The Ockham NZ Book Awards – Where To From Here?

Long-lister Greg McGee pokes his head above the literary parapet…

The Antipodeans has had a brilliant run, already in its 3rd print, and being short-listed for the Ockham NZ Book Awards would have been the icing on the cake, so I’m disappointed it hasn’t made it. That’s okay: win some, lose some, and good luck to those who have made it. Time is money in business, but writers know that money is time, time to write, and the $50,000 for the winner of the Acorn Foundation Literary Award will equate to priceless time for one of the four short-listed authors.

Now that I’m out of the running, it might be safe to express my reservations about the Ockham. I know the risk I’m running in sticking my chin out – that old left-right combo, Sore Loser! Sour Grapes! – but I’m old enough and ugly enough to be past worrying too much about career impact and all that.  

The Ockham is a fantastic initiative, and I commend the Ockham partners for committing to it, but I had concerns when the personnel of the judging panel was originally announced (long before that panel long-listed my novel). My concerns weren’t related to the abilities of the individual judges; more that all three were so deeply embedded in the NZ literary scene.

I believe that to make it a truly prestigious award the judging panel has to have a strong international component, otherwise the arbiters of our supreme literary award will always be drawn from what is a tiny cohort in a tiny country.  

The Ngaio Marsh Best Crime Novel Award, which by comparison carries a minuscule cash prize, has always managed to do this through the six years of its existence. When my mate in the frock, Alix Bosco, won in 2010, for instance, it was worth nothing, but there were seven judges: three NZers and four internationals, from Australia, the UK, Canada and the US.

It’s no news to anyone that literary circles here – as in most countries – are riven with jealousies and petty parochialism. And not just literary circles. I’ve served on various judging panels and have seen at first hand how they can spiral down into a kind of compromised crap-shoot.

Which is not to say that happened with this year’s Ockham, far from it: with the odd exception to prove the rule, there seems to have been some brilliant and consistent advocacy within the panel for one region’s writers and one particular publisher. Three out of four short-listers have strong connections to Wellington and/or Victoria University Press (who also publish three of my plays). The one short-lister without those overt connections is Stephen Daisley, resident in West Australia, who I imagine would struggle to be left out of anyone’s list.

To some extent I’m an outsider looking in at the NZ literary scene, having spent most of my writing life in television, film and theatre, and that may explain why I can’t understand, for instance, why Sue Orr’s The Party Line wasn’t long-listed. Nor can I understand, for instance, why Tanya Moir’s The Legend of Winstone Blackhat wasn’t short-listed – it’s such a fully and beautifully realised imaginative world, with a combination of elements exceedingly rare in NZ literature: spare lyricism of great power and clarity which defines an emotionally engaging central character and drives an elegant, fully developed narrative to a tragic conclusion.

Judging novels is such a subjective exercise that there’ll always be controversial choices, even with international judges. So don’t mistake this as a plea to cleanse the Ockham of that sort of controversy. What needs to be eliminated is any suspicion of parochialism, and that will only be achieved by bringing an unimpeachable international perspective to the judging  process.

The current panel will doubtless have some convincing ex post facto rationales for their choices, but it’s surely better to save future panels from that sort of spectacle by embracing a simple solution.  

In that sense it’s the old maxim about justice being seen to be done: having a strong international perspective on the judging panel would elevate and enhance the Ockham.

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