If there's been a generational shift in New Zealand politics, it seems we're also seeing one in our literature.
The 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards' short-list has been announced with three emerging writers – including a first-time novelist – joining established author Patrick Evans in the running for the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize.
The books are Baby by debut writer Annaleese Jochems; lawyer Brannavan Gnanalingam's Sodden Downstream, novelist and creative writing teacher Pip Adam's The New Animals and Evans' re-imagining of Janet Frame's time in Ibiza, Salt Picnic.
They were chosen from a long list of ten books which, when it was released in November, was also noted for the inclusion of new names such as Bonnie Etherington's The Earth Cries Out and Dominic "Tourettes" Hoey's Iceland. Veteran writers such as C.K. Stead and Witi Ihimaera, who both released new books last year, missed out on a place on the long list.
Today's release of short listed writers is likely to provoke further comment, given established writers Catherine Chidgey, Mandy Hager and Apirana Taylor were not selected and each of the short-listed books have polarised readers and reviewers.
The Spinoff website named Jochems' Baby as one its best books of 2017 and while it received widespread praise for the freshness of its writing and chilling lead character, others described it as "disturbing and surreal" and "self-absorbed".
Of Gnanalingam's fifth book, Sodden Downstream, Herald reviewer David Hill thought it needed more rigorous editing and that there were stylistic stumbles, but Hill ended by saying Gnanlingam, whose book Two Pies and A Penthouse was longlisted in the 2016 book awards, was a distinctive urgently relevant voice in NZ fiction.
Adams' The New Animal was recognised as original and challenging but, overall, reviews were lukewarm promoting Wellington writer Carl Shuker to pen a spirited essay in response to what he saw as the "shoddy response of most reviewers" to the book.
The response to Salt Picnic was more enthusiastic but the book flew largely under the radar.
Novelist, poet and academic Anna Smaill, journalist and reviewer Philip Matthews and award-winning bookseller and reviewer Jenna Todd judged the fiction prize. Todd, the convenor of fiction judges, says they sought exciting and fresh stories that we hadn't read before. The four short-listed titles stood out because they brought to the page characters not normally seen in NZ fiction and layered and truthful insights.
"I think we are seeing a new direction in NZ fiction," says Todd. "We found these books surprising and the stories simply stuck in our minds. These authors are pushing at the edges of what is possible in fiction in a style that's both engaging and brave.
"Maybe some of them will be polarising but that's exciting to see our writers being more adventurous and kudos should go to publishers for putting out stories that aren't safe. We really hope that New Zealanders will approach the books with an open mind and indulge themselves in some of these books."
They will be joined by Glasgow-based writer, journalist and founding editor of the Scottish Review of Books Alan Taylor to decide on the overall winner.
NZ Book Awards Trust chair Nicola Legat says the shortlist demonstrates the diversity, depth and skill of our writers. Legat agrees it seems to signal a change in direction and says given it's the 50th anniversary of the NZ Book Awards, it's an apt reflection of where NZ is at now.
"It's a very modern list and while I don't want to second-guess the judges, who have put a lot of thought into this, I think the fiction list shows where the novel can go and I think that's incredibly interesting."
In other categories, the finalists are:
• Anchor Stone by Tony Beyer
• Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither
• Rawahi by Briar Wood
• The Yield by Sue Wootton
Illustrated Non-Fiction Award:
• Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds by Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins
• Totara: A Natural and Cultural History by Philip Simpson
• Gordon Walters: New Vision by Zara Stanhope (commissioning editor), Lucy Hammonds, Laurence Simmons, Julia Waite
• The Face of Nature: An Environmental History of the Otago Peninsula by Jonathan West
Royal Society Te Aparangi Award for General Non Fiction:
• Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885 by Michael Belgrave
• Tears of Rangi: Experiments Across Worlds by Anne Salmond
• Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir by Tom Scott
• Driving to Treblinka: A Long Search for a Lost Father by Diana Wichtel
The winners are announced at a ceremony on May 15 2018, the first public event of the Auckland Writers Festival.