New Zealand literature! What is it, who reads it, and why does it exist? Some or none or all of these questions are about to be answered in the first annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards!!!
Some say 2016 will go down in history as the year between 2015 and 2017, but it’s too early to tell. What can be said with certainty is that it was a remarkable year for New Zealand literature. Remarkable, in the sense that it’s being remarked upon right here, right now in the first annual Spinoff Review of Books literary awards; so let’s get on with it! The envelopes and such, please!
Fiction was a bit of a fizzer in 2016 – some interesting experiments by ingenues, some solid works by old hands, nothing that knocked everybody on their ass. Poetry and non-fiction did the heavy lifting sort of thing. And so among the very best books of the year were the debut collection of verse by Hera Lindsay Bird, the memoir by Adam Dudding, the essays by Ashleigh Young, Peter Simpson’s art history Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 and Vincent O’Malley’s thorough whopper The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, all rightly selected for the longlist of the 2017 Ockham national book awards; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best book goes to a scandalous exclusion from the longlist, Things That Matter: Stories of Life & Death from an Intensive Care Specialist by Dr David Galler.
It was a smash hit, sort of a New Zealand version of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End but not really – Galler had his own moving and powerful stories to tell, and they resonated deeply with readers. We say: buy it for someone this Xmas. We say: bravo Dr Galler!
Power loves a vacuum as does the urge to make really intelligent, wildly creative works of literary art. That is, because mainstream New Zealand publishers now have their backs to the wall, and largely only commit to commercial junk, a host of smaller, more nimble publishers have stepped in and worked to bring out books of ideas, books outside the boundaries of popular taste, books which aren’t cookbooks. And so there was a stream of excellent non-fiction by Bridget Williams Books; a lot of clever, appealing books with small print-runs by firms such as Freerange Press (Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa) Lawrence & Gibson (A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse), Beatnik (Tail of the Taniwha), Luncheon Sausage Books (The Shops, and Lily Max), and Makaro (Strip); but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best publisher goes to Victoria University Press.
VUP supremo Fergus Barrowman wandered the factory floor at all times of day and night to pump out quality book after quality book, ending up with an embarrassment of 14 titles in the Ockham longlist. He looked outside the self-admiring academy of Victoria University’s Writing Club for Ambitious Boys & Girls aka the International Institute of Modern Letters [IIML] to publish Auckland journo hack Adam Dudding; his poetry range included Hera Lindsay Bird at one end and Vincent O’Sullivan at the other; he even found time to release some lame-ass flops, which is the mark of a true publisher. We say: it’s not just Fergus, the whole team at VUP are a class act. We say: bravo Victoria University Press!
Best new author
New doesn’t necessarily mean young, or a student at the Damien Wilkins School of Approved Wellington Lit aka IIML. And so the painfully old Adam Dudding, 46, of Auckland, made an acclaimed debut with My Father’s Island; fellow debutante Anthony Byrt, author of the 2017 Ockham longlisted This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art is no spring chicken, c/- Waiheke Island; Titus Books located an obscure genius in the shape of the vivid and one-of-a-kind novel Butades, by TP Sweeney; but of course the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best new author goes to the vaguely young (29) IIML graduate Hera Lindsay Bird.
Of course, because she was a literary sensation. Her self-titled first book of poems was the most unlikely number-one bestseller kind of like ever, and 60,000 views at the Spinoff for her poem “Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind” can’t be wrong. Well, they can be, actually, because yes the poem was good but you know not that good, and perhaps all those litanies and one-liners of hers are the exact same thing as a comedy record, that is, you get sick of it after a while, so maybe “Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind” is the “Dead Parrot Sketch” of poetry – yeah nah come on, no one else was in the same provocative or noteworthy league. We say: more, please! We say: bravo Hera Lindsay Bird!
Best old author
Vale, Russell Haley (1934-2016). Vale, James McNeish (1931-2016). But some of the best writing in New Zealand is produced by old timey scribes who are still among us, still being published, still not gaga. And so John Dunmore (the oldest practitioner, born 1923) released his latest book, Chasing a Dream: The Exploration of the Imaginary Pacific; Joan Druett (born 1939) was the oldest provocateur, raising hackles everywhere she went with her new book The Notorious Captain Hayes: The Remarkable True Story of The Pirate of The Pacific; CK Stead (born 1932) put out a kind of greatest short-story hits, The Name on the Door is Not Mine, a masterly collection which is longlisted for the 2017 Ockham national book awards; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best old author goes to 1934 baby Fleur Adcock.
“He was not just a colourful but basically amiable rogue,” she wrote of her ex-husband Barry Crump, in a raw, quite clinical memoir published at the Spinoff in March. “He was also a chronic liar and a bully.” We asked her to write something about Crump as a kind of tie-in – or moral corrective – to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi’s cheerful film version of Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress. She wrote about beatings and random violence. She wrote about Crump again, in a poem published the following month, and this time she accused him of killing five boys “by negligence, by booze, by his grievous fault.” We say: Jesus Christ. We say: bravo Fleur Adcock.
Someone on Twitter – you know this isn’t going to go well just by those three little words – recently responded to a long, brilliant book review at the Spinoff by asking couldn’t we just give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down emoji. Oh fuck off emoji. A great review is a great piece of writing and thinking; the canary down the coal mine is available at Good Reads or whatever. And so the best reviews – the best writing, the best thinking – in 2016 were by Peter Wells at the Spinoff, for his epic essay on the Katherine Mansfield journal The Urewera Notebook; Harry Ricketts, also at the Spinoff, for his radical, meta AF reviewing technique, in his response to Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout; Mark Reason, for his patient gutting of David Coventry’s novel The Invisible Mile in New Zealand Books; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best review goes to Listener critic Charlotte Grimshaw.
She was assigned the Tim Wilson novel, Straight Banana. She read it. She died a little inside. She gathered her instruments – scissors, scalpel, pair of pliers and a blowtorch, no need for anaesthetic – and got to work, and conjured the image of the author “having a breakdown while wearing a fruit bowl on his head”. We say: hee-haw! We say: bravo Charlotte Grimshaw!
Feuds! Spats! Actually there was a marked absence of animus in public, no tit for tat, no vs, no handbags at dawn sort of thing. Instead, there were wider arguments. Two to be precise. And so one of them was the one provoked by Paula Morris, whose Spinoff essay told critics of her Academy of New Zealand Literature to go fuck themselves; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best stink goes to Peter King, for his essay posted online at Medium and later reprinted at the Spinoff, which told everyone in New Zealand literature to go fuck themselves.
He wrote, “Literature has been about wine and cheese for the patronising Minister, and a bunch of literati chickens ferociously henpecking each other for chicken feed…For too long our literature infrastructure has languished in the hands of librarians and academics who have shushed voices of dissent, accepted sinking lids, and desperately held onto their own status rather than build an industry. It’s failed. We need a new way of doing things.” We say: oh what bullshit, but hey it was a good stink and it got lots of views! We say: bravo Peter King!
Best writers festival
The more, the merrier! Hokitika – go on, take the plunge, be awesome to have a writers festival on the West Coast! Gisborne – go on, take the plunge, be awesome to have a writers festival on the East Coast! Almost everywhere else has one and most of them are crowd-pleasing jamborees. And so the best of 2016 were LitCrawl, in Wellington, brilliantly conceived by Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking; the one in Napier and Havelock North, was number one for hospitality; the one in Christchurch was masterminded by the ever-cool Rachael King; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best writers festival goes to the one in Blenheim.
Blenheim! It used to be the dreary Hamilton of the South, but it’s actually a cool little place, and their festival was professional, thoughtful, welcoming, creative, and they treat writers and readers with respect. We say: it’s a lot of fun. We say: bravo Blenheim!
Now we get to the most cherished awards.
Clothes and writers rarely go together in pleasing tandem. Most of them dress like tramps. “Some writers,” as Emily Perkins put it diplomatically at the Spinoff this year, “clearly have higher things on their minds.” But there are exceptions. And so the finalists are Chris Tse, who wore a black feather swan at the 2016 Ockham awards ceremony; the chic Kirsten McDougall; the stylish Kelly Ana Morey; the dandyish Peter Wells; the motherfucking crazyish Donovan Bixley; but, indisputably, the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best dressed goes to Selina Marsh.
And really it was just for one sensational appearance, at Westminster Abbey, in March, when she wore “an electric blue tapa-inspired puletasi (traditional Samoan dress) bought at Mena’s in Apia, Samoa, just across from the Savalalo Markets”. We say: she looked more regal than the Queen. We say: bravo Selina Marsh!
Hair! Jesus, does it get more personal than this? Sadly, no, for shineheads such as Lloyd Jones and Brannavan Gnanalingam. However most writers with hair treat it with the same indifference as their wardrobe. But there are exceptions. And so the finalists are Fergus Barrowman, who basically has an afro; Sarah Laing, who has beautiful red hair; Witi Ihimaera, who has beautiful white hair; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best hair goes to Tracey Slaughter.
She’s the Ronetttes of NZ Lit, the B-52s of fiction, with her beehive stacked up way, way high. We say: great hair day, every day! We say: bravo Tracey Slaughter!
There were so many good poems at the Spinoff this year that we could just close our eyes and pick one at random and it’d a worthy winner of our final award. But there were good poems elsewhere too. And so there was “Five Limericks of Grief” by Nick Ascroft, at New Zealand Books (“There was an old man they embalmed/ And he lay there so clean and becalmed”); “Like a bird” by CK Stead at Landfall (“You were beautiful, and I/ sang, as I could in those days/ all the way home—like a bird.”); “The late news” by Michael Harlow, “When Lorelai broke the curtain rail” by Amanda Kennedy, “Don’t biff it and don’t burn me either” by Talia Marshall, “The slip” by Alan Roddick, “Monica” by Hera Lindsay Bird, “Tip-Top Bread” by Michael Hall, and “My Iron Cervix” by Claudia Jardine, all at the Spinoff; but the 2016 Spinoff Review of Books award for best poem goes to Vincent O’Sullivan, a guest writer at the excellent new online journal for young New Zealand writers, Starling, for “To miss the point entirely”.
We say: there should be poems about John Key every week! We say: bravo Vincent O’Sullivan! We say nowt else; we take pleasure in reprinting the poem, below, with thanks to Starling.
To miss the point entirely
It isn’t good for a writer to live in a country
where a cut-price banker with his next-door smile
is all we have to throw stones at. How one
envies a Chilean say who could dream of knifing
a home-grown monster, the English even
who might smash a TV any day of the year
when a government of schoolboys quiver as if Matron
threatened to punish arse.
‘A country without snakes!’
as tourists at times are amazed to hear. ‘Then what
do people here die of?’, another traveller once
asked me. ‘Of being ourselves,’ I told him,
‘the big tourist pictures falling off the wall with mould.’
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.