Tuesday, July 29, 2008


One of New Zealand's most senior writers, long an advocate for writers and literature, Fiona Kidman delivered a keynote address at the recent Booksellers New Zeland Conference. It was a warm and inspirational address in which she promoted the idea of booksellers as the coalface of literary culture in New Zealand, recognising and acknowledging booksellers, both the great and the small.

Near the end of her address she expressed her views on the Montana NZ Book Awards and I am grateful to her for allowing me to reproduce this part of her speech on my blog today.

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.

What the judges apparently failed to grasp, or the rules didn’t direct them sufficiently well to appreciate, is that in not providing a fifth book in the fiction list, and in not providing lists for the best first books of poetry and fiction sections, rather than ‘ not diluting’ the Montana Creative New Zealand Book Awards, as it was rather quaintly described, the judges essentially diluted a whole raft of major New Zealand writing and publishing. In the process, whether they thought it important or not, they denied booksellers the opportunity of further promotion of stock they hold, in an already risky market place.

This brings me to the question of what the Montana New Zealand Book Awards are about. Are they about rewarding literary excellence or are they about marketing? Well here, perhaps, we get to the heart of the problem. They have, in short, become a multi-headed monster that tries to do too many things for too many people. And unfortunately, this year, the result has become a media scrum down that give the All Blacks hollow legs by comparison.

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.

Have they mattered in terms of sales, or created a conflict of interest? I doubt it - in fact, now I see that LIANZA is actively promoting these awards with colorful posters which I assume will take their place in bookshops alongside those of New Zealand Post book award promotions.

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.
Its time to sort it out, its time to find a way forward.
As a writer, I’m a stakeholder along with the rest of you. I urge Booksellers New Zealand and Creative New Zealand to reconvene the interested parties, so that in future the judges are equipped with clear guidelines on how to proceed.


Anonymous said...

Well and sanely argued. This is the debate we should be having and in other areas of the arts too. Put aside malice, cant and parochialism and seriously ask if our cultural infrastructure really serves us well and takes into account what we have become and not what we have been or thought to have been by various sectional interests. Thank you Fiona.

Anonymous said...

Well and sanely argued. This is the debate we should be having and in other areas of the arts too. Put aside malice, cant and parochialism and seriously ask if our cultural infrastructure really serves us well and takes into account what we have become and not what we have been or thought to have been by various sectional interests. Thank you Fiona.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks for publishing this, Graham, it adds to an important discussion going on informally out there about the Montana Awards -- their role and their rules. I agree with Fiona that this needs to be done more formally with the best interests of the writers at heart.

I personally love the idea of our own Costa Award which would celebrate 'the most enjoyable book' of the year. Or extend our Montana NZ Awards to include a Popular Read, Best Read and Crime Thriller Awards amongst others (as they do in the British Book Awards - each award with its own sponsor. Sainsbury's sponsors the Popular Read).

In my thank you speech on Montana night, I said having no short list this year for the best first book of fiction was a missed opportunity for all the other first-time writers, and listed a few that I thought might have been on the list (if there had been one): Susan Pearce's Acts of Love, Sarah Laing's Coming Up Roses and Maxine Alterio's Ribbons of Grace. And there are others I'm sure.

Hopefully next time...

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting for someone to comment on the Readers Choice debacle as mentioned in an earlier post on the Listener article. But I daresay there is not much to be said. It's clear enough that it is one award in the Montanas that should be seriously reconsidered.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me on these matters you have been raising that the literary community was better served when there was a separation of the NZ Book Awards, and the (as they then were) Wattie Awards. The amalgamation of the two, one which had a literary excellence emphasis, the other a commercial emphasis, was always going to be a loss. We should go back to the old separation.