Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Something New


 It was my pleasure and privilege last week to attend the New Zealand Post Book Awards ceremony in Wellington’s old town hall, where the tables were decorated with lighted tree branches, the wine flowed freely but judiciously, the gossip was rife at every table and the speeches and karakia were decorous.

As an organized event, it went off very well.

There was a genuinely touching moment when Chris Bourke won the award for Book of the Year with his Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 (Auckland University Press). He had already won the People’s Choice Award and the nod for General Non-Fiction, but he seemed both surprised and flustered to have got the big one, and his speech showed it. And I warm to a guy who thanks his Mum for his upbringing when he is in front of his professional peers.

I make it clear that the event went off exactly as it should and, this year, there were (as far as I know) no major controversies.

But (sigh!) a bibliophile like me will always have some misgivings about the book awards process, even when it is as orderly and proper as this one.

There is always the problem of comparing like with like.

I note, for example, that in the Poetry section, the three finalists were two new collections by individual poets (Kate Camp and Cilla McQueen), and an anthology of the works of eighty writers put together by three editors (Mauri Ola; Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English). I know that poetry is a small market and that all three books were legitimately in the category they were in. But I would still argue that an anthology is really a different sort of book from a book by an individual poet. I felt some relief when Kate Camp’s The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (Victoria University Press) took the award. I suppose this shows my preference for the new voice as opposed to the selection of voices.

I was even more severely tested when it came to the General Non-Fiction finalists. There were five of them. I have seen neither actor Ian Mune’s autobiography, nor Neville Peat’s book about the Tasman Sea, so I cannot comment upon them. But I have seen the other three. They were Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke, which won; Paul Millar’s solid biography of a New Zealand writer No Fretful Sleeper: The Life of Bill Pearson (Auckland University Press); and Paula Green’s and Harry Ricketts’ fascinating critical anthology and commentary 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (Victoria University Press).

Having read and enjoyed these three books, I would have a very hard time indeed comparing them, simply because they are so different. How is there comparability between Millar’s careful, conscientious reconstruction of a closeted life; Ricketts’ and Green’s series of thoughtful critiques and deconstructions of New Zealand poems; and Chris Bourke’s lively, informed and populist survey of older popular music? They are all very good books but they are also very different types of books.

I am in no position to comment on the category of Illustrated Non-Fiction – meaning books whose appeal is largely in the images and the photographs. This is because I have not read any of the five finalists. For the record the winner was Damian Skinner’s The Passing World, the Passage of Life – John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai (Rim Books).

I am much better informed in the category of Fiction, but in this case I was informed in the wrong way.

There were three finalists for Fiction.

I had read and enjoyed Tim Wilson’s debut novel Their Faces Were Shining (Victoria University Press), his half-satirical, half-apocalyptic account of “the Rapture” and how it affects a group of Americans. When I reviewed it for Metro some months back, I was dozy enough to make an issue of the fact that Wilson is a media personality; and therefore I registered my surprise that he also proved to be an accomplished novelist. How patronising of me. Good writing is good writing and Their Faces Were Shining is very good writing.

 I had also read and enjoyed Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Night Book (Vintage/Random House). I have read all of Grimshaw’s work, partly because I researched a detailed interview I conducted with her for the Cape Catley book Words Chosen Carefully (edited by Siobhan Harvey) last year. The Night Book has her greatest virtues, including her conciseness of expression, her ability to pin a character down in telling details, and her mordant view of the way privileged elements in society have a skewed vision of the rest of society.

But the Fiction winner turned out to be the one finalist I had not read, Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder (Penguin), which leaves me in the invidious position of being able neither to applaud nor to remonstrate.

Congratulations to Laurence Fearnley and the other winners, and I will attempt to amend my ignorance as soon as possible.


  1. Hi Nicholas

    I hope you are invited to be a judge one day, not just because you would be good at it and enjoy it but also because you'll see how and why things turn out the way they do.

    And I wouldn't say that not having read Laurence Fearnley is ignorance. She is one of my favourite NZ writers and since discovering her I have read all her novels - but none of us can read everything. I hope you enjoy the backlist.

  2. Agree with you entirely, Stephen. As I say in this week's "Something Thoughtful", I know that literary judges have a hard row to hoe and there can be difficulties in reaching a consensus judgment.
    I've read two of Laurence Fearnley's novels, but not the prize-winner. I'll cover it in a blog soon.