Monday, June 20, 2011

NZ Post Book Award finalists

The finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards were announced some weeks back, and many fine books are there, as usual. Some of my favourites from the last 12 months of publishing in NZ are included, and some are missing. As usual. Awards are like that. They have judges, and the judges choose. It's not American Idol.

It's incredible, given the current economic climate, and the state of publishing in general, and challenges to booksellers, that so many fine books are still published in this tiny country with its population of only about 13 (stats derived from The Daily Show).

The list of books included (and excluded) for acclaim is a credit to everyone in the NZ publishing industry and to all of us who actually still buy books. Long live the book!

As usual there are some gripes and grizzles about omissions, and it is always interesting to look at who is complaining, and why they might be complaining. Or not.

I quite liked Stephen Straford's commentary on his blog Quote Unquote concerning the continuing controversy over the slashing of NZ Post Book Award fiction & poetry shortlists from five to three. His seemed a lone voice of dissent in the otherwise loud - and sometimes hysterical - objections to a short list.

Publishers will of course wish that more of their books would bask in the limelight. You can take their squeaks with a grain of salt. Booksellers don't want the buying public to be disappointed by being tricked into trying a hyped up lukewarm product. There's a conflict right there. But given that awards are (usually) about quality books, not the crap that generally sells well, the booksellers will also be reluctant to *waste* primo shelf space on worthy but hard to push books.

If I had a say in the matter, it's the diminishing of the non-fiction categories I'd want to change. Biography was always a strong and interesting group and it's a shame to see the likes of Paul Millar's terrific biography of Bill Pearson up against Neville Peat's exquisite book about the Tasman Sea, for instance. And why was Tasman not in the "illustrated" category?

And there's a significant poetry anthology within the poetry category, and another substantial poetry anthology in the "general non-fiction"... What's with that? (Well, I can see that 99 Ways wasn't intended to be an "anthology" but unfortunately the effect of the book has been to create a canon, for good or ill, and if it is to be assessed then in my opinion it is Mauri Ola that it should be standing up against...)

Whoops - there, you see, I'm starting to gripe... So what else bothered me?

No sign of what was in my opinion the best New Zealand novel published last year, The Collector's Dream by Pierre Furlan. It would not have been eligible I suppose because the author is not a Kiwi. But he does have strong enough ties here to have written and published (in translation) a marvellous NZ story. Shame it could not have jostled for a gong.

No sign of my favourite novel published in NZ last year, Quinine by Kelly Ana Morey, a ripping transgressional postmodern/historical yarn, a vibrant but flawed text with more vitality and creativity in one chapter than in the whole of many of the other local novels I read.

But of course, all this is deeply subjective. The three finalists in the fiction section are all excellent. One might be sad to see a personal favourite missing, but one can hardly say there is a book in the final that doesn't deserve to be there.

Phew. Who would want to be a judge in this online poll climate where everyone feels like they know better?

There was only one genuine surprise for me, and that was the overlooking of Bill Manhire's latest volume The Victims of Lightning for the poetry shortlist. That does seem astonishing. Could it be that after training up generations of clones of himself in his writing academies, that Bill Manhire's work is now so indistinguishable from parodies and imitations, that it no longer stands out as unique?

I tried to imagine why a precious Manhire text might not have made the grade. The only disappointment I had felt in reading that book, which has some marvellous poems in it, as always, was the inclusion of a section of song lyrics. Which are not, in my opinion, poetry, are rather tedious on the page, and pretty skippable for poetry purists. The songs themselves are probably a lot of fun if you're at the live gigs, enthusiastically attended by the rest of the writing school gang, no doubt, but the inclusion of the lyrics did tend to weaken the overall effect of the book. However, along the lines of my comments about the Morey novel, I do personally prefer the quality of the content over all else. And that book has some great poems in it.

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