The incredible shrinking book awards

By David Larsen

Standards in New Zealand publishing are much, much higher than they were a decade ago," says Stephen Stratford. Hmm. Is that because there are more good books being published now, or fewer bad ones? If there are more good books, then why was it a good idea to shrink the shortlists for our national book awards?

It isn't a fair question to put to Stratford, partly because he isn't the person who shrank them, and partly because he's very constrained in what he can say to me. As convener of the five-judge panel for this year's New Zealand Post Book Awards - until last year the Montana New Zealand Book Awards - it's his job to be uncontroversial.

He's good at his job. I ask him about the slimmed-down shortlist anyway. Until last year there were eight categories and 26 finalists. This year there are four categories and 16 finalists. There were five books on the fiction shortlist. Now there are three. Is this really doing New Zealand writing any favours?

"Eight categories was just too many. You want to make a song and dance about a group of really good books, you want to celebrate excellence. Once upon a time it was front-page news when the awards list came out, but over time public attention just seemed to drift away, and I think the multiplication of categories had a lot to do with that. Four categories is nice and crisp and clear."

As to the truncated fiction shortlist, Stratford doesn't see a problem; or at least, he doesn't see an avoidable problem. Any list has an arbitrary cut-off point. Don't argue about the length of the list, he suggests. What matters is having good books on the list.

"You have to make a brutal choice at some point, it doesn't make a lot of difference where. The fiction list represents about the same proportion of the total fiction entries as with non-fiction. We thought it was no more difficult coming to a shortlist of three than a shortlist of five."

That's a point Stratford can make with some authority, because he has sat in the judge's chair four times before, under two different sponsors and with a range of different judging criteria. I have been a book awards judge precisely once, and I wouldn't do it again if Shakespeare's ghost personally begged me; the reading load was crushing. Stratford must be an absolute reading machine.

"Yes, I'm awesome. Oh, it's hard work, for sure, but it's so flattering to be asked. At least these days they pay you. The first couple of times I did it, I don't think we got paid at all. The first time under Montana, I got a maroon sweatshirt and a Parker pen. And some Montana wine, which was very nice."

Incredibly, one of the things he's happiest about with the new regime is that the reading load for each judge has actually increased. Under the old system, there were three judges. The categories were divided up between them so each category had two judges, each of whom read every book in it.

A specialist category adviser also did all the reading, and helped the judges agree on a longlist. All three judges then read all the books on all eight longlists, and sat down together to decide on the shortlists, which they read over again before deciding on the winners. There are no category advisers now. All five judges do all of the reading, in all categories.

"I'm much happier with the result. There's no danger that anything's going to fall between the cracks, which I always worried about before."

The lack of specialist advisers does mean it's vital to have a comprehensive range of expertise among the judges themselves. Stratford is very pleased with the judges he was given to work with this year.

"We've got Neville Peat, who's won the Montana for environmental writing; we've got Elizabeth Smither, who's an outstanding poet. Paul Diamond is very strong on history."

It also matters, Stratford thinks, that each judge is a published author. "We all know what it feels like to be on the other end of this business. And we know what the difference is between a manuscript and a book, we have a very keen appreciation of what the publisher brings to the process."

To decide on the shortlist, each judge presented their own personal list of top picks, and made the best argument they could for each book on it. The five judges presented five very different lists, but Stratford was impressed by the collective willingness to listen and reassess. "The list we ended up with really is unanimous."

The winners have already been chosen. "It was quite straightforward actually. I wouldn't be surprised if people can pick them off the shortlist quite accurately."

FINALISTS

Fiction

As the Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong

Limestone by Fiona Farrell

Living as a Moon by Owen Marshall

Poetry
Just This by Brian Turner

The Lustre Jug by Bernadette Hall

The Tram Conductor's Blue Cap by Michael Harlow

General non-fiction

Aphrodite's Island by Anne Salmond

Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies, 1939-1945 by Gerald Hensley

Cone Ten Down: Studio pottery in New Zealand, 1945-1980 by Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner

Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921 by Judith Binney

The Invention of New Zealand Art & National Identity, 1930-1970 by Francis Pound

Illustrated non-fiction

Art at Te Papa edited by William McAloon

Go Fish: Recipes and Stories from the New Zealand Coast by Al Brown

Maori Architecture: From Fale to Wharenui and Beyond by Deidre Brown

Marti Friedlander by Leonard Bell

Mrkusich: The Art of Transformation by Alan Wright and Edward Hanfling

The category award winners and NZ Post Book of the Year winner is announced on August 27. The NZ Post Book of the Year Award winner receives $15,000. The four category award winners each receive $10,000 and the People's Choice award winner $5000.

- NZ Herald

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