Monday, August 6, 2012

Something New


            For the second year, I had the pleasure of attending the annual New Zealand Post Book Awards evening, this time held in Auckland on 1 August. It was good to speak to critic X and publisher Y and author Z and renew acquaintances and above all hear literature praised publicly.

            Having as yet read none of the three finalists in the Poetry section (Dinah Hawken’s The Leaf Ride, Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Anna Jackson’s Thicket ), I am in no position to pass any cogent comment on them, apart from congratulating Rhian Gallagher on her win.

            I am this year under-informed when it comes the Illustrated Non-Fiction section. This section is as much about book production and design and illustration as it is about the contents of the book. There were five Illustrated Non-Fiction finalists: Gregory O’Brien’s A Micronaut in the Wide World - The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy ; Pivac, Stark and McDonald’s New Zealand Film – An Illustrated History; Dawson and Lucas’s New Zealand Native Trees ; Lange and Newby’s Playing With Fire – Auckland Studio Potters Society Turns Fifty and Awhina Tamarapa’s Whatu Kakahu / Maori Cloaks.

             Of these five, the only one I had read and reviewed was Pivac, Stark and McDonald’s film book, a handsome collection of essays by a variety of authors, following through the development of New Zealand film in thematic terms rather than strictly chronological ones. Reviewing it for the Sunday Star-Times (3 July 2011), I compared it with the three or four earlier attempts to cover the same territory and judged it “the best single overview of New Zealand cinema that we have”. In the event, however, it was John Dawson and Rob Lucas’s New Zealand Native Trees which won the award, so once again, in my ignorance of the book, I congratulate the authors and publishers. It was a pleasure to hear John Dawson express his sincere and inveterate love of his field of study in his speech when the book also won the Book of the Year Award.

            As a New Zealand book reviewer and blogger, I regard it as my duty to support the local publishing industry. However I must confess that this year, one of what I regard as the two major awards – Fiction and General Non-Fiction – gave me some pause for troubled thought.

            As it happens, I had read and reviewed all five finalists in the General Non-Fiction category, and I regard them all as books of high quality, any one of which could reasonably have won the award.

            Three of them I have examined on this blog, and you can check out my comments on the index at right: Anne Salmond’s Bligh: William Bligh in the South Seas, a very detailed and scholarly telling of the well-known story; Fiona Farrell’s reflections on the Christchurch earthquakes The Broken Book; and Peter Wells’ idiosyncratic mixture of biography, speculation and personal psycho-drama The Hungry Heart – Journeys with William Colenso.

            I reviewed Peter Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World for the Sunday Star-Times (16 October 2011), where I found it a workmanlike and conscientiously-researched account of that particular crime, and suggested it could well be the definitive version.

            My review of the fifth General Non-Fiction finalist and the winner of the category award - Joan Druett’s Tupaia- the Remarkable Story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian Navigator -  appeared in Landfall #223 (May 2012). I commended the author for her even-handed anthropology, where she did not subject either Pacific peoples or eighteenth century European intruders to cultural stereotyping; but I did note the difficulties of writing a “biography” of somebody from a pre-literate society, and hence the author’s need for more speculation than is the case in most biographies. However Tupaia was and is a stimulating and interesting story. I am only guessing, but I wonder if the judges gave it the gong partly because of its sheer originality? After all, the Bligh, Colenso and Parker/Hulme stories have all been the subjects of other books (or movies) already; and even Christchurch earthquakes have found other coverage.

            I repeat, though, that all five General Non-Fiction finalists were excellent choices and Tupaia a deserved win.

            Which brings me to the award category which troubles me somewhat. In the Fiction section, the judges named only three books as finalists - Paula Morris’s Rangatira; Sue Orr’s From Under the Overcoat; and Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire.

            I won’t beat about the bush here. I have neither read nor reviewed the Kidman offering, so I won’t and can’t comment on it.

            I am over the moon that the award went to Paula Morris’s excellent historical novel Rangatira. When I reviewed it for New Zealand Books (Autumn 2012 issue) I rated it as “an extraordinary literary achievement and probably the best of recent New Zealand historical novels”; and as a novel which “creates a complex, convincing central character and places him in a credible historical environment.” Having already picked this as a really outstanding work, I’m delighted that the NZ Post Book Award judges seem to concur with my view. For me, Rangatira is a great rebuke to the type of sloppy cut-and-paste “historical” novels in which period characters just happen to spout the attitudes and opinions that appeal to people here and now. Rangatira has a real feel for the period in which it is set and a sense of personal engagement on the part of the author. Brilliant.

            So having just said that a great book won the Fiction award, why am I disconcerted about the Fiction section? Partly because of the company Rangatira had to keep. And partly because of the new niggardliness in naming fiction finalists. Only three.

            Last year produced such superior New Zealand novels as Charlotte Randall’s quirky and original Hokitika Town; Sarah Quigley’s careful reconstruction of an era  The Conductor; and Owen Marshall’s view of Victorian Dunedinites The Lanarchs. They all deserved a nod. Instead, the excellent novel which won the award was paired with Sue Orr’s serviceable collection of stories From Under the Overcoat. (You can find my NZ Listener review of it – from 19 February 2011 – on the Listener’s web-site). Frankly, I can only wonder at the thought processes that led the judges to overlook far more worthy candidates.

            So that is my mixed report on this year’s NZ Post Book Awards. Two outstanding winners in the two key awards, but an underlying sense that the criteria for choosing finalists in the fiction section are way out of whack. And, if there can be five non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction works as finalists, then in a good year like the one just past, there should also be five fiction finalists.

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