I think it would be great if the various stakeholders in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards were to consider changing the rules of how the competition was run.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not about the books chosen for the shortlists this year. I’ve read – really read – many of them, because I read New Zealand books for pleasure not duty, in the spirit I hope you sell them. There are great books amongst them and who ever wins deserves to have their work celebrated. Nothing should stand in the way of acknowledging that achievement.
Nor does it mean that the rules should be changed every time the results are a surprise. That’s part of the excitement. No, the problem this year is not what’s on the lists, it’s what’s not - a large and serious body of New Zealand books that can never be repeated and are unlikely to be significantly recognized again. And these awards, I need hardly remind you, are all that we have, apart from the Adam Prize which is in-house for IIML students, and the Glen Schaeffer Prize for emerging writers.
So, should Booksellers New Zealand have done something about it? My initial response was yes, because they do administer the prizes. But Timaru bookseller Jeff Grigor argued very convincingly in the Listener that Booksellers New Zealand had no authority to tell the judges what to do, and risked an even bigger outcry if they’d tried to. Under the rules of the competition, the judges were not required to provide these lists. These rules, he pointed out, were devised some years ago by a committee consisting of representatives of the NZ Society of Authors, Creative New Zealand, the Book Publishers Association of NZ and Booksellers NZ and, until that group decides to do something about them, nobody can do anything.
As it happens I was invited to be on that original working party and I declined the invitation. Why? Because the rules were written in response to a change that saw the abolition of the New Zealand Book Awards, which ran more or less simultaneously with the Montana Book Awards, and were administered by Creative New Zealand. The two prizes were amalgamated and I didn’t agree with that, believing instead that the two existing prizes promoted a wider range of titles.
Why was one prize abandoned? I was told at the time that it was because the booksellers and the media found it confusing to promote the two prizes at once. Point taken. But wasn’t that a matter of branding and of timing?
Consider the range of prizes in countries like Australia and Canada, Britain and the United States. In Britain, for fiction alone, there is the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, to cite just three of the 18 I counted, 24 in Australia, 16 in Canada. For that matter, when it comes to children’s books in this country, as well as the New Zealand Post’s awards for children’s books, we have the Esther Glen Award (around for years), the Elsie Locke Award and more recently the Russell Clark Award, all supported by LIANZA.
It’s possible that new prizes for adult writing could to emerge in the future. I think that, handled well, that could only be a good thing, for writers, for the trade. In the mean time, I believe the rules for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards have become obsolete in several areas.