In 1968, when the country's premier literary prize for books written by New Zealanders began, it was all non-fiction; the three winning titles were about the NZ seashore, our alpine plants and Lloyd Geering's God in the New World.
Fifty years on and it's a new world indeed with the most talked about award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards now the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize which has, this year, gone to one of the most talked about NZ novels of 2017.
Wellington writer Pip Adam last night received the honour for The New Animals which parodies the Auckland fashion scene.
Ockham awards' fiction judges — poet and academic Anna Smaill, journalist and reviewer Philip Matthews, bookseller and reviewer Jenna Todd and Glasgow-based writer, journalist and founding editor of the Scottish Review of Books Alan Taylor — said the novel would "bring readers back from the dead".
That's in contrast to the comments of some reviewers, who when the book was released in June, found it original and challenging but had difficulties with its structure, form and characters. However, judges said The New Animals was a confrontational, revelatory novel that holds a mirror up to contemporary NZ culture.
"It's stylistically raw and reveals a good deal in a modest way. The New Animals is so vivid in imagery and imagination that the judges haven't stopped thinking about it since. In this category in 2018 it's the book with the most blood on the page. It will give you an electric shock."
In other categories, Listener journalist Diana Wichtel won the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction for her memoir Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father. Judges Ella Henry, lecturer in AUT's Māori Faculty, editor and journalist Toby Manhire and former bookseller and publisher Philip King said Wichtel's curiosity, alternately upsetting and uplifting, turns invisibly into a kind of mission.
"At its heart this is a family story, but one which cannot but shine a light on the vestiges of anti-Semitism that linger in Europe today. It is not just a beautifully written book, but an important book, too."
Elizabeth Smither won the poetry category — an honour bestowed on her twice before — with her collection Night Horse. Judges poet and novelist Alison Wong, poet Robert Sullivan, deputy chief executive, Māori, Manukau Institute of Technology, and poet, publisher and librettist Michael Harlow described the collection as gentle, uplifting, tender, humorous, well-crafted and luminous.
In the illustrated non-fiction category, academics Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa won for their work Tuai: A traveller in two worlds.
"The care the authors have given these histories, acknowledging the autonomy that mātauranga Māori has in wider Aotearoa historical narratives, is striking, and we need more of it," said judges Barbara Brookes, whose A History of New Zealand Women won this award in 2017, Matariki Williams, curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa; and Kim Paton, director of the public gallery Objectspace.
The general non-fiction, poetry and illustrated non-fiction category winners each took home a $10,000 prize but the book awards themselves were also in the money. Marking the 50th anniversary, Ockham Residential confirmed its sponsorship for five more years.
In the last 50 years, the awards have been the Wattie Book Awards (later the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards), Montana NZ Book Awards and the NZ Post Book Awards with various categories and prizes.
They are now just four — for fiction, general non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction and poetry — as well as four best first book awards and, at the judges' discretion, a Māori Language Award. This year's awards for best first books went to:
The Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction: Baby by Annaleese Jochems.
The E.H. McCormick Best First Book Award for General Non-Fiction: Driving to Treblinka: A long search for a lost father by Diana Wichtel.
The Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry: Fully Clothed and So Forgetful by Hannah Mettner.
The Judith Binney Best First Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction: Caves: Exploring New Zealand's Subterranean Wilderness by Marcus Thomas and Neil Silverwood.