Confessions of a Cockroach and Headstone: two novellas by Mike Johnson (99% Press, 2017) 180 pp., $29.95
‘Mike Johnson is the most underrated of all living New Zealand authors.’ So said Iain Sharp in a Sunday Star-Times review of Johnson’s The Vertical Harp: Selected poems of Li He. There is substance to Sharp’s claim. Johnson has published nine works of longer fiction, two collections of short stories, six collections of poetry, a medical memoir and a children’s book. Despite critical attention and recognition from awards and dispensers of fellowships, in a career spanning over thirty years he has never managed to retain a mainstream publisher and has had only fleeting recognition from readers and reviewers. The reason for this, it seems to me, lies as much in the literary context as in Johnson’s creative predilections.
For the most part, New Zealand’s literary taste still has a preference for realism. Or, to put this point in commercial terms, the small overall size of the New Zealand market means that the sectors of that market that are keen on non-realistic modes – fantasy, say, or science fiction – are too small to sustain local publishing programmes. As a major local publisher said to me recently, ‘Dystopian doesn’t sell, fantasy doesn’t sell, magic realism doesn’t sell, ghost stories don’t sell.’ Even crime seems to be marginal. No doubt there is an element of cultural cringe in this situation. Local writers of fantasy are competing in a global market, and a New Zealand fan is more likely to look to one of the big overseas publishers than to seek satisfaction in the local scene. [Read more…]