Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Montana New Zealand Book Awards –The Bookman's analysis and early reaction

Last year an unholy row broke out on the announcement of these awards because of the inexplicable decision of the judges to name only four shortlisted fiction titles instead of the customary and expected five titles.
This year there is unlikely to be any major controversy of the kind seen last year although there are some unusual aspects to the shortlist which need comment.

First off here is an analysis of the shortlisted titles by publisher, including the best first book awards:

Victoria University Press - 8 titles
Auckland University Press - 8 titles
Random House - 5 titles
Penguin Books - 3 titles
David Bateman - 3 titles
Longacre Press - 2 titles

And then with one title each:
Allen & Unwin, Geological Society, Lopdell House Gallery, Te Papa Press, Otago University Press, Oxford University Press.

Clearly this shortlist is a triumph for the university presses ; if you add the one each given to Otago & Oxford to the dominant Victoria & Auckland haul then the university presses have 18 titles between them just under half of the entire shortlist.
This in turn means that the list has a more serious/literary/academic feel to it than normal. I have been phoning around booksellers this morning and most of them feel that the shortlist is considerably less commercial than in previous years.

The fiction shortlist is perhaps the most surprising. I see three of them being bolters:
The Crocus Hour by Charlotte Randall, and Acid Song by Bernard Beckett – both worthy but not their best work by a long shot. This view of The Crocus Hour was shared by John McCrystal in his review in the NZ Listener in May 2008.
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, reasonably unusual for a first novel to make the list. Although the book has sold well to overseas publishers, it is a very literary novel, a difficult read for most. Certainly the least commercial of the fiction shortlist.
Then there is The 10 PM Question, an interesting one because it was written and published for the Young Adult market, and while a brilliant read one must wonder at the inclusion of a YA novel ahead of all the other New Zealand adult fiction published last year. Read what Paula Morris had to say on this subject in her review in NZ Books.

Random House and Penguin Books must both be disappointed with their showing. 2008 was a golden year for Random House’s New Zealand publishing and they could have expected to reap a bigger reward.

On the other hand indie local publisher David Bateman with three titles must be delighted. As would be the Otago indie, Longacre Pres with two titles.

The Montana New Zealand Book Awards were formed by a merger of the Montana Book Awards and the New Zealand Book Awards. The latter always had a more literary bias than the more commercial Montanas and in recent times more serious authors and publishers have occasionally voiced the wish that the two separate awards were still in existence to give those more serious writers more chance of recognition. This year the pendulum has swung strongly the other way with the more serious and literary work pushing aside the more popular. This clearly has much to do with the makeup of the judging panel headed by senior academic Dr.Mark Williams, professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington.

Comments welcome.

Auckland University Press has just (2,30pm NZ time) released the following statement:

Auckland University Press Leads Book Award Field For Second Year

Auckland University Press has seven finalist authors of six finalist books – more finalists than any other single publisher – in the 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Awards shortlist announced today.
This is the second year that Auckland University Press has had the most nominations of any publisher in the shortlist field.
“At Auckland University Press, we are enormously proud to have published another great crop of Montana Book Award finalists. From poetry to biography, history to reference, it’s a big bag of outstanding titles,” said Auckland University Press Director Sam Elworthy.
“I’m grateful to our wonderful authors and to the Press team who excel at the editorial, design, and publicity work that turns a good idea into a truly great book.”

The AUP finalists are spread across Montana NZ Book Award categories: Get Some by Sonja Yelich (Poetry); The Lakes of Mars by Chris Orsman (Poetry); Heaphy by Iain Sharp (Biography); First Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking by David Veart (History); Peter Peryer: Photographer by Peter Simpson and Peter Peryer (Illustrative Arts); and Collected Poems 1951–2006 by C K Stead (Reference and Anthology).
Auckland University Press also has two finalists in the NZ Society of Authors (NZSA) Best First Book Awards; the winners of which will be announced as part of the Montana NZ Book Awards ceremony: Everything Talks by Sam Sampson (Poetry) and First Catch Your Weka by David Veart (Non-Fiction)
“Finding talented new writers is one of our key aims at Auckland University Press and it’s a great achievement for Sam Sampson and David Veart to have their first books recognised in the Awards,” said Dr Elworthy.


J.Johns said...

I can see that there is something of a natural conflict/pull between commercial and quality considerations although sometimes of course, in many caese actually, they come together nicely.
I agree too with you about Charlotte Randall & Bernard Beckett's titles being shortlisted.
Neither should be there.
Was Paula Morris' Forbidden Cities eligible? Much better than the two just mentioned.

Jennifer M. Nicholls said...

For me there is one glaring omission from the shortlist -Stevan Eldred Grigg's stunning title Diggers, Hatters, Whores - The Story of the New Zealand Gold Rushes.
I can't believe it is not there. I read your blog over and over to make sure I hadn't missed it.
A wonderful book, beautifully designed too, a real tribute to both author and publisher.

Max McMillian said...

Hi Beattie, I was just wondering if a short story collection (by a single author) had ever won or been nominated for the Montana Book Award, or if it is possible for a short story collection to be nominated? Thanks in advance, and I love reading your blog each day. It is really great.

Beattie's Book Blog said...

Thanks Max, and oh yes, short stories by a single author are often entered and in fact Charlotte Grimshaw's collection Opportunity won the fiction prize last year.

Sharon Gibbs said...

Personally I don't think it is right that a title can be entered for both children's and adult book prizes. The publisher should be restricted to only nominating it for one or the other.
I have read The 10 PM Question, our book group choice in April, and we all agreed it was an adult book.

Tim Jeffers, North Sydney said...

I'm amazed no one has mentioned the question of conflict of interest with the chair of the judging panel so I will bite on the bullet and bring it up myself even though I have nothing to do with either publishing or bookselling, I am rather a mere consumer.
According to your blog the chair is in the English department at Victoria University and also according to your blog Victoria University Press did rather well in the shortlist results.
Is this kosher? Surely being objective must be difficult for him?
I have no idea where you get judges from but I think more care should be taken, as this one has been put in a very difficult position.

Anonymous said...

Poor old Bookman.Still pushing last years barrow about the "inexplicable" decision of the judges to have a shortlist of only 4 in the Montana Fiction Awards.
When I went to school inexplicable meant not able to be explained.
However the judges decision last year is easily explained.
They deemed only four novels worthy of shortlisting.
And having read all the short listed novels this year I can say the judges should have made a similar decision this year but I would have restricted the short list to 3.

Anonymous said...

I comment on a glaring omission from the Montana Book Awards.This comment from my perspective as a Bookseller and reader.
The University Presses are independent and quality publishers. In this short list they are seemingly well represented. The exception of course is Canterbury University Press. As the smallest of the university presses they have in the past been well represented in the Montana Awards. Not so this year. There is a glaring omission of a CUP title- 'Sir Miles Warren An Autobiography'.
given the sales of this title in NZ Bookstores and the quality design of the book, i am extremely dissappointed.

Paul Reynolds said...

Here we go again - anonymous correspondents who are okay about venting strong opinions but not feeling strong enough to identify themselves.

Anonymous said...

"Although the book has sold well to overseas publishers, it is a very literary novel, a difficult read for most".

Bookman, I am frankly amazed that you would put your name to this. One of the best books I read last year should not be on the fiction shortlist because it's 1) literary, and 2) "difficult for most". That's seriously your contention?

These are awards for excellence. The Rehearsal is excellent. End of story.

(I'd also argue that it's an easy read; but your response, presumably, will be that I am clearly not a member of "most". I suspect I'm in good company).

Lee said...

I totally agree with Paul Reynolds about the anonymous issue. I suppose people have a choice about it, but basically I just don't pay attention to or give any validity to anonymous comments.

Lee Rowe

Brian Jamieson said...

People are talking omissions from the shortlist. The standout omission for me is Forbidden Cities, Paula Morris' brilliant collection of short fiction.Streets ahead of at least two of the shortlisted fiction titles. Widely and favourably reviewed too I might add.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if one year a poet were included on the judging panel: i.e. someone who understood that the art form has its origins in music and dance; someone who can hear rhythm.

KC said...

Hi Graham,
Would you consider asking BookData to give you the sales figures for the Montana short list titles? For a before, during and after update on sales of the finalist titles? It'd be lovely to see some statistics on the sales impact of the finalist and award announcements.

BTW, I love the "There's nuffin like a Puffin" piece. What an absolute treat.


Anonymous said...

There is at leat one precedent to a book being nominated for awards for both young adult and adult readerships. E.g. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - google it and check out its list of prizes overseas for both younger and older demographics. See also the adult and young adult editions of Harry Potter books, and for NZ's own Bernard Beckett, for his hovel Genesis, recently released in the UK and the US.

Anonymous said...

To Tim Jeffers of North Sydney

Mark Williams is only very recently on the staff at Victoria University -- after many years in Christchurch. So, if you suppose these things are an issue I guess it can't be an issue in this case, can it?

transpress nz said...

We stopped entering these awards 6 years ago because we tired of seeing inferior books to our entries winning prizes, probably because we don't know the right people. That hasn't prevented us from entering awards overseas, however; last year one of our titles won an award in America.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, the Rehearsal. Typical juvenillia. I didn't think it was hard at all, just the articulate, pretentious ramblings of an educated kid who knows nothing about life.

Anonymous said...

"Although the book has sold well to overseas publishers, it is a very literary novel, a difficult read for most."
Eleanor Catton is the most talented fiction writer to emerge in NZ in a very long time, and one day in the not too distant future we will look back at this little gem of Beattie's and laugh long and heartily.
Such pressure on our writers to produce "easy" reads is one reason so few NZ novels make it in the big wide world, where readers have been lapping up "difficult" novels since Don Quixote.

Brian.D.Johns said...

As an Aussie looking in from the outside I'd like to make a few comments re judges.
I reckon as a general rule it is a mistake to have authors on book judging panels. This is true anywhere but in a small country/book market like NZ it is even more so. Authors often develop close, warm relationships with their publishers, so they should, and also with other writers in that community, also fine, but then when they come to judge awards it is almost certain, especially in NZ, that they will know, sometimes like, sometimes dislike, authors and publishers who have books submitted for the awards and that really puts them in a postion of awkwardnes/conflict.
There has been some comment on your blog of the appropriateness or not of the chair of the judging panel because he teaches English at Victoria University. I don't believe his teaching position is a problem at all. Rather it is the fact that he is an author and published by both Auckland and Victoria Universitie Presses. Not only that but I see just now from looking at his bio on the university staff site that on one of the books he edited one of his fellow editors is a poet who is shortlisted for these awards.
Now this is not a criticism of the judge or a suggestion of bias but it does illustrate the point that I am trying to make - authors should not be judges on these panels. The organisers have put him in an unenviable position in appointing him but really should he not have declined the invitation in the first place?
For all that it looks like a great list of books and I wish all the authors well.
And thanks for your blogging, a lot of Australians I know read it religiously.