Excellent Books Released 2012 Which May Have Flown Under Your Radar

Kate De Goldi and Laura Kroetsch discuss books of 2012 on Radio New Zealand

Lists have been massively cut. So the number of books traditional publishers is shrinking, so people have to find new avenues to follow. We used to poo-poo self publishing but in the USA and increasingly in Australia lots of good stuff is happening online and in zines. New writing feels really healthy.

Self-publishing is happening in a very quiet way, often from mainstream published authors, things to share among friends e.g. Noel McKenna and Jenny Bornholdt’s Knives: A Personal History, very cheaply produced chapbook distributed last Christmas among their friends, hysterically funny. This gets no audience beyond friends. Sally Schwartz has been publishing zines — lo-fi publishing, done on computers and historically on photocopiers. Zines were an underground movement that came out of punk rock. (Chapbooks have been around since the beginning of publishing.)

The same thing is happening with blogs. A number of people have high literary blogs. Blogs are no different from printed matter in that readers discover them primarily via word-of-mouth. Bloggers are also no different from most writers in that most writers don’t make enough money to live. The average author in Australia makes about 6k per year. This can be a liberating notion because then you can do what you want. Bernard Beckett is a good example of a writer who uses a blog to write about various political and social issues.

Communities of readers are important for book discovery, along with online journals. The power has moved away from publishers and back to readers.

One bugbear for Laura: there’s almost no American literature in New Zealand and Australia.


The problem in the eBook market is that there’s no consistent pricing. Many eBooks are priced the same as the paperbacks. It’s good that indie bookshops in NZ are bringing in Kobo readers, but who is going to pay $40 for an eBook? Kate is about to get a Kobo, partly to support booksellers as an ethical decision (rather than getting a Kindle). Owning a Kindle though can dramatically increase your purchase of books because of instant gratification. But publishers need to address the fact that readers of eBooks read twice as many books as readers of paperbacks. Why do readers have to carry the complete bag on this one? Why must publishers continue to charge so much for eBooks? This view is controversial.

The Publishing Industry 2012

The merging of big publishing companies in 2012 is very concerning. The number of places writers are pitching to will be more limited, and it will probably reduce the amount of money authors are getting. The fallout will be indie booksellers.

In a way, the collapse of the industry has been good for creativity. We have to let go of this notion that we’re going to make money. Huge sums of money are not going to change hands. If you want to make money, write Harlequin Romances.

Misery Memoirs

The ‘Misery Memoir’ seems very popular this year. The biography section used to be quite different. De Goldi thinks that the misery memoir forms the worst of the YA genre, and that misery memoir tends to be read by people still forming their reading tastes, popular among 17, 18, 19, 20 year olds. Everything is overblown and less than profound and the narrator is unreliable. It’s untransformed experience. It’s literal, and when it hits the page it becomes something else. Once a reader’s experience becomes more nuanced they start to want something else. This isn’t to diminish the experience the writers of such novels have actually had. They are a strange gauge of what’s going on in mental health. For years it was sexual abuse, there’s also been a period of books about eating disorders, cutting, drugs, another period of people writing about being overweight children. For Christmas this year there seems to be a surge of ‘I went crazy for a month’ sort of story. A lot that comes out of the USA speaks to the pharmacological industry. It’s the season of ‘Crazy Books’. (A M Homes May We Be Forgiven – something Oprah would promote if she went mad.) Misery memoir is quite different from the literary tradition. To become literary, a miserable experience must have been through a mouli of all sorts of other things from literature, which isn’t about hype and ‘unearned emotion’. Have we been misled by this thing we know as ‘real’, in the ‘reality TV’ sense of the word. Anecdote is not literature.


Kate’s Selection

Francis Spufford is a very intelligent writer who also writes with beautiful prose.

The Child That Books Built (Observer review) is autobiographical.

Red Plenty is about British boffins and English inventors.

Kate talks about Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Good Sense. The author himself doesn’t know if he believes. He’s non-fundamentalist, but has enormous theological understanding. Would one only enjoy it if one were disposed to faiths? Heaps of atheists really like it, so no. Spufford doesn’t like that people of faith are often cast as unfashionable. He’s cross about Dawkins having the moral highground.

Kate’s favourite book for 2012 is The Invisible Rider by Kirsten McDougall, a NZ book. This is a novel/novella about a married man living in the Happy Valley somewhere in Wellington wanting to engage with the world in an ethical way but isn’t quite getting it together. Elegiac, poetic and beautifully put together. Although it’s about a middle-aged man it’s pretty much the opposite of Jonathan Franzen. Philip, the main character, is the invisible rider. Each episode could stand alone as a vignette. It could be called a broken novel or discontinuous narrative.

Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe by Wayne Macauley

This Australian author has written two books previously. This book has a post apocalyptic feel about it. People drain away and survivors are left behind to deal with a surreal surround. It’s a quite excoriating comment on modern consumption and yet is a hopeful call for community. Macauley is a wonderful writer and thinker. He’s making a connection with destroyed civilisation and saying something about what we’re doing to ourselves. He’s also written about arts funding in a scathing way. Macauley’s earlier books were sitting in his publishers garage, and he has been pulled back from obscurity after writing for 20 years and having books fall out of print. He’s not a big name yet. He is a uniquely talented writer. In some way his obscurity has served him well. He’s been able to do what he wanted. He’s been involved in drama and theatre in Melbourne as well.

Edith Pearlman

Lots of people wonder why they haven’t heard of Edith Pearlman before. How many great short story tellers do we know, though? Short story writers are the Cinderellas of literary world. Ann Patchett has a lovely forward, full of praise. She’s sort of compared to Alice Munro. Pearlman is a fantastic stylist. The stories are faultless. She writes about Jewish people all over the world. Pearlman says it’s so much easier to write about despair than to write about hope. But Pearlman is able to do it.


I Got His Blood On Me by Lawrence Patchett

Another collection of short stories. Patchett had some firm views about historical fiction. He didn’t want to approach it in the way he’d been reading it. He writes almost speculative historical fiction which requires the reader to have a different entry point. He writes about Maori and he wants to be sure to have a perspective on them which is from the Pakeha rather than coopting them, so to speak. This feels like a very fresh new voice.

He regards writing as being like a craft, like a carpenter or a piano player in that you have to work at it.

He grew up without a television. Neither did Edith Pearlman, as it happens. (She’s not good on popular culture.)

Laura’s Selection

A.M. Homes’ last book was This Book Will Save Your Life.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes

Her new one is the story of two brothers and a man’s midlife crisis. Do we end up caring? Yes, enormously. She’s taking huge aim at contemporary American culture.  Homes has a lot more humanity than Jonathan Franzen. Both authors take modern life to task. But Franzen seems to have given up on us as a people, that our own greedy, messy ways have been our undoing.  People don’t know enough about Homes. That said, she’s a very disturbing writer. So does Franzen, but Homes may not be for everyone.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This novel has gone like a rocket, about two boys surviving in the Iraq war. One gets killed, the other comes home. It’s told in past tense, so we know from the start that he survives. This highlights the crucial decision of tense. The past tense also allows the writer to question the big questions about being in the war in a larger, philosophical way. Their place in the war is meaningless. Only fiction can convey this idea. The character only sees it by looking back in a reflective way. This is an extraordinary book. The author was himself in the Iraq war for two years. Nearly half of the narrative is set back home, not in Iraq. An American soldier commits suicide everyday in America. There has been a reluctance to talk about it. The author talks very well about the desire to be annihilated, but at the same time there is something very hopeful about it. This book has been lavished with awards but deserved.

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

Shockingly forensic but also hugely moving.

Joan Wickersham’s new book is The News From Spain.

This is a series of love stories that begin in the 14th century and which all in some way involve the phrase ‘the news from Spain’. They are sad, with a terrible emotional poignancy about them. The author is an amazing stylist and a trickster. Each time you don’t expect ‘the news from Spain’ to occur, and yet it has.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

This collection is from a Canadian writer. (First name is pronounced Suzy.) Short stories are something that exist within a community. Gartner is an incredibly refreshing voice who is not for everyone because she’s also a very manic voice. Her stories are about all the ways in which we collide with technology, and about how the world has become frenetic in bad ways. They’re funny, and reminiscent of Miranda July. She’s a clever writer with very engaging characters, but she’s writing about the oddballs in the confusing world we live in. She’s very attached to the short story form and has talked about stupid literary bias against the form. The same thing happens in NZ. Like a poet, who can sell 500 copies but have a great reputation online. You can watch a writer for years and years and be really delighted when the collected stories come out. There will be a whole community of readers who do know about short story writers and poets but then they seem to break out when someone gives them an award or a collection comes out.

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