I mentioned in my last post that, despite having written three non-fiction books, my first love is fiction.
The very first piece of advice I received about writing fiction was that I needed to read fiction – lots of it. For many years this was an easy requirement to fulfill, but around thirteen years ago the busyness of the digital age hit me at the same time as I became responsible for someone other than myself, and suddenly there was very little time for reading novels.
So I have regressed to being barely an intermediate level reader of fiction, but the worst of it is that, in terms of New Zealand fiction, I am still only a beginner. There are three main reasons for this. First, when I previously had time to read I lived overseas so I simply didn’t have access to a wide range of New Zealand literature. Second, I have never felt particularly drawn to New Zealand fiction. Like many (perhaps most) New Zealanders, I grew up with the distinct impression that we tend to tell small, dark stories and I was very focussed on discovering (and conquering!) the world beyond our shores. And third, I have always been put off by the fact that, in New Zealand bookshops, New Zealand novels sit in a separate section from other novels. I have always aspired to be a writer first, and a New Zealand writer second, so I would prefer to see my books (novels, one day!) alongside other similar books, regardless of the nationality of the author. That said, I have been told by booksellers that they think having a New Zealand fiction section is a positive thing – and it’s certainly in their best interests to do whatever translates to more sales and, therefore, more reading – but I still haven’t quite got my head around the practice.
So what is my favourite New Zealand novel? Of the shamefully small number that I have read, Maurice Gee’s The Burning Boy is my pick. I would love to hear about your favourite New Zealand novels, particularly in the context of my five all-time favourite novels, which I will list below. And given that all of the books on my list are very popular, your suggestions may well be of value to many others.
I think you will find it is a surprisingly difficult task to choose your favourite five novels (and I challenge you to do just that and share your list with others, via the comments), but here, in the order that I read them, are mine.
Skallagrigg – William Horwood
A Room with a View – E M Forster
The Crow Road – Iain Banks
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
It would be a dream, indeed, to write a novel that could sit alongside any of these. But that’s certainly my dream.
Update 19 March 2010: I have just been asked the same question (what are my favourite five novels) and a second bout of reflection made me substitute The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The Guide may or may not be better literature, but it certainly influenced me more and introduced me to characters, like Marvin the paranoid android, who I only need to think about and I start smiling: ‘The first ten million years were the worst, and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline.’
This post was first published by New Zealand Book Month, 26 August 2008