To say Airini Beautrais, author of the story collection Bug Week, was the dark horse at this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards is an understatement. No one was more surprised when her name was announced — winner of the $57,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction — than the writer herself.
Beautrais had no speech prepared because there seemed no way that a story collection, slight and obscure, could win against three serious novels, including two by former winners. No story collection had won our major fiction prize since Charlotte Grimshaw with Opportunity in 2008, and Grimshaw was already well established as a novelist. Beautrais was a poet publishing fiction for the first time.
Bug Week sold out instantly, reflecting the media impact and the book's modest initial print run. Before the win, the collection was "undiscovered", according to its publisher, Fergus Barrowman at VUP. Afterwards, it was reprinted twice. Nielsen figures reveal that in the week of its win — also the week of the Auckland Writers Festival — Bug Week sold almost three times the number sold in the 10-week lead-up to the awards.
Beautrais' story collection, says Jenna Todd of Time Out Books in Mt Eden, "could definitely sell a few thousand now versus a few hundred". Could this mean New Zealanders will start reading more story collections and anthologies, long the poor relation here — as they are in the UK and US — compared with novels?
Bug Week is #4 in Time Out's June bestseller list, but Todd admits she doesn't expect it to have the same reach as last year's winner, Auē by Becky Manawatu. That novel was the shop's bestseller of the year across all categories, the first time a New Zealand book achieved that since The Luminaries won the Booker Prize in 2013. "It won't have quite the same Book Club impact," she says. "Sometimes you have to work a little harder with a short story."
Novels still dominate local publishing lists. Of the books submitted in the fiction category of the Ockhams this year, 84 per cent were novels. VUP submitted two story collections, and the other story contenders were self-published or from small independent publishers. Bug Week was the only collection to be selected for the longlist. There have been no story collections on Ockhams longlists since Frankie McMillan, Courtney Sina Meredith and Tracey Slaughter all featured in 2017, though none made the shortlist.
McMillan's publisher is Canterbury University Press (CUP), which doesn't publish novels at all: McMillan's first book with them was poetry, but when she submitted the manuscript of very short stories called My Mother and the Hungarians, CUP's Catherine Montgomery decided to create "a niche for flash fiction" at the press. She believes "there's a growing interest in the short form. Beautrais' Ockham win speaks to this." More online outlets for new stories, including Newsroom, help build a new readership. In August, CUP will publish Jack Remiel Cottrell's debut collection, Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson, along with other very short stories.
But it remains difficult for first-time writers to find a home for their collections. Harriet Allan, fiction publisher at Penguin Random House, says they'll publish a debut story collection "from a new writer" in 2023. But "on the whole having an unknown name just compounds the lack of enthusiasm for the form. Usually, I urge new writers to aim at publishing a novel first to get their name established."
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
When Penguin Random House publishes a story collection, it's usually by an established writer like Fiona Kidman, Witi Ihimaera and Owen Marshall. "There are exceptions," Allan says, "but usually their novels have sold better." Marshall's latest is The Author's Cut, a selection of previously published work: one story, Coming Home in the Dark, has been made into a feature film due out in August. A new collection of work is scheduled next year.
Penguin Random House had success with two recent story anthologies, Black Marks on the White Page (2017) and Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers (2019). The former was reprinted twice, and the second 12 times, a local fiction bestseller. Allan believes that "these anthologies came at a time when there hadn't been a lot published for a while. They coincided with a rise of interest in te ao Māori and, in the case of Pūrākau, in a rise of interest in mythology in general."
The sales figures suggest "these have appealed to a wider range of people than the usual literary anthologies", says Allan. But she feels "the market was buoyant for Māori and Pasifika writing rather than short stories".
Todd agrees. "Māori writing is having a moment, and that moment is here to stay." Hits at Time Out include Scotty Morrison's Māori Made Easy series and the Pūrākau story anthology. A new hot seller is Tikanga by Kaiora and Francis Tipene of television's The Casketeers. "People get interested in the Māori language and then want more," says Todd. "Auēfits this trend as well: it's a Māori story."
Still, Todd and the booksellers at Time Out will continue to promote story collections. "Short stories rely on staff recommendation," she says. The most popular story writers at the shop are North American — Alice Munro, Jenny Zhang, George Saunders, Carmen Maria Machado and Chavisa Woods — but Todd is hopeful that both Owen Marshall and Tracey Slaughter's new collection, Devil's Trumpet, will find new readers.
"Sometimes it takes a book winning a prize to expand people's horizons. That's the beauty of a surprise winner. Even if just a handful of people discover they like stories after reading Bug Week, that's cool."