‘Pissing on literature’: awaiting tomorrow’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists

Spinoff Review of Books editor Steve Braunias anticipates the longlist for the 2018 Ockham national book awards, announced at 5am tomorrow.

One of the many great, bitter lines that VS Naipaul comes up with in Paul Theroux’s great, bitter book of their lost friendship, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, is his remark made every year at the announcement of the Nobel prize for literature: “Here they go, pissing on literature again.” Every nomination was second-rate. The judging panel were idiots. The whole thing was a giant waste of time. But all that went out the window, Theroux notes, when Naipaul won: he couldn’t have been happier, accepted with deepest thanks, and kissed the hands of the wise Nobel judges.

Kamala, Astral, Charlotte Oct 1981 (from Aberhart Starts Here by Laurence Aberhart and Lara Strongman)

The local variation is about to be played out. The longlist for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book awards will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, at 5am. As ever, the Spinoff Review of Books will be first to break the news, when we publish the list – and an immediate dissection – on the stroke of 5am, possibly even 4:59am. Authors! Publishers! Set your alarms.

Who will make it, and who won’t? The longlist is unlikely to feature anything radical or even surprising. The 12-person judging panel include some of the biggest bores in New Zealand literature, and their selections will doubtless favour quite a few like-minded bores and overlook some authors who are too lively and readable. Disturbingly, bizarrely, only two of the nine judges for fiction and non-fiction are published authors. You don’t have to write to be able to read but there is such a thing as too many booksellers, media types and academics on a literary judging panel.

Charlotte is five today, Lyttelton, 12 April 1980 (from Aberhart Starts Here by Laurence Aberhart and Lara Strongman)

Still, life itself is an imperfect circumstance, and all judging is a lottery. Each category will feature 10 books. There are some safe bets. In non-fiction, expect Diana Wichtel’s harrowing memoir Driving to Treblinka, and Redmer Yska’s dazzling psychogeography of Wellington and Katherine Mansfield, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. There will likely be room too for Tears of Rangi by Anne Salmond, she who so imperiously sent Buddy Mikaere on his way in the weekend for his withering review. Possibles: The Whole Intimate Mess by Holly Walker, Hit & Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, and my record of food and death, The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road.

Anarchist poster which appeared in Christchurch streets after John Lennon’s death, December 1980(from Aberhart Starts Here by Laurence Aberhart and Lara Strongman)

In the poetry section, the collection you could bet your house on is Tightrope, by the newly minted poet laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh. Her book was the poetry event of the year.

Fiction gets the fattest cash prize at the Ockhams. Why? What’s so special about novelists? 2017 wasn’t a vintage year for The Great New Zealand Novel but the longlist is likely to feature Mandy Hagar’s popular potboiler Heloise, and the highly regarded Baby by debut novelist Anaaleese Jochems. Possibles:  Iceland by Dominic Hoey, Johnson by Dean Parker, and Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam.

Lesley, Kamala and Charlotte, South Springston, Canterbury, 1980 (from Aberhart Starts Here by Laurence Aberhart and Lara Strongman)

Finally, to the illustrated non-fiction category. Auckland University Press have strong contenders in Totara by Philip Simpson and Good-bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War by Chris Bourke. Possibles: the graphic non-fiction book Out of the Woods: Journey Through Depression & Anxiety by Brent Williams, illustrated by Öztekin Korkut, and Aberhart Starts Here, a striking collection of early photographs (1975-83) in the career of genius photographer Laurence Aberhart – his are the images which appear throughout this story and make it look so beautiful and strange. We wish the great Aberhart, and everyone else who had a book out in the past 12 months, all the best for tomorrow’s announcement. If you make the cut, congrats! If you don’t, remember the lavatorial words of VS Naipaul.


Aberhart Starts Here by Laurence Aberhart and Lara Strongman (Christchurch Art Gallery, $40) is available at Unity Books, along with the other titles listed in this story, including the lively, eminently readable The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25).

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