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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nelson Wattie comments on Michael O'Leary's book on Small Presses in NZ

From: ‘The Year’s Work in English Studies’ Volume 89 (2010)
Covering the year 2008
By Nelson Wattie
Published for The English Association by Oxford Journals OUP
‘The New Literatures’ – New Zealand page 1098

“In his MA thesis, now published as Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand, Michael O’Leary offers a perspective on New Zealand literature that is new to academic studies. In his usage, ‘alternative’ essentially means ‘non-commercial’, although he points out that some publishers (such as Steele Roberts, who actually published the present book) occupy the middle ground, taking up many titles that the larger publishers ignore but still managing, just, to survive as a commercial venture. O’Leary traces back to the very origins of writing and distribution in New Zealand. The first item printed in the country was a six-page tract, Catechism in Māori, hand-printed and distributed by the Reverend W. Yate in 1830. On several levels it could be called a disaster, but even in this it might be said to found the small press tradition. In fact standards have varied from the rough and ready to the extremely elegant with high aesthetic pretensions (and prices). O’Leary divides the historical overview into three periods: 1830 to 1930, a century of practical work and tentative exploration; 1930 to 1970, when ‘New Zealand publishing came of age in a literary sense’; and after 1970, a period ‘which has seen an explosion of small press publishers experimenting with many different forms of typology, technology and literary production’ (p. 12). Methods of distribution have varied from door-to-door sales to hiring professional distribution companies. The term ‘vanity publishing’ is discounted by O’Leary, who claims that virtually all publishing in New Zealand is of that kind in some way, considering that the ‘commercial’ publishers accept large state or university subsidies for their work or for individual items, and he argues that New Zealand literature would barely exist if it depended entirely on commercial sales. He is critical of the lack of academic attention to many of the books in the field he is covering, due to ‘various policies of exclusion’, and highlights in particular, a number of ‘glaring omissions’ from the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (p. 61). In general he makes a good case for a more inclusive definition of New Zealand literature. A very useful part of this book is a list of the ‘alternative small’ presses he considers important from a literary point of view together with a bibliography of their publications, including names that will be familiar to any reader of the country’s literature. This is a thought-provoking contribution to matters of definition in the field”.

Nelson Wattie