Ockham longlist announced

Once again the dear old Ockhams are the shockhams. The longlist of the 2023 Ockham New Zealand national book awards was announced this morning and much of it is quite crazy, which is to say adventurous and unusual, as well as showing a commitment to deeply boring literature. Another feature is the predominance of that species which has not exactly become endangered but certainly rare in New Zealand writing  – the male novelist.

The fiction longlist of 10 titles includes seven male authors. Even though I think the ultimate winner will be either Coco Solid (the most inventive writer in the longlist) or Catherine Chidgey (the best writer), it’s the strongest presence of male writers in years and years and years. I’m especially pleased to see Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens. I think it’s a terrific read, with its comedy of sexual manners, its dense Wellington setting, its one particularly hot sex scene – itself a rare occurrence in New Zealand fiction, which tries its very best to avoid writing about sex. From my rave review in June: “He writes of married sex, fantasy sex, gay sex, illicit sex, threesome sex, cougar sex…Down from Upland is a satire of the Wellington civil service – its anxieties, its directives, its sexual tensions – and Stephens handles it with great skill, including a long, excruciating scene where the main character blunders his way towards a complaint of sexual harassment. It takes place in a downtown bar. Stephens offers the reader a seat at their table. We hear the older male, younger female encounter at close range – his insistence on talking about sex, her silence and discomfit. It’s so awful to witness and also so compelling to read.”

The other inclusion I was most pleased to see – and most surprised – is Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar. His historical novel sold its socks off. That’s usually enough reason for snooty Ockham judges to dismiss it from consideration but the 2023 judges include Stephanie Johnson, who does not do snoot; she does strong story, resonance, power, all of which mark Kāwai.

Support for Soutar’s book may actually have come from either of the other two judges, editor and literature assessor John Huria, and Rotorua bookseller Jemma Morrison. Bravo to all three for their thinking. They have gone for genres which are usually overlooked, such as scifi (by the late Philip Mann), crime (Michael Bennett), historical fiction (Soutar, and Cristina Sanders). Boo, though, to absences such as the short story collections  Kōhine by Colleen Maria Lenihan and Beats of the Pa’u by Maria Samuela, and the crime novel Poor People With Money by Dominic Hoey.

The thinking of the three non-fiction judges – Anna Rawhiti-Connell, Alison Jones and historian Professor Te Maire Tau – has been somewhat influenced by the directions of their overlords, the New Zealand Book Awards Trust Te Ohu Tiaki i Te Rau Hiringa. It gave intructions to the poor devils. It “invited” them to widen their scope so that they might have a better chance of restoring stodge and yawn  to New Zealand literature by increasing the longlist from 10 titles to 14 so as to allow for extra stodge and yawn.

And so the longlist includes such resolutely dull tomes as Democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Survival Guide by Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds, Empire City: Wellington Becomes the Capital of New Zealand by John E Martin, Gaylene’s Take: Her Life in New Zealand Film by Gaylene Preston, and perhaps the longest most boring book ever published, the memoir Every Sign of Life: On Family Ground by Nicholas Lyon Gresson. According to the scarcely believable Ockham press release, “Trust chair Nicola Legat says that the discretionary increase reflects the volume of submissions for the General Non-Fiction award, the number and range of which well exceeds the other three categories. ‘This gives the judges more opportunity to honour more books, and more types of books. This category longlist certainly reflects the terrific depth and breadth of non-fiction publishing in New Zealand and is a credit to its authors and publishers.’”

God almighty. Where does it end? What if the New Zealand Book Awards Trust Te Ohu Tiaki i Te Rau Hiringa “invite” judges to select up to 20 titles next year? The thing about a longlist is that it’s an elite. It’s the best of the best. It’s not the best of the best plus some others cos, aw, the more the merrier.

Anyway. The non-fiction longlist includes books which are not dull or worthy, such as the celebrated memoir Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy and the essay collection So Far, For Now: On Journeys, Widowhood and Stories that are Never Over by Fiona Kidman. Boo to absences such as Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control by Anke Richter and the memoir Raiment by Jan Kemp.

As for poetry, I was happiest to see Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea,  Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes, and Night School by Michael Steven, and saddest to note absences such as The Stupefying by Nick Ascroft, HEAL! by Simone Kaho and My American Chair by Elizabeth Smither.

The illustrated non-fiction longlist is testament to very fine judging by Jared Davidson, Dr Anna-Marie White, and Taualeo’o Stephen Stehlin. Any of their 10 longlisted titles could make it through to the shortlist of four. My own votes would be for the cookbook Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe, the black and white photography of Nature Boy: The Photography of Olaf Petersen,  artbook Robin White: Something is Happening Here, and, first and foremost, the knock-out Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art.

The shortlist is announced on March 8. The grand award ceremony will be held on May 17 during the 2023 Auckland Writers Festival.  The winner of the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction will receive $64,000 in 2023 and each of the other main category prizes will earn their winners $12,000. Such good money! Even when some of the longlist is devoted to the unbearable boringness of literature, the Ockhams are exciting.


Better the Blood by Michael Bennett (Simon & Schuster)

Chevalier & Gawayn: The Ballad of the Dreamer by Phillip Mann (Quentin Wilson Publishing)

Down from Upland by Murdoch Stephens (Lawrence & Gibson)

Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

How to Loiter in a Turf War by Coco Solid (Penguin Random House)

Kāwai: For Such a Time as This by Monty Soutar (Bateman Books)

Mary’s Boy, Jean-Jacques and other stories by Vincent O’Sullivan (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant by Cristina Sanders (The Cuba Press)

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

The Fish by Lloyd Jones (Penguin Random House)


A Fire in the Belly of Hineāmaru: A Collection of Narratives about Te Tai Tokerau Tūpuna by Melinda Webber and Te Kapua O’Connor (Auckland University Press)

A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects by Jock Phillips (Penguin Random House)

Democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Survival Guide by Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press)

Empire City: Wellington Becomes the Capital of New Zealand by John E Martin (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Every Sign of Life: On Family Ground by Nicholas Lyon Gresson (Quentin Wilson Publishing)

Gaylene’s Take: Her Life in New Zealand Film by Gaylene Preston (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Grand: Becoming my Mother’s Daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin Random House)

Lāuga: Understanding Samoan Oratory by Sadat Muaiava (Te Papa Press)

So Far, For Now: On Journeys, Widowhood and Stories that are Never Over by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi by Ned Fletcher (Bridget Williams Books)

The Road to Gondwana: In Search of the Lost Supercontinent by Bill Morris (Exisle Publishing)

Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife: The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press)

You Probably Think This Song is About You by Kate Camp (Te Herenga Waka University Press)


I am Autistic by Chanelle Moriah (Allen & Unwin)

Jumping Sundays: The Rise and Fall of the Counterculture in Aotearoa New Zealand by Nick Bollinger (Auckland University Press)

Kai: Food Stories and Recipes from my Family Table by Christall Lowe (Bateman Books)

Nature Boy: The Photography of Olaf Petersen edited by Catherine Hammond and Shaun Higgins (Auckland University Press)

Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson Australia)

Robin White: Something is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)

Secrets of the Sea: The Story of New Zealand’s Native Sea Creatures by Robert Vennell (HarperCollins)

Tāngata Ngāi Tahu | People of Ngāi Tahu Volume Two edited by Helen Brown and Michael J Stevens (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Bridget Williams Books)

Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)

Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art edited by Nigel Borell (Penguin Random House New Zealand in association with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)


Always Italicise: How to Write While Colonised by Alice Te Punga Somerville (Auckland University Press)

Echidna by Essa May Ranapiri (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press)

Night School by Michael Steven (Otago University Press)

People Person by Joanna Cho (Te Herenga Waka University Press)

Sedition by Anahera Maire Gildea (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)

Super Model Minority by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)

Surrender by Michaela Keeble (Taraheke | Bush Lawyer)

The Pistils by Janet Charman (Otago University Press)

We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed (We Are Babies Press, Tender Press)

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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