Catering for the “common reader”
The October 1991 issue of New Zealand Books reviewed 6 titles. Twelve years and 57 issues later, the figure was almost exactly the same: NZB October 2003 covered 38 new books. So what’s changed? Certainly not our raison d’être. We still aim to offer a wide range of in-depth reviews, in contrast to the 300-400 word quickies supplied by most other local magazines, journals and newspapers.
But our hunch (we were unable to obtain precise figures) is that John Mansfield Thomson, our founding editor, had a far smaller publishing pool from which to pick his titles. Faced with dozens of new books every month, we sometimes feel swamped by an embarrassment of riches. This is mostly exhilarating, but it does pose a challenge for a 24-page journal.
A recent Ministry of Culture and Heritage survey found that a total of no less than 3617 new titles were published here in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available. The survey defined the following genres as “literature”: biography (93 titles); children’s fiction (205 titles); drama (11 titles); fiction (124 titles); history (195 titles); poetry (87 titles). So, 715 books, all potential NZB review material – and that’s not counting any attractive contenders from categories such as education, general non-fiction, reference and trade, and professional/technical.
Taking the survey figures as a rough guide, we worked out that if we limited ourselves to the 715 “literary” works alone, at five issues a year, we would have to review about 140 books per issue. An impossibility.
Look, for instance, at those figures for fiction and poetry – over 200 titles annually. While we applaud the industry and imagination of both the writers and publishers, we can only review a fraction of these books, especially since NZB must strike a genre balance for our target audience, Virginia Woolf’s common reader.
Which is why, on page 21, you’ll find the first in what will become a regular column – “Bookshelf”. Here we’ll be drawing your attention to a clutch of notable new titles that we simply don’t have the space to review and that might otherwise have been ignored. Good reading!
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway