Joy, despair, shock, Wellington: a red-hot week ahead for writing in New Zealand

Spinoff literary editor Steve Braunias previews two big events – tomorrow’s announcement of the Ockham national book awards shortlist, and this weekend’s Writers and Readers programme at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington.

Most weeks go by in the New Zealand literary scene without comment, without incident, without joy and triumph and alcoholic depravity. But this week has it all and then some – you’ll find the Spinoff Review of Books at the bar.

The embargo for the shortlist for the 2018 Ockham national book awards is lifted tomorrow at 5am. On the very stroke of five, the Spinoff will be first to break the news with a full list and immediate commentary. Publishers, authors – set the alarm. And then be prepared to be alarmed. We have already seen the shortlist of course and much of it’s entirely to be expected, fair, reasonable, predictable; and some of it’s daring, baffling, quite wonderful, and downright stupid.

The longlist was announced last November. Each category – fiction, non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, and poetry – listed 10 books. The shortlist takes out an axe, and chops that number down to four. Who has been abandoned, who has been saved?

Like last year, the most interesting category is non-fiction; it’s here that the most creative and assured books were published in New Zealand in 2017, with longlisted titles such as Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds by Anne Salmond, Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel, and A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington by Redmer Yska. Who has been abandoned, who has been saved?

It was a quiet year for fiction. Nothing major, nothing earth-shattering. The longlist rather stinks of literature and the classroom, with five novels published by Victoria University Press; you can just about smell the felt-tip ink moving over the whiteboards at the Damien Wilkins School of Approved Literature, aka the International Institute of Modern Letters, which has one foot in the VUP door as well as a sticky hand on the doorknob. But they can’t all squeeze into the Ockham shortlist. Who has been abandoned, who has been saved?

 

We will remark right now that an especially sumptuous and cleverly illustrated book has been abandoned in the illustrated non-fiction category. Well, one of the judges is Barbara Brookes, whose A History of New Zealand Women won the 2017 award – despite the fact that it looked like a dog.

We will further remark that an outstanding book of verse by a major new poet has been abandoned in the poetry category. Well, judges Robert Sullivan, Alison Wong and Michael Harlow have already revealed themselves as dumb-ass punks for their inexplicable decision to overlook Bill Manhire’s collection Some Things to Place in a Coffin. Ten books of verse, and no room for something that obviously good? Jesus wept. We got in touch with the publishers of three books which made the longlist, and asked them to submit a few poems for our weekly Friday Poem slot. None were accepted. They were all junk.

Anyway! Tune in at 5am for the full list, along with analysis, dissection, celebration, damnation, and the Spinoff’s prediction of which books will win their category at the Ockham awards night on May 15.

The second big deal of the New Zealand literary week takes place in Wellington. Without further ado, we wish to remark that the 2018 Writers and Readers programme of the New Zealand Festival is quite possibly the most original and inventive literary festival ever staged in this country. Certainly it places programme director Mark Cubey alongside Claire Mabey (Lit Crawl), Naomi Arnold (Nelson), and Rachael King (Christchurch) in the front-rank of New Zealand’s literary festival masterminds.

Cubey has gone for a lot of genre authors from around the world, working in fields such as fantasy, comics, spoken-word, and speculative fiction. It’s a fresh and exciting approach, and will likely attract audiences who would otherwise never go anywhere near something as deeply boring as a literary festival.

Two of the authors appearing next weekend are interviewed this week at The Spinoff: Charlie Jane Anders, and Charlotte Wood. A third guest, Patricia Lockwood, is profiled with typical flair and wit by Diana Wichtel in the latest Listener.

Other writers appearing at the festival include Teju Cole (Jesus, when is that blabbermouth not at a literary festival in New Zealand?), Corey Doctorow, Lloyd Jones, Hera Lindsay Bird and poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh. Kim Hill will be there. Toby Manhire will be there. Emma Espiner and Morgan Godfrey will be there. Lloyd Geering, who turned 100 last week, will be there. The Spinoff Review of Books will be there and may well be the last to leave; and if you live in Wellington, you should be there.


Steve Braunias chairs true-crime author Kelly Dennett at the New Zealand Festival on Saturday, March 10, at 10am, and chairs novelist CK Stead later that same day at 5:45pm; he will also appear alongside photographer Peter Black in a session on Friday, March 9, at 1:15pm.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.


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