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Books: Let Us Now Judge The Judges of The 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

Steve Braunias holds court on the judges of the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Let us now judge the judges. The first-ever longlist of the national book awards was announced this week, in anticipation of the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The news was greeted with various assorted huzzahs and the gnashing of teeth upon sour grapes. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into, but how did they perform? Were they up to the task? Did they blunder, misfire, cringe, play safe, maintain high standards of mediocrity in publishing? Or did they get it right?

As for the authors, who’s looking likely to go on to win the thing? A shortlist is announced in March. The grand finale is staged on May 10, during the Auckland Writers Festival. Thanks to the splendid efforts of New Zealand Book Awards Trust chair Nicola Legat and her team, the debut Ockham awards will feature a cash prize of $50,000 for best novelist, and $10,000 will go the winners of best book of non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, and poetry. Who will get their hands on the loot?

FICTION

Hot favourite: The Back of His Head, by Patrick Evans. Traditionally we think of Vince O’Sullivan and Karl Stead as New Zealand’s masters of a wide range of forms – both are superb authors of fiction, essays, and verse, and O’Sullivan was also a playwright of note back in the day. But Evans is at least their equal.  His writing career has included the best and only entertaining official study of New Zealand writing, The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (1990), which remains an astonishing read with its breezy dismissals and whimsical put-downs. His recent essay over at The Spinoff was a classic of the genre. His 2010 novel Gifted brilliantly reimagined Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson’s odyssey as the odd couple of NZ lit. He returns to similar territory in The Back Of His Head, which imagines the first New Zealand writer to win the Nobel Prize. It’s funny, and tragic; there are cleverly conceived shifts of narrative, and the rat-tat-tat dialogue is a reminder of Evans’s excellence as a playwright. It’s the novel you want to buy this Christmas.

The judges:  Let us now examine the godlike Owen Marshall, Unity bookseller and force of nature Tilly Lloyd, and Jill Rawnsley, whose intelligence and serene demeanor made her loved by all authors during her years as convenor of the Auckland Writers Festival. They’ve done a solid job, kind of. As well as longlisting The Back of His Head, they’ve given due and proper recognition to The Antipodeans by Greg McGee, Chappy by Patricia Grace, The Chimes by Anna Smaill, and The Plane North by Hamish Clayton (the dark horse to win the award). But the remainder of the list is underwhelming, and a number of authors might best be described as minor. Where are the major authors? Why no Starlight Peninsula by Charlotte Grimshaw, and why no The Writers Festival by Stephanie Johnson? The most glaring omission is The Party Line by Sue Orr. This was the New Zealand novel that had everyone talking this year, and seemed a shoo-in to make the longlist. What the hell were the judges thinking? Rating: B-

ILLUSTRATED NON-FICTION

Hot favorite: Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, and Aroha Harris. Winner of the Te Kōrero o Mua (History) Award at the 2015 Ngā Kupu Ora Aotearoa Māori Book Awards. Winner of the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize. Gold winner at the Pride in Print Awards 2015… It’s carried off everything in its path, and the awards haul won’t stop there. This epic pictorial history – 544 pages for $79 – charts Māori from the great migration to the struggles and triumphs of modern life. It’s so PC it hurts but it’s also beautifully designed. They do wonderful books at Bridget Williams, and this one really does deserve to be recognised as taonga.

The judges: Let us now examine former publisher Jane Connnor, art writer and academic Linda Tyler, and the wonderfully astute Leonie Hayden, editor of Mana magazine. They’ve done a stand-up job. The longlist also includes two typically spectacular books published by Te Papa (Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s by Bronwyn Labrum, and New Zealand Photography Collected by Athol McCredie), which you’d expect, but there are also inspired choices such as Coast. Country.Neighbourhood.City edited by Michael Barrett (Six Point Press). The dark horse to win is Hello Girls and Boys! A New Zealand Toy Story by David Veart (Auckland University Press). What’s missing? Lisa Reihana: In Pursuit of Venus is the most striking absence, and the judges should hang their heads in shame. Otherwise, this is gold-standard judging. Rating: A

NON-FICTION

Hot favourite: Maurice Gee: Life and Work by Rachel Barrowman. Barrowman is the guv’nor, or I suppose the guv’ness, of modern literary biography. She’s the best we may ever have produced here. She’s followed her amazing 2003 biography of RAK Mason with her Gee book, and it’s hardly going overboard to say that it already qualifies as a modern classic. This is biography as detective work, as following hunches as well as solid leads, as close understanding and lively analysis. A bum could have taken the same core materials and made a hash of it. Gee is special, and so is Barrowman.

The judges: Let us now examine Wellington literary panjandrum Lydia Wevers, the remarkable sociologist and author Dr Jarrod Gilbert, and Simon Wilson, former editor of Cuisine magazine. They could scarcely have neglected Barrowman’s book, and they’ve also shown good sense in longlisting The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City by Fiona Farrell, Terrain: Travels through a deep landscape by Geoff Chapple, and Journey to a Hanging by Peter Wells. But I’m baffled at the omission of my book The Scene of the Crime, and likewise can see no rhyme or reason in the absence of Going South by Colin Hogg, The Mermaid Boy by John Summers, and How Bizarre by Simon Grigg. These four books engage with New Zealand life, tell powerful stories, and entertain. They’re eminently readable. Perhaps that’s their failing. The judges manifestly prefer dreary academese, which makes up most of the rest of the longlist. No one will read those dutiful little studies. No one will even remember they existed, including the authors. Oh, look, there’s a sour grape gnashed in my teeth! Yeah nah the judges suck. Rating: D

POETRY

I don’t really know anything about recent collections of New Zealand poetry, but I will say this: as publisher of Luncheon Sausage Books (my political memoir Madmen: Inside the Weirdest Election Campaign Ever, 2014; Lily Max, a novel for girls aged 8-12, by Queenstown writer Jane Bloomfield, published this month), I am of a mind to publish a book of New Zealand verse in 2016, and intend to approach Bill Manhire, CK Stead, and Colin Craig.


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