Ockham book awards staged in-person

Organisers of next month’s Ockham national book awards – the premiere event of the year in New Zealand writing – have decided to commit to the awards ceremony as a live event.

Newsroom reported on Friday that organisers were thinking of staging it as an inevitably very boring online event as a cautious response to the plague.

Nicola Legat, chair of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, has confirmed the Ockhams will be held in-person on May 11.

“Having fully researched high-quality virtual options, assessed again the risk and reward of virtual versus in-person, and looked at the steadily dropping case numbers both nationally and in Auckland, we have concluded that we can mount a safe event at the Red level,” she said.

“In a year when literary events have been cancelled or postponed as the result of Covid, we are delighted that publishers and authors are going to be able to gather for this significant awards evening.”

Phew! The 2020 awards were held online, and proved an unwatchable disaster. Next month’s event will be held at the Q Theatre on Queen Street. In order to comply with the regulations under Red, tickets will be limited to finalist authors, publishers, sponsors and their “immediate circles”. Should Auckland move to Orange before May 11 these constraints will be adjusted. The proceedings will be filmed and live-streamed for those not in attendance.

Good old Q Theatre! It’s petite, a snug little place, just right for the book awards. Back when sponsorship money flowed exactly like wine – the book awards were backed for 15 years by Montana wines; winners would receive enormous jeroboams of fizz – the awards were held in the glamorous and epic surrounds of the Auckland Museum, as well as equally huge barns in Wellington and Christchurch. I remember the 2003 awards (Stephanie Johnson won the fiction award for The Shag Incident, Michael Cooper’s boring The Wine Atlas of New Zealand weirdly and controversially triumphed over Philip Temple’s magnificent biography A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields to win the non-fiction prize, Paula Morris won best first novel for Queen of Beauty, and I picked up the best review pages award in my earlier incarnation as books editor at the Listener)  were held at Lancaster Park in Christchurch. The floodlights illuminated the playing field. One player was training, for hours and hours by himself, practising the art of penalties: Andrew Mehrtens.

Anyway, to the Q Theatre on May 11. The big money is focussed on the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction: $60,000 in loot will go to one of the four shortlisted authors, Whiti Hereaka for Kurangaituku, Rebecca K Reilly for Greta & Valdin, Bryan Walpert for Entanglement, and Gigi Fenster for A Good Winter by Gigi Fenster. Bravo to the estimable Medlicott for shelling out so much cash every year. It’s a shame, though, that fiction hogs the big money. Winners of poetry, non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction pick up $10,000. Philip Matthews addressed this state of affairs with a typically impeccable story in Stuff recently on the power and glory of modern New Zealand memoir.

He wrote, “There is an odd situation in which the book of the year, as so many call it, will not be the major winner at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in May…It [tells] the world that writing a great novel is the best thing an author can do, and non-fiction and poetry are secondary.”

I asked him to expand on this point. He emailed, “There seems to be a lot of innovation and creativity in poetry, memoirs and personal essays in New Zealand at the moment, but the Ockhams’ big fiction prize distorts the picture. It creates an impression that the novel is the greatest achievement in writing, whereas books like The Mirror Book, Dead People I Have Known and Driving to Treblinka have been just as important, if not more so, and just as beautifully written and culturally significant.

“Non-fiction used to be a starchy, earnest category but the injection of the personal and creative, with Ashleigh Young as a kind of local pioneer (and Martin Edmond) has really changed that.

“Claire Murdoch [publisher at Penguin] thinks it has a lot to do with feminism, and one thing I don’t think I mentioned in that piece is a book she cites by Chris Kraus called I Love Dick, which she reckons is really influential. There is an idea about new, female memoirs that are downstream from #metoo. I also think social media and documentary series on Netflix and other streamers have primed readers for well-told true stories.

“I don’t really follow poetry but it seems like a similar thing is going on there, with a lot of really talented female and non-binary writers who are younger than the memoirists.”

A feature of the national book awards when it was sponsored by Montana, and New Zealand Post, is that all books were considered for the best book of the year award. It led, inevitably, to controversies: in 2014, judges awarded the big award to Jill Trevelyan’s biography Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, beating a novel everyone expected would surely win, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

But the point is that for many years in New Zealand, non-fiction was eligible for the major literary prize (and very often won, such as To The Is-land by Janet Frame, The Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange, and Moriori: A People Rediscovered by Michael King.) I named Charlotte Grimshaw’s memoir The Mirror Book the best book of 2021, in ReadingRoom. It’s shortlisted for the Ockham non-fiction prize on May 11, alongside another memoir, From the Centre: A Writer’s Life by Patricia Grace, and Voices from the New Zealand Wars | He Reo nō ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa by Vincent O’Malley and The Alarmist: Fifty Years Measuring Climate Change by Dave Lowe.

Phillip Matthews: “I think we should probably go back to an overall book of the year. You can imagine The Mirror Book winning its category but not the big cash prize, although it really was the book of 2021.”

I think the outstanding illustrated book published last year was Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland by Lucy Mackintosh; it could also be considered the very best book of any kind of 2021 in New Zealand. It’s shortlisted in its category, alongside The Architect and the Artists: Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble by Bridget Hackshaw, NUKU: Stories of 100 Indigenous Women by Qiane Matata-Sipu and Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910 by Claire Regnault.

Poetry has never won the book of the year award in the years it was eligible in New Zealand. (In Australia, the $50,000 Stella literary prize for women and non-binary writers has made poetry eligible for the first time this year, and three collections of poems have been shortlisted alongside three novels.) But Tayi Tibble’s collection Rangikura could be regarded with as much merit as The Mirror Book and Shifting Grounds as the best book published in New Zealand last year. It’s shortlisted for the poetry prize at this year’s Ockhams awards alongside The Sea Walks into a Wall by Anne Kennedy, Sleeping with Stones by Serie Barford and Tumble by Joanna Preston.

Tayi Tibble is right now picking out her dress to wear at next month’s awards and Whiti Hereaka, shortlisted for the fiction prize, is right now designing her bird-woman costume to wear at the ceremony. Latest photographic evidence, of the mask, is below. Shocking to think it might never have been displayed in public; bravo to the New Zealand Book Awards Trust for making the Ockhams a live event.

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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