NZ Book Awards to shine light on great local writing
Showing New Zealanders what they're missing by not reading local books is not the core mission of the revamped national book awards, but organisers hope it will be one of the byproducts.
The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist was announced this week: 12 books in four categories, with big names (Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera) and little-known authors (debut novelist David Coventry) among them.
There were some grumbles in literary corners about a lack of diversity among the finalists — just one female fiction finalist, no female poetry finalists — and there will likely be robust debate about the books chosen, which is as it should be.
Early favourites are The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans for the fiction prize and Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris for best illustrated non-fiction book.
The winners will be announced at a 90-minute public event in May, on the first night of the Auckland Writers Festival (which last year pulled in 60,000 punters across a week), the first time readers have been invited to come along and celebrate with nominees and publishers. It is a bald attempt to get more people excited about the book awards, and about local writing.
Each year "wonderful New Zealand books are published and overlooked", says New Zealand Book Awards Trust chair Nicola Legat. "We still have that notion that New Zealand writing is not as good. People in the literary and publishing ecosystem know that's not true but I think if you talk to most book groups they are not reading as much New Zealand fiction as international fiction.
"They have heard of a few [local writers] — Lloyd Jones, Eleanor Catton — but their reading is not very deep."
Perhaps the biggest change to hit the awards, back after a year's hiatus following the loss of the last major sponsor, New Zealand Post, is the $50,000 prize money put up by the Acorn Foundation for the fiction winner.
"We hope that it will be transformational," says Legat. "Most writers get by on a really difficult hybrid life of a bit of teaching, a bit of manuscript assessment, a bit of this, a bit of that. It's just so hard to find the time to settle and write and knock something off.
"Also, I think it's a signal with prize money that significant that New Zealand writing really is fantastic, it does merit pretty substantial financial reward."
This year there will no overall winner announced, but four category winners for fiction, non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction and poetry. The specialist judges are drawn from the fields of literature, academia, publishing and journalism.
"We decided we didn't need to have a supreme winner, given that it never seemed to make anyone happy," says Legat with a laugh. "It set an impossible task for the judges.
"It was really invidious. We saw that in 2014, when Eleanor Catton didn't win book of the year, but she won the best fiction book and that seemed controversial to people.
"It is very, very difficult for a panel of judges to choose between a great book of non-fiction and a great novel, it's almost impossible."