s Ngamihi (1895), the well-known Australian author Rolf Boldrewood’s War to the knife (1898) and a number of others. Conservative and sensational, these books have been described as ‘Maorified romances.’1

A premier prophet

In 1889 former New Zealand premier Julius Vogel published a utopian science-fiction novel called Anno domini 2000. A number of aspects of the book were subsequently realised in real life. It was set at the dawn of the 21st century. Women dominated governments and poverty was a thing of the past. The novel included air travel, electric labour-saving devices and a social-welfare system.


Clara Cheeseman’s A rolling stone (1886) recounts its hero’s colonial experiences as a romance. George Chamier’s Philosopher Dick (1891) and its sequel A south-sea siren (1895), which have been described as the most substantial 19th-century novels set in New Zealand, take a more critical view. Philosopher Dick is about an educated shepherd who is out of place on a high-country sheep station. The novel describes colonial life, and examines rather than just recording it.

Edith Lyttleton, who wrote under the name G. B. Lancaster, was one of New Zealand’s most widely read popular novelists overseas. She wrote about men who worked on back-country sheep stations in Sons o’ men (1904) and subsequent novels. In 1909 Lyttleton went to London, where she wrote prolifically.

William Satchell is the best-known of the early-20th-century novelists. The land of the lost (1902), set in the kauri-gum fields, and The toll of the bush (1905) were both reviewed enthusiastically. As in Edith Searle Grossmann’s novels, the New Zealand bush was a potent force in his fiction. Satchell’s last novel, The greenstone door (1914), is widely considered his best.

    • Joan Stevens, The New Zealand novel, 1860–1960. Wellington: Reed, 1961, p. 14. Back

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (born Kathleen Beauchamp, daughter of the manager of the Bank of New Zealand) has had more influence internationally than any other New Zealand writer. Along with Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and other members of the London-based Bloomsbury group, she was one of the founders of literary modernism during and after the First World War.

Mansfield’s place in literary history is due to her technical innovation and sophistication as a writer, her use of a floating indirect narrator and her ‘plot-less’ stories.


Most of Mansfield’s writing career took place in England, where she went to live in 1908 at the age of 19. In 1912 she published ‘colonial’ stories in the avant-garde magazine Rhythm, including ‘The woman at the store’ and ‘How Pearl Button was kidnapped’. It is Mansfield’s famous stories set in Wellington – ‘Prelude’, ‘The garden party’, ‘At the bay’ and ’The doll’s house’ – that most readers know.

Scene setting

Mansfield’s famous 1921 story ‘At the bay’ opens, ‘Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and which was sea.’1

These stories centre on the Burnell family, who resemble Mansfield’s own family (the Beauchamps), and they describe the Wellington places in which she lived as a child. Mansfield began writing these stories after the death of her brother Leslie in 1915 during the First World War, as a deliberate act of homage.

They form the core of her work and are expressive of late colonial society seen from shifting viewpoints, which include Mansfield’s fictional self-portrait as the child Kezia. Mansfield’s evocation of local landscapes, extended families, a child’s point of view and complex emotional psychology established a pattern for later short-story writers like Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Janet Frame and Owen Marshall, but the brilliance of her writing has never been equalled.

Collections, journals and letters

Mansfield published three collections of stories in her lifetime, In a German pension (1911), Bliss and other stories (1920) and The garden party and other stories (1922), as well as her long story Prelude’ (1918). More stories, as well as letters and journals, were published by Mansfield’s husband John Middleton Murry after her death from tuberculosis in 1923.

    • Katherine Mansfield, ‘At the bay.’ In The Auckland University Press anthology of New Zealand literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012, p. 244. Back

Women writers, 1920s and 1930s

Jane Mander

Jane Mander’s The story of a New Zealand river (1920) continues to have historical importance. Based on Mander’s nomadic early life, due to her father’s work as a sawmiller and bushman in Northland, the novel describes the culture clash that ensues when the rough sawmill boss marries a cultivated, piano-playing Englishwoman, who brings with her to the bush her children from an earlier marriage.

The title echoes Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African farm, which Mander had been reading, and reflects her wish to evoke a deeply local New Zealand. It is thought to have been part of the source material for Jane Campion’s film The piano (1993). Mander wrote several other novels while living in New York and London in the 1920s. Only one of these, Allen Adair (1925), about the Northland gumfields, has been reprinted.

Jean Devanny

A sensational book of the 1920s was Jean Devanny’s The butcher shop (1926), a desolate and violent novel about adultery and murder on a King Country station. Its frankness about sexuality and feminism meant it was banned on publication in New Zealand and also in Australia, Boston and Germany, but it sold well in the UK. Devanny moved to Australia in 1929 and became a very active member of the Communist Party. She published numerous other novels, of which the best known is Sugar heaven (1936).

Robin Hyde

Robin Hyde was the pen name of Iris Wilkinson, who considered herself primarily a poet, but whose imaginative, political and innovative novels have remained of great interest to contemporary readers and critics for their feminist politics and experimentalism.

Secret name

Iris Wilkinson’s pen name commemorated her son, Christopher Robin Hyde, who was stillborn in Sydney in 1926. She took his name as a gesture of defiance, since the pregnancy and birth had been kept a secret from everyone except her mother.

The godwits fly (1938), an autobiographical novel, is the best known. It was preceded by Check to your king (1936), a novel about Baron Charles de Thierry which is critical of colonisation, and two novels based on the war experience of an ‘outlaw’ soldier, Starkie (James Douglas Stark), Passport to hell (1936) and Nor the years condemn (1938). In 1937 Hyde published Wednesday’s children, an ironic fantasy which criticised the social choices available to women. She died by suicide in London in 1939.

Popular fiction

A prolific author of popular fiction, Isabel Maude Peacocke wrote 50 novels for children and light romances set in Auckland. She had a large readership in England, where her work was published, but was not well known in New Zealand, where her books were not widely distributed.

Nelle Scanlan’s Pencarrow series, four family-saga novels published between 1932 and 1939, have been credited with creating a readership for New Zealand fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Scanlan published several novels in England before the Pencarrow books (which offer a very conservative view of colonial life) made her the most popular novelist of her generation.

Another successful writer published between the wars was Rosemary Rees, whose novels aimed at what became the Mills-and-Boon market of romance readers. She was less well known than Mary Scott, whose internationally successful rural domestic comedies began with the publication of her ‘Barbara’ newspaper sketches in 1936. In the early 1950s Scott followed up with a series of novels set on backblocks farms in the North Island. The best-known of these are Breakfast at six (1953) and Dinner doesn’t matter (1957).

Ngaio Marsh Award

In 2010 the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel was inaugurated. Any crime, mystery or thriller novel written by a New Zealand citizen or resident and published in the preceding year is eligible.

The queen of the popular-fiction writers was Ngaio Marsh, who divided her time between New Zealand and England. She is best known for her 32 detective novels featuring Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, the first of which was published in 1934. Four of these are set in New Zealand: Vintage murder (1937), Colour scheme (1943), Died in the wool (1945) and Photo-finish (1980). The majority of her novels have English country settings like those of her great rival Agatha Christie, and use the same formula of solving a murder puzzle.

The New Zealand voice, 1930s and 1940s

Frank Sargeson

Frank Sargeson’s first sketches were published in Tomorrow, a left-wing Christchurch journal, in the 1930s. The brief stories in his collection Conversation with my uncle and other stories (1936) were praised for their social realism and distinctive New Zealand idiom and mood. Mostly about single men, they depict a puritanical society full of semi-articulate people, like the laconic, working-class homosexual narrator of his novella That summer (1946). Sargeson’s Kiwi vernacular was much imitated by later male writers.

Change of voice

In the 1960s Sargeson wrote Memoirs of a peon (1965), Joy of the worm (1969) and The hangover (1967) in a more ornate style about articulate middle-class people. These novels are very dark comedies and their protagonists are submerged in failure and defeat.

In 1945 a collection of short stories edited by Frank Sargeson called Speaking for ourselves was published. It marked a new moment of literary self-confidence about a distinctive New Zealand voice. Janet Frame, then a patient in hospital, said that the stories in the collection ‘overwhelmed me by the fact of their belonging.’1

Short stories

The short story became the dominant form of fiction in New Zealand after the Second World War. Maurice Duggan, A. P. Gaskill, John Reece Cole, Greville Texidor, James Courage, Roderick Finlayson, Dan Davin, O. E. Middleton and G. R. Gilbert all adopted the short story as their preferred fictional form. This is partly attributable to the impact of Sargeson’s stories, though it is notable that the impact was not as visible on women writers.

Courageous work

James Courage’s 1959 novel A way of love was banned in New Zealand because of its depiction of homosexual love. Courage’s writing was circumspect, but the basic subject was enough for censors to deem the book indecent. It was the first New Zealand novel to overtly deal with same-sex love, and given this, Courage’s name is apt. His grandmother, Sarah Amelia Courage, published a warts-and-all account of pioneering around 1896, and many of the privately circulated copies of her book were burned by irate neighbours.

Many male writers focused on masculine environments – the rugby club, racecourse, manual labour, army and pub – or on families seen from the point of view of a male child. Sargeson’s stories questioned the social assumptions of New Zealand culture, but the work of his successors was less questioning. The exception is Maurice Duggan, whose stylish poetic and literary language sits in contrast to the colloquial style and social realism of his contemporaries.

Man alone

John Mulgan’s Man alone (1939) is a classic of New Zealand fiction. More influential than any other single book, it describes what has become a powerful cultural stereotype, the Kiwi bloke who is alienated from a repressive and hostile society and goes it alone.

Mulgan’s antihero, Johnson, comes to New Zealand during the economic depression of the 1930s, is caught up in rioting in Auckland and leaves the city to work on farms. After his boss is accidentally killed, he flees to the Kaimanawa Mountains and survives a winter crossing the mountains before leaving New Zealand for the Spanish Civil War. Johnson exemplifies qualities of resilience and toughness which have become part of a New Zealand myth of identity, but Mulgan’s novel is a hard look at the more unattractive aspects of New Zealand society.

The perils of love

Barry Crump’s Sam Cash described women as ‘[h]ard to catch as a new-calved heifer and harder to get rid of than a wind-broken gelding. Get a man into more trouble than a wool-chasing dog. Spend all your dough, keep you in a steady job so you have to crawl to the boss, and bust you up with all your mates. Lever promises out of you that you can’t keep and then call you a liar. Next thing they get you so you can’t think and before you know where you are, you’re married.’2

Lighter-hearted chroniclers of the man-alone culture in New Zealand became immensely popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Following on from the success of Frank S. Anthony’s comic rural yarns Me and Gus’ (written in the 1920s and published in book form in 1936 and 1938), Barry Crump entrenched the popular version of the man alone, on the run from domestic and social responsibilities, in more than 20 comic novels, which began with A good keen man (1960).

    • Quoted in Patrick Evans, The Penguin history of New Zealand literature. Auckland: Penguin, 1990, p. 123. Back
    • Barry Crump, from Hang on a minute mate. In The Auckland University Press anthology of New Zealand literature, edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2012, p. 498. Back

New writers after the Second World War

David Ballantyne

David Ballantyne was one of the post-war writers who did not achieve the recognition they deserved in their lifetime. His novel The Cunninghams (1948) won awards and was well reviewed internationally, but it was 14 years before another book was accepted for publication. He received little critical attention during his lifetime, but Sydney bridge upside down (1968), his fourth novel, was rediscovered as a ‘Kiwi classic’ and republished in 2010.


In his own words, David Ballantyne was ‘a writer who never really made it, neither kudos nor cash to show for a quarter century at the typewriter’.1 Perhaps he would have been consoled to some extent by the republication of Sydney bridge upside down in 2010.

Essie Summers

Romance writer Essie Summers’s first book, New Zealand inheritance, was published by English company Mills and Boon in 1957. She went on to become Mills and Boon’s most prolific author, having another 51 books published by the company and selling 17 million copies in 17 languages. Her last book, Design for life, was published in 1997, a year before her death.

Bill Pearson

Bill Pearson’s Coal flat (1963) was around 20 years in the making and was hailed as the most significant novel of its time when published. Despite this, it was Pearson’s only work of fiction.

Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Ronald Hugh Morrieson had a similar literary history to David Ballantyne. A music teacher, Morrieson spent his entire life in Hāwera, where he lived with his mother. His portrayal of the violence and sexuality of small-town New Zealand has received considerable favourable critical attention since his death in 1972.

Life imitates art

Ronald Hugh Morrieson led something of a double life. He lived in the family home with his mother and aunt for his entire life, but led a dissipated existence after hours, in the manner of many of his fictional characters. He died after a drinking bout on Christmas Day in 1972.

The scarecrow (1963), about a sex murderer in a small town, is a tragicomedy which found a new readership in the 1980s. Came a hot Friday (1964) is a dark tale of sexuality, gambling and violence, and Predicament (1975) is a disturbing novel about adolescence. Morrieson’s final novel, Pallet on the floor, added racism to his repertoire of themes. All four books were filmed.

Maurice Shadbolt

Maurice Shadbolt’s first book, The New Zealanders (1959), began his long career as a novelist, which culminated in his important trilogy on the New Zealand wars: Season of the Jew (1986), Monday’s warriors (1990) and The house of strife (1993). Historical themes dominate his fiction, including family history in his earlier novels Among the cinders (1965), Strangers and journeys (1972) and The Lovelock version (1980).

M. K. Joseph

M. K. Joseph is best known for his science-fiction works The hole in the zero (1967) and The time of Achamoth (1977) and the war novel A soldier’s tale (1976). He is unusual among post-war New Zealand writers for his diversity of genres, perhaps attributable to his English background and education.

Maurice Gee

Maurice Gee is a major figure of late-20th-century fiction and by 2013 was the author of 33 novels and collections. Gee’s fiction reflects his early years in Henderson, Auckland, and shows a critical engagement with New Zealand’s masculine culture and puritanical social mores.

His early novel The big season (1962) takes a hard look at club rugby. Later novels In my father’s den (1972) and Games of choice (1976) establish the terrain of his fiction – small towns, complex undercurrents and social critique.

Gee’s long sequence of novels is a sophisticated variation on these deep themes. His celebrated trilogy Plumb (1978), Meg (1981) and Sole survivor (1983), based on aspects of his own family, covers three generations descended from George Plumb, a Presbyterian minister. They map almost a century of social and spiritual change with complex characters and interwoven time sequences. Gee’s later novels Live bodies (1998) and Blindsight (2005) won the fiction prizes at the Montana Book Awards.

    • Quoted in The Oxford companion to New Zealand literature, edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 39. Back

Janet Frame

Janet Frame is the most widely regarded New Zealand novelist of the 20th century. Born in Dunedin, she spent her childhood in Ōamaru, the setting for her first novel Owls do cry (1957).

While Frame’s work often draws on her experience (as in Faces in the water of 1961, about a patient in a psychiatric hospital), her novels raise deep philosophical questions about how words change reality, so they cannot be read as being biographically ‘about’ their author. Frame’s work examines individual consciousness while also criticising social trends, especially consumerism, and narrow-mindedness.

Literary heritage

Janet Frame’s mother, Lottie, wrote poetry almost daily and published it in a variety of newspapers. She also sold poems and songs door-to-door in Ōamaru. In her youth she had worked as a domestic servant for Katherine Mansfield’s grandmother.

Early work

Frame’s career began with The lagoon: stories (1951), written during her eight years in psychiatric hospitals. When she left hospital in 1954 she was invited by Frank Sargeson to live in a hut in his garden, where she wrote Owls do cry. Like Katherine Mansfield’s work, Frame’s early fiction was about a family, the Withers, which resembled her own, and was often written from a child’s point of view. Frame quickly established herself as a distinctive and innovative voice in New Zealand literature.


Frame left for England in 1956 and stayed there for seven years. During this time she published two collections of stories, three novels – Faces in the water (1961), The edge of the alphabet (1962), and Scented gardens for the blind (1963) – and wrote Towards another summer, which remained in her papers and was published posthumously in 2007.

New Zealand and the United States

Frame returned to New Zealand in 1963, when her father died, and wrote The adaptable man (1965), A state of siege (1966), The reservoir and other stories (1967) and The rainbirds (1968).

From 1967 Frame spent more time in the United States on fellowships. Two of her novels are entirely or partly set there: Daughter buffalo (1972) and Living in the Maniototo (1979). She moved back to New Zealand in 1972 and moved around various small towns before returning to Dunedin, where she died in 2004. Her last novel, The Carpathians (1989), continued Frame’s distinctively lyrical and densely metaphorical style.

New writers of the 1970s and 1980s

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

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.

Creative family

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

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.

Barbara Anderson

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

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

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

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.

Contemporary fiction

Wider horizons

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.

Elizabeth Knox

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).

Emily Perkins

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

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.

Innovative fiction

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.

Popular fiction

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.

Māori and Pacific writers and writing about Māori

Pākehā writers on Māori topics

Roderick Finlayson developed close relationships with Māori in the Bay of Plenty while working as a farm labourer in the 1930s. He published Brown man’s burden, a collection of stories sympathetic to Māori culture and society, in 1938. A second collection of stories, Sweet Beulah land (1942), was followed by his novel Tidal creek in 1948. Finlayson’s stories are precursors to work by Māori writers like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace.

Noel Hilliard’s five novels and three collections of short stories, the best-known of which was Maori girl (1960), depict the collision between Pākehā racism and western capitalism, and Māori values, such as communalism. Hilliard’s fiction was commercially successful and Maori girl was translated into Russian.

Te Ao Hou

Te Ao Hou, a bilingual journal published by the Māori Affairs Department, was responsible for encouraging Māori writing in the 1950s and 1960s. Prominent writers included J. C. Sturm, Hirini Moko Mead, Pei Te Hurinui Jones, Kīngi Īhaka, Rowley Habib and Patricia Grace.

Witi Ihimaera

By 2021 Witi Ihimaera (Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata) had published 16 novels and numerous collections of stories, and edited significant anthologies of Māori writing. In 1972 he published Pounamu, pounamu, the first book of short stories by a Māori writer. Ihimaera followed with two novels, Tangi (1973) and Whanau (1974).

In the 1980s, after 10 years in which Ihimaera abstained from writing, his fiction became overtly political and more diverse. The matriarch (1986) traverses five generations of Māori history under colonisation; The whale rider (1987), about a young girl’s kinship with her ancestors, won international acclaim; Bulibasha (1994) is a Māori western which subverts western stereotypes; Nights in the gardens of Spain (1995) is a novel about coming out as gay. He received the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2017.

Patricia Grace

Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Te Āti Awa) is another key figure in Māori writing in English. By 2021 she had published eight novels, a number of story collections and several children’s books and received critical and popular acclaim.

Waiariki (1975) was the first story collection by a Māori woman writer. Potiki (1986) won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction. The importance of Grace’s work to Māori and to readers around the world has been recognised with the 2008 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Keri Hulme and Alan Duff

The best-known of the Māori writers who followed in the wake of Ihimaera and Grace are Keri Hulme (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe) and Alan Duff (Ngāti Rangitihi, Tūwharetoa).

Woman power

the bone people owes its existence to a feminist publishing collective, Spiral, who handset the first edition after Hulme rejected the desire of more mainstream publishers to edit the manuscript.

Keri Hulme’s the bone people (1983), a mystical, semi-autobiographical and savagely realist novel set on the West Coast of the South Island, won the Booker Prize in 1985.

Alan Duff’s first novel, Once were warriors (1990), describes the impoverished and violent lives of Māori gang members and their families. It is a searing indictment of violence and the conditions in which it thrives. The novel was made into a widely acclaimed film and has never been out of print. Duff published a number of novels subsequently, including two which continued the narrative of the Heke family from Once were warriors, but none received the acclaim of his first book.

New Māori writers and Pacific writers

New Māori fiction writers who have appeared in the 2000s include Paula Morris, Alice Tawhai, Kelly Ana Morey, Tina Makereti and James George. Their work was partly fostered by the active Māori literary and publishing environment, which has also assisted the development of Pacific writers such as Sia Figiel.

The most prominent Pacific writer is Albert Wendt. Sons for the return home (1973) describes the experience of a young Samoan man in New Zealand. Wendt’s subsequent 10 novels and short-story collections have been instrumental in shaping a Pacific literature in English, especially in its evolution from oral to written form. His long and influential career was recognised with the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction for 2012.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Lydia Wevers, 'Fiction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Lydia Wevers, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2015