In-demand books are one of the great reflections of current preoccupations and real thoughts. David Herkt talks to publishers and booksellers to discover which books are suddenly popular – and just what it means.
Distilling the spirit of the times is a skill that creates audiences, establishes reputations and sells products. All those who predict the future for a living, whether for new shoe designs or next season's TV shows, try to develop that skill.
The zeitgeist is an almost indefinable thing that lies somewhere between a fashion and a historical force – and every year innumerable books are published in the hope of harnessing its energy.
Fergus Barrowman is the publisher at Victoria University Press. The company's list includes some of New Zealand's best fiction and poetry. For VUP, trend-spotting is crucial, especially given the year-long lead-up time of acceptance, editing and producing a book.
"We are kind of a bit old-fashioned in that we tend to wait for people to send us things rather than going out commissioning," Barrowman says of his strategy. "Our publishing is very much based on what people are interested in and what they are writing."
VUP has evolved a structure that taps into the instant. With an email inbox wide open for submission, the company has predicated its success on its ability to reflect the times.
"The decision rests on me in the end," Barrowman says. "Usually I find that when I have made up my mind, I have made up my mind. But we do have a really good collective group-think going with the staff so all of the staff contribute to publishing decisions. My only management technique is morning coffee and we kind of sit around the coffee table and talk things out.
"I find it really hard to think about or make decisions based upon trends. Publishing is slow and writing is slow – so I don't think about that stuff at all when I'm reading or making a decision. I'm doing it on a book-by-book or a writer-by-writer basis – a book that feels alive and necessary – and it is out of what comes through the in-box that you can see those broader wave patterns forming."
"We base our decisions on the submitted books we get to read," he clarifies. "And those books then, in the year or two to come, create the next wave of shared themes or buzz.
There is a thing at the moment, climate-change fiction – just to take one obvious example – but I can see that in a broader way because I see a lot of books that are being written and sometimes aren't even being finished."
VUP has published James McNaughton's Star Sailors which is set in 2045 as sea-rise consumes the New Zealand coast. Auckland floods repeatedly; Wellington experiences "its 177th gale and 18th airport closure."
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"Sometimes it is there in works that aren't even overtly about that theme," Barrowman adds. "Anne Kennedy's novel The Ice Shelf is a climate-change novel in a really deep-seated way that isn't part of its public thematic at all."
"I think there is extraordinary appetite in the public for writers and ideas. At the moment there is a demand for memoir and personal essays. We see that with Ashleigh Young and Rose Lu."
Young, who works at VUP with Barrowman, received the US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize for her book of essays, Can You Tolerate This? Rose Lu's just-released All Who Live on Islands, is a collection of first-person glimpses of her life: a shopping trip with her Shanghai-born grandparents, a Wellington tech-industry career, an epic trek in the Himalayas.
"I don't think the audience is responding to the fact that it is memoir," Barrowman reflects. "I think they are responding to the fact that it is the open personality of the writer whether it is expressed as memoir or fiction or poetry."
"I think the really interesting thing about essay books," says Kiran Dass of Mt Eden's Time Out Bookstore, "is that it is personal experience but a really good collection is outward-looking and universal . . . It is an interesting way of framing 'memoir'. Rather than it being a linear kind of autobiography, it can be short pieces that can either stand alone or work together…
"But it isn't just personal essays either. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino consists of pieces that are cultural criticism and really sharp. And the reason those are so resonant is that people want to understand the world we live in today."
In nine essays, Tolentino's Trick Mirror ranges across fitness culture, "the modern wedding-industrial complex", TV reality shows, "market-friendly feminism" and more.
"Then each Christmas there are usually one or two really sturdy music bios that are perfect for the music-lover in your life," Dass continues, "but I feel that this year there has been a whole lot of them that have come out around the same time: Elton John, Debbie Harry, two Prince biographies, Patti Smith's Year of the Monkey … "
"One thing about Patti Smith is that her audience is so wide-reaching. Just Kids, her first book, is one that keeps on selling. Flea's Acid for the Children – now, I'm not a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan by any stretch - but it is just one of those great music memoirs… It is all in the story-telling.
"It is also always interesting that two different publishers publish a book about the exactly same topic at the same time," she continues. "Recently Auckland University Press and Massey University Press both published books about Frances Hodgkins that went with exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. But they were two different angles. One was quite a lavish monograph and the other was more of a travelogue memoir.
"Another hook this year was that it was the painter Colin McCahon's 100th anniversary."
Auckland University Press issued Peter Simpson's Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction 1919-1959, the well-researched, readable, and beautifully-produced first volume of two, which examines the artist as seen through the development of his work. Justin Paton's McCahon Country, released a mere three weeks later, takes a thematic approach to study the painter in a series of approachable subject-based tangents.
"They are two very different books, the McCahons," Dass says. "Both very, very, worthy."
High Street's Unity Books has been a long-time fixture in Central Auckland. Its manager,
Jo McColl, has recently observed that books in which an author attempts to discover themselves in the natural world – like Kathleen Jamie's Surfacing, Raynor Winn's The Salt Path and Mark Boyle's The Way Home – have experienced a sudden popularity. They are joined by books on walking, such as Perfect Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser by Jono Lineen, and Walking One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge.
"I've noted all the books on mindfulness," McColl says, "which have now flowed over on to books on walking and being present in the moment and not constantly being diverted away by entertainment – the endless white noise going on all the time.
"Then Yoga has come back again and all sorts of books I used to sell in the 1970s – which were regarded as hippy stuff – have all come back as mainstream. I can remember saying to staff about two years ago, "You watch, Shamanism will be back." They were "What!" And, sure enough, it is!
"There is an interest in Ancient Greece as well and the Vikings and Stoicism, and it is all back to those original concepts."
McColl also points to medical books. This is Going to Hurt: The Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay, with its honest and very funny revelations of the real life of hospitals, has been a recent success. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari's examination of drug use and drug prohibition, is another bestseller.
"I guess we all have an interest in medical problems. There are endless books on neuroscience at the moment … I suppose everyone can pick up one of those books and relate some part of that book to some part of their life."
"Everyone gets to that table in the shop and just stops and rummages through and comes up with something, whether it is about the history of breath or about anatomy. There are suddenly lots of really terrible books about diseases that used to be prevalent that you don't even see any more – with ghastly illustrations from the Middle Ages.
"People just seem to love those books – 'How good is my life now? Look what I could have had if I lived 600 years ago!'
"There are also quite a lot of novels taking mythology and turning it into something contemporary, like The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, A Thousand Ships by Nathalie Haynes, which is also about the fall of Troy, and The Porpoise by Mark Haddon, which incorporates a contemporary story with an old Greek myth. There is quite a lot of that stuff happening."
Across Auckland city, Carole Beu, of The Woman's Bookshop in Ponsonby, says feminist publishing has been the big zeitgeist for her business in the past three years - and it's still going strong. Although the store stocks a wide range of titles across every genre, she has found increased demand from women for information, opinion, and perspectives, especially given the current gender debates, #MeToo, and a renewed social and political awareness.
"It began in the USA in 2016 with books for young readers such as Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which gave one large page of writing to each woman, accompanied by a stunning artist's portrait of that woman. Our own Kate Sheppard was included. This was followed by a brilliant New Zealand volume Go Girl; A Storybook of Epic NZ Women, edited by Barbara Else."
Beu also indicates various volumes from a hard-backed, well-illustrated series for younger children - Little People, Big Dreams – each featuring an individual woman such as Ada Lovelace, Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie, Coco Chanel, Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks.
"Women are refusing to be silent," Beu says. "I find it exciting that brilliant young adult feminist women are writing about the way the world works – patriarchal society, the reality of women's lives and how to live as a feminist in this world.
"The Australian feminist Clementine Ford, who gets attacked and abused online all the time, has produced two bold, eye-opening books, Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys. Her equivalent in New Zealand is our own brave Lizzie Marvelly, who writes a regular newspaper column [in the Weekend Herald] and has a book, That F Word: Growing Up Feminist in Aotearoa.
"The #MeToo movement has propelled feminist writing even further, with personal stories and exposes such as Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs and Trolls by Carrie Goldberg. The stunning Muslim feminist Mona Eltahaway, whose first book was Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, has just published a new book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. It is bold and shocking and Gloria Steinem says 'Reading it will free you, and acting on it will free us all.'"
Beu notes literary fiction sells in the "truckloads".
"I think it's a myth that fiction doesn't sell! Hundreds of book groups full of intelligent well-read women buy lots of it. "
And for Beu, literary prizes are another means of tapping into the times.
"The recent joint Booker winners, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo, are both sensational."
The tides and currents of the times are tracked in many ways. Publishing and books provide an in-depth exploration of what it means to live in the present, whether it is fear of climate-change or the debates around gender and power. The bookshop is the world in miniature.
'You have to be open to the moment and you have to be open to young writers," summarises VUP's Fergus Barrowman. "I am increasingly convinced that the key task of both a publisher and a reader is to say 'yes' to things."