New Zealand literary festivals are well established for promoting literature globally and within the country itself. There are the Auckland Writers Festival and the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, which have been around for a while and attract global attention, and then there are other smaller local festivals. Either way, these literary festivals are really valuable to the country.
A little bit later, we’ll touch on the role of literary festivals in promoting literature, but first, we’ll take a look at the literary festival scene in New Zealand.
New Zealand Literary Festivals
New Zealand is a great country to look to for literary festivals that are successful in promoting literature locally and internationally. Here is a selection of New Zealand literary festivals.
Auckland Writers Festival
The Auckland Writers Festival is a global phenomenon in the world of literary events. Held every year in May, it is the largest of New Zealand’s literary festivals. The event was established in 1999 and has been held every year since, apart from 2020, when it had to be cancelled due to the restrictions around COVID-19.
The festival involves more than 200 events that are open to the general public. There have been well over 200 writers involved at each edition of the festival in recent years. Many of these are local writers who are from New Zealand or grew up there, but there is also a strong international presence in the interest of promoting literature globally. Writers from all over the world attend the festival, along with representatives from Ireland, India, England, South Africa, and the USA. This festival has a major role in promoting literature locally and internationally from New Zealand.
Since 2019 has been given a name in Te Reo Māori (which translates to the Māori language) to be inclusive of the Māori people, who are the indigenous people of New Zealand, the festival is now referred to as the Auckland Writers Festival Waituhi o Tāmaki. This Māori phrase relates to songs and poems as well as the Māori word for Auckland. 2019 also saw Te Reo Māori readings for the first time, as there has been a movement to promote the language over the past few decades.
The 2023 edition of the festival proved to be highly successful. The next edition will be held from May 14 to May 19, 2024. The full line-up of events will be announced in March, about two months before it starts. The festival promotes New Zealand culture, Māori, and European heritage in a positive light. Since 2008, the festival has been organized by a charitable trust to ensure writers and literacy are promoted and celebrated.
WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival
WORD Christchurch is a charitable organization that is based in Christchurch on the South Island and holds several different events revolving around storytelling, books, and sharing ideas. The biggest event they hold is the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. This is a huge celebration of writers from New Zealand and books.
The festival lasts for five days and features tons of events around Christchurch. In the 2023 edition of the festival, more than 20% of the events were free to attend. WORD aims to aid young readers from all kinds of backgrounds, help them find their voice, and support their love for books. One of the goals of WORD is to increase literacy levels around the country.
Throughout the five days, there are a wide range of events that are particularly aimed at children and young adults. The festival involves Te Reo Māori literature, non-fiction, and poetry. They also provide workshops on writing and put on various performances.
The festival started in 1997 when it was under the name Books and Beyond. It then became the Press Christchurch Writers Festival. Since 2014, it has been run by WORD, and since then, it has seen success despite suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the festival had to be made much smaller because of the pandemic, and it was postponed in 2021 by a few months. In 2022, the festival ran and was well received, and the latest edition took place in August 2023. Hopefully, the remainder of the decade will be smoother than the beginning, and there will be no more big interruptions (for book festivals and for the world at large!).
Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival
Unlike the Auckland Writers Festival and the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival is not even a decade old yet. It was established in 2014, with the first festival held in May of that year. It does, however, have roots in the 1980s, as it was preceded by a writers’ festival called Wordstruck!, which took place in Dunedin. This event was held every two years from 1989 until 2009, when it merged into the Dunedin Arts Festival. These events ultimately led to the formation of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival.
So far, there have only been six editions of these festivals. The first two were held in 2014 and 2015, respectively, before it was determined that the festival should run every two years. Since then, the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival has been held in May of 2017, 2019, and 2021. The 2019 event had the theme of Celtic Noir and featured writers with Irish and Scottish connections, with a particular focus on thrillers, true crime, and crime fiction. For the latest event in 2023 (which took place in October), the theme was Te Pūao, which is a Te Reo Māori term referring to where a river and the sea meet. For the first time, there were Māori people involved in the curating of the event. The 2023 festival marked the anniversaries of two well-known New Zealand writers, with Māori writer Witi Ihimaera celebrating 50 years of publishing and the year marking what would have been the 145th birthday of Katherine Mansfield, who was a major writer in the early 1900s who put New Zealand literature on the map.
For the most part, the event takes place in the public art gallery in Dunedin but crosses over into other public buildings such as museums and libraries.
Going West Books & Writers Festival
Of all the New Zealand literary festivals, the Going West Books & Writers Festival is one of the most long-running. Set up by an arts manager and a bookshop owner, it was established in 1996. It was the first literary festival to be held in the major New Zealand city of Auckland. The name is taken from the book Going West, which was written by New Zealand author Maurice Gee about a train journey in Auckland.
What’s interesting about the origins of the festival is that it came from a reenactment of the train journey from the eponymous book. Those attending rode a steam train, and at the train stations that they stopped at, there were poetry readings and events, with other readings taking place on the train. The first festival proper was held in a warehouse in July of 1996. There were performances of Māori instruments and readings of Māori poems.
The Going West Books & Writers Festival grew into a 3-day event that covered a weekend. It previously culminated in a journey on a steam train before the train schedule changed.
Like many cultural events, 2020 saw it cancelled due to COVID-19, but it returned the following year and has remained popular. The festival mostly revolves around writers and poets from West Auckland.
VERB Writers and Readers Festival
Since 2014, the Verb Writers and Readers Festival has been held by an organization called Verb Wellington. The event was created by a musician and a publisher. A key aspect of the event is LitCrawl. This is a play on the slang term Pub Crawl, which is when a group of friends travel to multiple different bars on the same night. The LitCrawl involves going to different venues at different time slots to see different events. In 2021, the theme focused on Asian voices in New Zealand, and in 2022, the theme was Radical Possibility and was held across 20 venues.
Each edition of the festival takes place in Wellington, which is New Zealand’s capital city.
Aside from the Auckland Writers Festival, the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, and other bigger New Zealand literary festivals, there are other events in New Zealand that work on promoting literature locally and internationally.
The Aotearoa New Zealand Festival is a long-running event that covers multiple different art forms, including reading and writing. The first edition was held in Wellington in 1986, and it is held bi-annually with different activities involving literature as well as dance, theater, and music. This festival is a significant cultural event in New Zealand and takes place over a 3-week period. The inspiration for the festival came from the Adelaide Festival in neighboring Australia. The Aotearoa New Zealand Festival involves classical and contemporary arts and includes international as well as local acts.
Another smaller festival that particularly focuses on literature is the Marlborough Book Festival. It is organized by the Marlborough Readers and Writers Charitable Trust and its volunteers. The event was first held in July 2014 and is set to return in 2024. The festival has proven to be popular in Marlborough on a local level.
Similarly, to the Marlborough Book Festival, the Queenstown Writers Festival is a small-scale event that has proved popular with locals. It began in 2018. This festival celebrates local writers over a number of days. The full festival only takes place every two years, with the organizers holding smaller events in the intermittent period.
The “New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival” is a different literary event. This charity will hold events through June and July. Since 2015, they have incorporated a book festival into their itinerary, with a writing competition added the following year. The book scene at this festival has grown over the past few years. The festival returns in June 2024.
Previously, there was a charitable initiative called New Zealand Book Month. It began in 2006 and was held across New Zealand. The goal of the event was to increase and encourage the level of reading in New Zealand. For the first three years, it was held in September before moving to October in 2009. Between 2010 and 2013, it was held in March, and the final event was held in August 2014. After that, it was discontinued due to a lack of funding. The event included poetry and story readings as well as speeches by authors from New Zealand and around the world. There were also book launches, interactive fun events, and storytelling for children. Part of the initiative during New Zealand Book Month was to give out book vouchers.
Role of Literary Festivals in Promoting Literature
When it comes to promoting literature locally and internationally, literary festivals are very important. Here are five reasons why.
- Literary festivals promote literacy and make reading readily available by encouraging locals to pick up a book.
- Literary festivals are a gateway to reading for young people and can inspire them to develop an interest in books and writing.
- Literary festivals allow for the intermingling between aspiring authors and established writers, which allows for the exchange of ideas and helps aspiring authors get advice and feedback.
- Literary festivals play a role in promoting literature globally by acting as a celebration of books and attracting tourists to the area.
- Literary festivals give a platform to a diverse range of authors who may otherwise not be heard. As we’ve seen at the Auckland Writers Festival, there have been efforts made to include the indigenous Māori community.
- Literary festivals help emerging writers get exposure and ensure that more people get to see their work, which allows them to broaden their target audience.
- Literary festivals allow authors to market their books and themselves to a broad audience and get their work seen.
- Literary festivals give new writers opportunities to pitch their work.
The role of literary festivals in promoting literature is significant, as these events act as a time of triumph for reading and writing.
There is no shortage of fantastic New Zealand literary festivals that encourage reading and help promote writing. From major events like the Auckland Writers Festival and the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival right down to small-scale celebrations of books, literary festivals play a role in promoting literature locally and internationally.