Becky Manawatu at her desk.

Steve Braunias reports on the latest Whitcoulls 100

Ugh. As ever, as reliable as rain and toothache, the annual Whitcoulls Top 100 is a compendium of holiday-reading trash as voted by however many people who filled in a voting form made available by New Zealand’s largest retailer of books and stationery. But the 2020 list, released this morning, features quite high placings for two books written by New Zealand novelists.

Westport author Becky Manawatu has registered at number 30 on the Top 100 with her remarkable book Auē. It’s the latest achievement for a debut novel that was written by a complete nobody, published by a small independent firm in Wellington, and launched in Westport. Westport! Small wonder the book began to sink like a rock not long after its release – until ReadingRoom made a song and dance about it in December, announcing it as the book of the year. Sales began to pick up and then the best kind of marketing – word of mouth – catapulted the book into the Nielsen charts as readers caught on that Auē, with its powerful and sometime lyrical story about a Māori family torn apart by violence, was pretty much an instant New Zealand classic.

Auē won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand book of the year award for best novel, in May, much to the dismay of three or four literary snobs (everything about the book was an affront to literary orthodoxy) and to the delight of everyone else. It hogged the number one spot on the Nielsen chart for months, and is still there, hovering at number 2 or 3 most weeks.

Its inclusion in the Whitcoulls Top 100 is further proof of its impact on New Zealand’s mainstream reading culture. Whitcoulls exists as the official carrier of New Zealand’s mainstream reading culture; and the 2020 list also features The Absolute Book, a kind of fairytale (birds that talk, etc) by Wellington writer Elizabeth Knox, which fits quite naturally alongside other popular titles of escapist nonsense in the Top 100.

The press release quotes Whitcoulls book manager Joan Mackenzie: “The notion of supporting homegrown writers has clearly resonated with Whitcoulls’ voters.” Well, let’s not carried away. There are eight other New Zealand titles on the list. They include self-helpers by Dr Libby and Jazz Thornton.

The rest is yer Harry bloody Potter, yer Lord of the bloody Rings, yer Rupi bloody Kaur etc, alongside the occasional 20th century classic (Catcher in the Rye, 1984) and 19th century classic (Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice), self-helpers for men who feel threatened by modern life (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck), the greatest story ever told (The Bible), and the usual examples of holiday-reading trash from a year in lockdown which has existed as an extended compulsory holiday.

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35) and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35) are available in bookstores nationwide.


Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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