by Paula Morris
This year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards judges have mystified readers with a fiction shortlist that includes just four finalists and rejects some of last year’s best books.
The fiction shortlist of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, announced on June 10, is all surprises this year: two short-story collections! No men! Nothing from Victoria University Press! All the writers born in the 1960s! One debut novelist! One Maori; one Southlander! Someone from Auckland!
Many of these books have received far more acclaim than some runners-up – or even winners – in previous years. Montana judges often make controversial inclusions and omissions in the fiction category, but they don’t usually manage such a provocative snub. Freeman, in an extraordinary comment, said there had been a lot of discussion about selecting only four titles, describing them as “outstanding” books. “While there were other great books [nominated],” she said, “we did not want to dilute the Montana sticker by promoting a fifth.” I’d argue that, among the names listed above, and the other “great” books the judges have read, they could have found a more-than-worthy title to complete this shortlist, without any award-diminishing consequence.
The Montanas present a once-a-year opportunity to promote five works of local fiction in shops and libraries – and the media – for six weeks leading up to the awards ceremony. Telling the reading public that only four books of the 35 submitted warrant this promotion is a strange message from awards organiser Booksellers New Zealand, a vocal supporter of New Zealand Book Month and the promotional anthology The Six Pack. The decision to turn up their noses at so many good books is more a reflection of a meanness of spirit – or narrowness of taste – on the part of this year’s judges than an indictment of the quality of fiction published here last year.