I admit that I had my suspicions about such a blatant gimmick. I admit to being a bit of a book snob, and would have preferred to see New Zealand writers, instead of New Zealand celebrities, on the panel of judges that chose the six stories, which this book contains. I also admit to being wary of a collection of short stories chosen for their “New Zealandness” and grouped together simply because they all won the same competition. Wouldn’t it be better, I’d thought, to promote existing New Zealand books rather than hastily bunging together something completely new?
As it happens, I am going to have to admit that I was wrong. The Six Pack has, in all its lime green glory, proven itself reasonably worthy of promoting NZ Book Month. Prime Minister Helen Clark’s foreword is predictably nationalistic, supportive and partially relevant to the stories within. But it was John Campbell’s introduction that particularly impressed me and changed my mind about the book. These stories, he reassured me, would not “brand their New Zealandness like a tiki over a dinner jacket”. He also stressed the democracy of the judging process, the $5,000 prize that each of the writers involved received, and the intention of this book, to catalyse discussion about New Zealand writers and New Zealand writing in general. Good, I thought. Why not?
Each one of the stories is engaging, well-written, and different from the next. Briar Grace-Smith’s Te Manawa opens the book with a character who, in grief, considers literally turning himself inside out and being interviewed on Campbell Live. John even gets some dialogue: “But it’s so incredibly dangerous, Eru, I mean you’re like a slab of ugly raw meat. Aren’t you afraid of being accidentally picked up by some council rubbish truck and taken to the tip…I mean… does it hurt?” Next is Phillipa Swan’s satirical little gem The Life Coach, about Becky, a bored and fickle mother of two who does an online diploma in life-coaching after her husband moves into the garage so he can have online sex with a New- Mexican in peace.
Then follows a refreshing burst of Brian Turner’s poetry, which is certainly deserving of its place in the book, but which poses a problem for me. If The Six Pack is designed as a snapshot of both new and established New Zealand writing, why give the former Te Mata poet laureate 30 pages all to himself? In 30 pages, six New Zealand poets could quite easily have been showcased (though I guess that would have made the book the 11 Pack, which doesn’t have the same ring to it). Maybe next year – or, better still, give the poets a whole book to themselves. I realise there are funding issues, but ideally I’d like to see a New Zealand novel, a collection of New Zealand short stories, and a collection of New Zealand poetry, all available during NZ Book Month 2007, at $6 each.
Phoebe Wright, the youngest contributor to The Six Pack, follows Brian Turner. Her story, Chasing Fireflies is not what one expects from most 15 year olds – a witty, controlled monologue about a girl remembering her father. Although the end gets a bit saccharine for my liking, the story overall need not be seen as tokenism toward very young writers. It’s better than that.
Kingi McKinnon, author of Whitebait Fritters, is probably heartily approved of by Helen Clark. His story, Maiki, has all the New Zealand trimmings you could want. Cultural Identity galore. But like Patricia Grace, Owen Marshall and Witi Ihimaera, he manages to make his writing more than a brochure for our country. The naturalism of McKinnon’s writing makes a nice contrast to the youthful quirkiness of Henry Feltham, whose story Lung finishes the collection and happened to be the public’s choice in a poll on the NZ Book Month website.
So, gimmick or not, I have very few bad things to say about The Six Pack. And at six bucks, even if you don’t like every story, it’s pretty good value.
SIX NEW ZEALAND WRITERS
NZ Book Month, $6(!)