Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Are Australasian Writers Good Enough?

As a writer, one of the questions that constantly tugs at you is the one of "Am I good enough?" Am I good enough to attract the attention of an agent? Am I good enough for an editor to be interested in me? Am I good enough to rise above the many many other talented writers writing in my genre? If I somehow miraculously receive a publishing contract will I be good enough for people to want to buy my books over other authors? When you live in New Zealand, and are pitching your books to American publishers, it sometimes feels like you'll never be good enough to overcome all the barriers that your distance creates. That you should take your crazy dream and aim a little bit lower, be happy to settle for something smaller.

Eleanor Catton, New Zealand author and winner of last year's Man Booker Prize, created a stir recently with some comments she made at the Jaipur Literary Festival about New Zealand and the arts. 

These included that:

New Zealand did not have a lot of confidence in the brains in its citizens and there was a lot of embarrassment over writers. She grew up with the "strange belief" that New Zealand writers were less great than writers from Britain and America. 'Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren't discovered, which I'm hoping will change,' she said. The last thing that was needed was a whole country of embarrassed writers slinking around. "The good side of New Zealand is that there isn't all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone's backstabbing each other."

It got me thinking because she had a point. I too grew up with a strange belief that New Zealand writers weren't as good as writers from other parts of the world. And not just writers but artists, musicians, actors, directors, anything culturally related. 

I have no idea where I got it from. Neither of my parents are particularly into the arts and I can't remember them ever expressing a view one way or the other. But there it was, deeply ingrained into my psyche. When I first started writing one of the biggest things I had to get beyond was this conviction that there was no point because how was I, a nobody girl from New Zealand, ever going to be as good as writers from America. 

And it's not just me. We have writers in New Zealand who are bestsellers overseas but most New Zealanders have never heard of them and most bookstores don't carry their books. We show up in hoards at the latest terrible Hollywood blockbuster but it takes some serious work to get people to see New Zealand movies, even if they are receiving acclaim at Cannes or Sundance.

Ironically enough, it's the opposite when it comes to sports. Sports we are there. We are loud, proud, and more than happy to proclaim to the rooftops that our sportsmen and women and the best in the world. 

While artists like Eleanor Catton, Peter Jackson & Fran Walshe, Sir Richard Taylor, Hayley Westenra and others have definitely helped create a change in our perception of the arts in recent years, there's still this feeling that they are the exceptions. And it's clearly something we're putting on ourselves. Whenever I've been overseas at writing conferences, if anything, I get extra positive attention for  being from New Zealand, not less. No one has ever expected less of me for it.
So what are your thoughts? Is this the same worldwide? Do artists who aren't your own countrymen always feel a bit better when compared to what can be found on your home turf? Or do us Kiwis need to start getting better at backing our own?

Kara Isaac lives in Wellington, New Zealand where she spends her days working in product management and being double-teamed by a ninja preschooler and his baby sister. By night she writes romantic comedy and was the 2014 winner of the RWA Lonestar Contest (Inspirational). She loves to connect with writers and readers on Twitter and Facebook.

18 comments:

  1. As another Kiwi ... I agree.

    You ask where we got the view that we aren't as good as others. I think it's subliminal: I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton (and other English authors), and a range of US authors thanks to the Scholastic book club brochures that came to school on a regular basis. I remember being given Australian books on a couple of occasions, but I was in high school before I read anything by a New Zealand author.

    It was the same with television: the only local content I recall was the news, Close to Home (soap opera that my family didn't watch), On the Mat (wrestling, again something my family didn't watch) and one show for preschool children that I never watched because we didn't get our first TV until after I started school.

    On the other hand, sport was always around, especially when it was sport that showed us beating a bigger nation (let's face it, pretty much any sport we play is against a bigger nation). The unstated implication was (and perhaps is) that sport is the only thing we can do as well as the rest of the world.

    The result was we grew up in an insular society which offered little local content to show that NZers could make it on the world stage. Thankfully, the internet is drawing the world closer and giving us a place on the global stage. But we still have to work towards it and earn it, the same as every other writer out there.

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    1. So true, Iola! The first New Zealand author I read was also in high school. I can even name it - The Doll's House by Katherine Mansfield!

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  2. I think years ago, when manuscripts were still mailed hard copy, it was a lot more difficult (and expensive) for individuals who did not live countries where there were major publishers with wide distribution (USA/UK). Now, it's much easier and writers across the globe are on a more level playing field, so to speak. But you're right, there isn't the same established record of bestselling authors from New Zealand or Australia. If I had to guess, I'd say there is an equal proproportion of talent based upon the populations, but that those in the smaller, more 'isolated' countries had an additional major hurdle to overcome.

    My publisher, as smaller publishing house, has authors from the USA, Australia and the UK. Some have lived elsewhere, such as Denmark or Spain for a while. None from New Zealand. The internet, ebooks and social networks have make access to authors outside the USA/UK by publishers much easier. After all, a publisher is going to go for the best stories they can find, no matter the location of the writer.

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    1. You're right, Terry. We definitely have a lot to thank the internet for. I've definitely noticed a change over the last few years - especially as the focus has moved away from things like book tours to things like social media presence where it doesn't matter where in the world you are!

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  3. Iola and Kara I too grew up with Enid Bylton but I didn't have a lot of the American books to start with and then it was more the Heidi's etc. I did have more Aussie books like Seven Little Australian's and then the Billabong books. I do remember the Scholastic books I use to buy them from about grade 4 up. In Australia TV was the same but its interesting we got a lot of Canadian children's tv shows, The Beachcombers to name one. Australia also Sport has been huge like in NZ I think we forget the other arts. Even in many schools if you don't play sport you can be very isolated it seems to be the focus of many.

    I remember seeing Mary Hawkins name on a Heartsong presents and the blurb saying she was Australian and I was so excited to think we had an Australian writing these books I loved. I want to see NZ ones too. I loved how Robin Jones Gunn had a book set in NZ with a side trip to Australia (told by an American visiting the country). Having an American writing about our countries can be quite hard to read unless they do the proper research.

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    1. You're so right, Jenny. It is so grating someone trying to write a character from your country or your culture and getting it badly wrong. I remember one book I read that had an Australian character that I would have thrown across the room if it wasn't on my Kindle because they spoke in the worst possible mishmash of cliches that didn't even make sense!

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  4. Kara, I believe the Kiwis & Aussies do have 'the goods'. I have read many books from big name publishers which I felt were humdrum. However, I have a US agent who told me right up front it's all about 'platform' with publishers today. They need you to convince them in your proposal that they will have no trouble in selling your novel because you are so 'well known'. Seems like a catch22 situation. Still, we just have to rise to the occasion and if nothing comes of that...go via the Indy publishing route, IMHO.

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    1. So true, Rita. These days it's really difficult to catch the attention of a publisher without having a big platform but, especially if you're a fiction writer, unless you are well known for another reason it's almost impossible to build a big platform with book to build it on. Like you say, rising to the occasion and creating a story that they just can't turn down is what we have to do :)

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  5. Thanks for your post Kara. I think you make a great point, that the cultural cringe is alive in our region and well in the Arts - and the unwillingness to consider local authors tends to reinforce it. I think that is even more so when it comes to Christian writers - at least in Australia. I know many Christians who eyes begin to glaze at the mention of Christian authors of fiction - it's hard to compete against the big names. On the other hand, a friend from on regional town in Queensland mentioned to me were thrilled to find fiction written by Australasian Christian writers - while in another thread, a request for titles for modern YA fiction that wasn't full of sex, cynicism and broken relationships - many of the the great suggestions were from more established and emerging Australasian Christian authors. Can Australasian Christian authors improve - of course, shouldn't we always be striving to do better - but I do think we have something happening and that we have untapped audiences who would love sometimes gritty, down to earth and inspirational books written by Christians in Australia and New Zealand.

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    1. Sorry that should have been "alive and well in the Arts in our region" - and "a friend from a regional town in Queensland mentioned to me that women she knew were thrilled to find"

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    2. I think you're absolutely right, Jeanette. So often that's what I'm hearing too - that people would love to read books by Australasian authors. We do have something unique to bring to the table :)

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  6. Thought-provoking post, Kara, and great comments from everyone.

    I think we're still in the pioneering stage, but thanks to technology Australasian writers can build a platform and be noticed more than ever before. (Very important point, Rita).

    Yes, we do have the goods, and as we polish and improve our skills the Northern Hemisphere will become increasingly aware of its Southern counterpart.

    In the meantime, let's rejoice in how we're whipping the rest of the world in cricket and rugby! Our national teams are helping to put us on the map. Recognition of our movie and music stars is on the rise - authors will get there too. Time and quality is the key :)

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    1. Very true, Andrea. Hopefully it's only a matter of time before we become the next hot thing ;-)

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    2. I am just delighted there are now a growing number of Aussies like yourself, Andrea, and Narelle Atkins too writing Christian romance. May we all keep on striving to produce better and greater books.

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  7. I agree my fellow Kiwi novelist! There is a lack of cultural appreciation down here and I have often wondered why - and why I went along with the trend even if it was only subconsciously. As for whether we are good enough, I believe the talent is there and can be honed if we are willing to put in the hard work and be teachable. We are global now and have the teaching tools at our fingertips. There's nothing to stop us, especially now that self publishing is more accepted and accessible.
    I look forward to reading some of your books! :)

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    1. Hi Catherine. The internet and self-publishing has definitely been a great thing for us. I definitely wouldn't be the writer I am today without the internet. Pretty much every great writing connection I've made and everything I've learned has been because of it in some way. I look forward to you reading some of my books too :)

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  8. I remember years ago how pleased I was to find Meredith Resce's books were written by an Australian writer. And nothing irks me more than a novel set in Australia that so clearly shows the overseas author has either spent 5 minutes here, read "about" Australian slang, using heaps of cliches about us - especially calling women Sheila over and over!

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  9. Kara, great post! Welcome to our ACW blogging team :) I agree with what others have said. When talking about traditional publishing, I think marketability can be more important than quality as the deciding factor in determining whether or not a book will be contracted.

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