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The 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist
The 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist

BooksMay 10, 2024

What actually are the Ockhams?

The 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist
The 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist

Writer Rebecca K Reilly breaks down the national book awards.

What are the Ockhams?

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards are our annual national awards for books published for adults, and have existed in this form since 2016. There are four categories: Fiction, Poetry, General Non-fiction and Illustrated Non-fiction. There is also a First Book Award in each category. The Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction is funded by an endowment so the prize money increases, this year it’s $65,000. The other main prizes have increased to $12,000 and the First Book Awards are $3,000. There is also a discretionary award — Te Mūrau o te Tuhi, a Māori Language Award — according to the awards website it also comes with $12,000, when awarded. 

A national book awards was first established in 1968 as the Wattie Book Awards, as in the tomato sauce, and were previously the NZ Post Book Awards and various wine labels’ book awards. The other notable awards we have are the Ngaio Marsh Awards for crime writing, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for science fiction and fantasy and the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

How does the judging work? What are the judges looking for?

There are three judges per category (except for Fiction where there’s a fourth “international” judge, like a Governor General of books), chosen from a mix of people who nominate themselves and who are also invited. 

Because the judges are different every year and nominate themselves to participate, it doesn’t make sense to believe that there’s a certain type of book that Ockhams judges are looking for, or a certain taste that defines the awards. Any predictions are pure speculation. 

Here are some facts: In the current format, only four people have won a main category aged under 40: Becky Manawatu, Airini Beautrais, Ashleigh Young and Monique Fiso, the youngest winner at 33 for the illustrated non-fiction book Hiakai. A man has not won the fiction prize since 2016 (Stephen Daisley, shortlisted again this year). An Auckland resident has not won the fiction prize since 2014 (Eleanor Catton, who doesn’t live here anymore), and no one has won while living in Christchurch as far as records go back (1996). The median Ockham winner is currently a white woman over 50 who lives in Wellington, but we’re inching towards a 45-year-old Māori woman from anywhere that isn’t Christchurch.

Ockham NZ Book Award Fiction winners by region they appear to currently live in. Research and graph by Rebecca K Reilly.

Which books are eligible?

Books that were first published the previous year, between January 1st and December 31st, authored by New Zealand citizens or permanent residents are eligible for the awards. Books must be available to be purchased through New Zealand booksellers, but they do not need to be published by New Zealand publishers. They can be in English or te reo Māori. Authors do not need to currently live in New Zealand.

Does that mean that books by people who don’t live in New Zealand and aren’t published by New Zealand publishers are eligible for the New Zealand Book Awards?

Yes, if the authors are New Zealand citizens and the books can legally be distributed in New Zealand. Publishing contracts dictate which regions books are allowed to be distributed in. If one of their contracts includes New Zealand, they’re good to go.

Are New Zealand authors eligible for overseas prizes? 

Sometimes, but most prizes stipulate that the recipients need to be based in the country the prize is from, or that the book is published in their market. Most local books have contracts just for New Zealand, unless they’re published by a publisher like Text or Harper Collins for the ANZ market. Getting a UK book deal is quite a feat, and a US one very rare. Books trickle down, so most of the international books we see on the shelves here are published in UK and Commonwealth deals and distributed to us as paperback ANZ editions. 

On this year’s fiction longlist, 7/10 books are available outside of NZ. This is a particularly high rate – last year, it was 3/10. In poetry, it’s a consistent 1/10.

What about the eligibility for the First Book Awards?

These awards are for first-time authors, from the main category shortlists. If none of the shortlisted books are debuts, a title from the longlist is chosen. It is possible to win the Best First Book Award and the category award, as Becky Manawatu did for Auē in 2020.

An author is only eligible the first time they publish a book – if someone published a non-fiction book about MySpace Secret Shows in 2009, and then years later published a homoerotic novel about the RSA, they would not be eligible for the Best First Book Award for Fiction.

There has recently been a rule change regarding authors who had previously contributed to multi-authored books or anthologies. Now authors will retain their eligibility for First Book Awards if their previous contribution to a book was less than half, or the book was fewer than 48 pages (fiction or not fiction) or 24 pages (poetry). This is significant because AUP’s New Poets series publishes collections showcasing three emerging poets, and previously this made all the poets involved ineligible for these awards when they published their first individual book. As per the Terms & Conditions, First Book Awards are generally awarded to single-author books, so a New Poets book would be very unlikely to win.

The winner of the 2020 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, and winner of Best First Book, Becky Manawatu. (Photo: Tim Manawatu)

How do authors feel about the awards?

This was going to be about how the sentiment around the awards is mixed, but the responses I collected from authors were… all negative. When asked to describe the Ockhams in one word, the words I got back were “frustrated”, “tired”, “conflicted”, “sad”, “lottery”, “resigned”, “nebulous”, “crapshoot” and “lol”. All awards are weird, but what makes these ones particularly fraught?

The main issue is money. The government has not had any interest in supporting writers for a very long time. The worst part of literary events is when an MP comes and says they don’t have time to read books but it’s nice that you guys write them. The market is small, so book deals here are small – like, new phone or one dentist appointment small. A previous winner said to me it’s really just a lottery to decide which writer gets paid each year. In what other profession do you need to be judged the best nationally to get paid?

A popular pithy remark is that writing is now the domain of the rich, as no one else can afford to do it. Some writers have a rich husband or a family fortune, sure, but many more have some other job and squish the writing in somehow or they just straight up don’t have any money. The last time I went to the ceremony, more than one writer was crying because they really needed the money and didn’t get it. I’ve also heard of people stress vomiting at the reception. We are a rich country, this should not be happening.

Which is the most controversial award?

That would be the General Non-Fiction Award. The two non-fiction awards are General and Illustrated, illustrated being those big, beautiful photo books showing cross-sections of the earth, historical botanic watercolours, every outfit worn on a Telethon, that sort of thing. General is everything else. Does it make sense to decide which book is better out of a history of every battle to have taken place in this country and a memoir about someone who’s got weird parents? Every year people say that it doesn’t make sense, and other people say nothing can be done because if they made separate categories another ten grand would have to be rustled up from somewhere and there aren’t enough books being published to warrant an additional category. 

However. If we didn’t have the other categories I can guarantee there would be people saying we don’t have enough books to warrant them, or any book awards at all. Some political parties’ spokespeople for the arts think that the last novel to be published in New Zealand was Once Were Warriors in 1985.

What would be better than what we have now?

If writers were well-funded, literature and storytelling were valued culturally, and people could afford places to live, no one would care if they got a bit of prize money or not. It would be an extra and not a necessity. In the meantime: more celebrations. Print out some certificates, engrave a trophy, invent an award for under 30s that everyone thinks is ageist or a poetry prize so pretentious no one wants to win it. Give us something. Even a Whitcoulls voucher.

Winners of the 2024 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards will be announced at a live ceremony on 15 May as part of Auckland Writers Festival. Tickets and further information here

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