By MARGIE THOMSON
Tonight some of the country's best writers will gather in their suits and evening dresses at the swish Sheraton Hotel to "smile their plastic smiles", as one industry person put it, and await those dreaded - longed-for - announcements of this year's winners of our only national book prizes, the Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
The judges will be announcing the winners of the Deutz Medal for Fiction, the Montana Medal for Non Fiction, and three "best first book" prizes, having already announced the non-fiction category winners on June 28. Inevitably, not only the books and authors but the judges will be under scrutiny. You can't, after all, please everyone, and these judges have already had a fairly rocky ride.
There was many a raised eyebrow and quiet muttering following the announcement at a stylish Mt Eden restaurant on June 28 of the 2002 fiction shortlist. The three novels still in the running for the Deutz Medal for Fiction are Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Lloyd Jones Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, and Craig Marriner's profane, violent Stonedogs. Not on that list - a spectacular omission as far as learned opinion went - was Patricia Grace's Dogside Story, a book that has done better overseas, winning the prestigious Kiriyama Prize for fiction and longlisted for the Booker Prize.
Of equal concern was the judges' ignoring of Ian Wedde's The Commonplace Odes which never made it past the poetry longlist, despite having been hugely admired everywhere. Instead, they opted for Hone Tuwhare's Piggy-back Moon, widely considered an indifferent collection, albeit from one of our most important poets.
"These choices are an odd mix of controversy and sentimentality," says one publisher.
The "controversy" is partly in the form of long-haired, 20-something author Craig Marriner, whose book - a chaotic gangland road-trip - it's fair to say, has polarised reviewers.
Marriner, younger to the point of being a different generation from almost everyone else at that lunch on June 28, was resolutely himself at the well-dressed gathering, making some concessions to the dress code but nevertheless keeping his sunnies plastered to his forehead, and being one of the few daring to light up outside in the courtyard. "Smoke?" he asked, handing around his box of Rothmans, meeting with polite resistance from people who had already given it up. For someone his publishers say is "our answer to Irvine Welsh and Quentin Tarantino", he seems a nice guy, declares himself pretty nervous in these surroundings - and there's no doubting he's the outsider, in more ways than one.
Should he win, it'll be a contentious choice. He inspires far more diverse opinions than the other two, who are safely behind the barricades of public approval, reputations assured whatever happens. (Knox has even been forgiven for her impenetrable Black Oxen, her adoring public keeping Billie's Kiss No 1 on the bestsellers' list since its March publication.)
"There's a big appetite among publishers and the literary audience for new outsider voices, but this is a foolish choice," says one publisher about Stonedogs. "It's not good enough. It's full of outsider posturing. It's boring."
The judges, though, obviously enjoyed its energy and passion, and perhaps also enjoyed a mischievous sense of putting a spanner in the works of the literary world's expectations. That, they have certainly done.
The judging set-up we have for the awards makes it easy for people to point the finger at judges for not being "qualified" to judge any one category of books. The three judges judge everything (with the help of category advisers), from fiction to poetry, through history, biography, lifestyle, environment, illustrative, reference and anthology. Nowhere else in the world, apparently, does this occur. Other countries' literary awards are for specialist categories - the Booker, for instance, is for literary fiction alone; the Pulitzer has its different sections judged separately by specialist judges; Australia offers several awards for literary fiction alone.
Judging panel convener Witi Ihimaera says the New Zealand situation is unique, but is made manageable by the relatively small number of titles published across the board each year (although that number has hugely increased in recent years: this year's judges had to plough their way through 200 books apiece, choosing 28 finalists, 10 for the shortlist and five for the final big prizes).
You can see the problem. "It's like judging the Booker 13 times over," Ihimaera says.
He's by far the most literary of this year's three judges. Co-panellist Lindsey Dawson is a former magazine editor and now runs an e-zine called Lindsey Out Loud in which, among articles on Chinese astrology and New Spirit festivals, she reveals "the wave of insight and power that surged into my life to prompt the writing of my latest book, Pearls: Words of Wisdom from the Ocean of Life". Third judge Bill Ralston is a gung-ho veteran of most forms of media, determinedly non-highbrow and with some terrific crime novel reviews behind him.
But then, the Montana judges are always a blend of solidly bookish types and others. Chosen by a committee made up of representatives of Montana Wines, Creative New Zealand, Booksellers New Zealand, Book Publishers Association and the New Zealand Society of Authors, they reflect a lot of interests, including the need to ensure a high public profile for the awards. In past years, the conveners have been as diverse as Radio New Zealand chief executive Sharon Crosbie, editor and author Stephen Stratford, commentator and author Gordon McLauchlan, literary broadcaster Elizabeth Alley, and former Prime Minister David Lange. In this context, Ihimaera is unusual in being known primarily as an author (and a four-time award winner since 1973, although as he says, his last three novels have not even made an awards shortlist) - and his has possibly been the hardest road as a result.
"The New Zealand constituency is so intimate," he says. "We're talking here of books by friends, by colleagues, of which we are aware of their status as authors, and the partisanship that their work evokes, so one has to be very courageous!" He laughs heartily, to cover the fact that he probably wasn't joking.
"But the thing is, if the process is equitable, honest, transparent, and all of the judges have had the opportunity to be equal in their decision-making, you have nothing to fear and nothing to regret."
Like all the judges, he's had the experience of fighting for titles that the others wouldn't admit to the final round, and that, he agrees, can be incredibly frustrating. "In the end you accept that one can't win out in a group of three. Anyway," he says, cheering up, "when people try to kneecap me, as they do, I say: 'Who won the best book last year? Who won the year before?' The point is, the books get forgotten, but the authors go on."
What is the value of the Montanas, our one and only national literary prize? Creative New Zealand chief executive Elizabeth Kerr, who presides over that organisation's $70,500 contribution to the awards, talks about the "triple bottom line" that applies to all its arts funding: the economic, social and cultural rewards that flow from sponsorship.
Certainly, if overseas awards are anything to go by, winning a literary award makes sales figures roar into life. Winning the Booker, for instance, pushed Peter Carey's Ned Kelly Gang back into the bestseller lists months after it had fallen off them; Ian McEwan's Amsterdam increased its sales by 300,000 after its 1998 win. In those big international markets, sales can increase four or five times after such a prestigious win. What about here?
Elizabeth Knox's Vintner's Luck is the most dramatic example of what her husband and publisher Fergus Barrowman of VUP describes as "a book finding its audience". It sold so well from the outset - 10,500 copies in the last six weeks of 1998, a further 7500 copies in the first half of 1999 - that he didn't expect winning the Deutz Medal in July to make a big difference to sales. He was wrong - the award made a huge difference. In the second half of that year a further 16,000 copies sold. Now, sales are "nicely over 40,000" with around 250 a month still walking out the bookshop door.
Likewise, Barbara Anderson's Portrait of the Artist's Wife, which won the Goodman Fielder Wattie in 1992, escalated from sales of 2400 in its first few months, to a further 5400 after its win. It has continued to move well, with more than 13,000 sold to date.
These are both extraordinary success stories, especially from such a small publisher.
"If the book is a really good book and people like it beyond being told to like it, the award can take the book to a wider audience. But it can't rescue a book that hasn't worked," Barrowman says, putting his finger on a feeling that lurks in parts of the public mind about books awards: that they reward the worthy, but not necessarily the excellent reads.
Elizabeth Caffin of AUP, which has also enjoyed many successes in both the Montanas and its predecessors, agrees that winning a big prize does make a difference to a book's sales (Heather Nicholson's The Loving Stitch won the Montana Medal for Non Fiction in 1999 and sold 5000, not bad for a book about knitting) but winning the smaller category prizes is not so significant. Elizabeth Smither's The Lark Quartet, which won the poetry section in the same year, increased sales from 750 to just over 1000. "We couldn't do poetry without the assistance of Creative New Zealand," Caffin notes.
Penguin's Geoff Walker agrees with Barrowman that having a book longlisted or even shortlisted will probably have only a small effect on sales - maybe just an extra couple of hundred - but winning the big prizes will sometimes increase sales three to fourfold.
Penguin did extraordinarily well in last year's awards, with Michael King's Wrestling With the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame winning the Montana Medal and the Readers' Choice prize; and Lloyd Jones' The Book of Fame winning the Deutz Medal. The award propelled Jones back into the top 10 for a couple of weeks, trebling its sales, but had less effect on King's, which had already spent some weeks at No 1 when it first appeared.
Owen Marshall's Harlequin Rex - never a huge hit with the public - nevertheless made it into the bestsellers' list for two weeks after the awards, almost doubling its sales, according to Random House.
But there's more to winning than just sales. "It sets the book up in a new way," Walker says. "A Montana winner will backlist for ever."
And Barrowman: "I see the career benefits to writers of winning, or being shortlisted. It may have no effect on sales, but it can still have a real effect on a career. It's such a small business, writing in New Zealand, and there are not many ways of being noticed. These awards are important for self-confidence, for applying for grants and fellowship opportunities."
When it comes to book awards, as with other cultural activities, sooner or later someone will start talking about cultural identity. So it's interesting to look back over past winners and see what they tell us about ourselves as a nation. It turns out that reading the lists of the Goodman Fielder Wattie Awards (which began in 1968) and the New Zealand Book Awards (which existed concurrently from 1976) and then, following their 1996 merger, the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, is a bit like peering into a Plunket book to see how the baby has been developing.
The first winner was John Morton and M. Miller's The New Zealand Sea Shore, joined that same year by J.T. Salmond's Field Guide to the Alpine Plants of New Zealand. This was a period of discovery where concrete objects had to be named and sorted: New Zealand charts, New Zealand plants, New Zealand painting. The first novel to win an award was C.K. Stead's Smith's Dream in 1972, followed the next year by a flurry of novels by Maurice Shadbolt, Janet Frame and Witi Ihimaera, only to recoil for the next while back into Rugged Landscape by Graeme Stevens, and the rugged heroism of Edmund Hillary in Nothing Venture, Nothing Win in 1975.
Around 1977 there was a subtle change. A rather more conscious form of culture-building took off that both claimed and celebrated New Zealand's own cultural figures: Charles Brasch by James Bertram, Van Der Velden by Rodney Wilson. This fascination has continued, marked in the 1980s by a welter of books by and/or about Maori people and history, together with the nod to contemporary issues raised by Claudia Orange in The Treaty of Waitangi in 1988.
Maori and Pakeha predominate. If we're multicultural it scarcely shows in the book awards, with Samoan Albert Wendt (Leaves of the Banyan Tree, 1980) being almost the only non-Maori, non-Pakeha represented.
Through those years, it's remarkable how the same names keep recurring. A taste: Maurice Gee wins at least six times, beginning with Plumb in 1979; Maurice Shadbolt wins at least five prizes, including both the Wattie and NZ Book Award for The Lovelock Version; Janet Frame four, C.K. Stead five; Anne Salmond wins three non-fiction prizes. If this indicates a limited, or insecure, taste in fiction, it's a pattern we seem about to repeat with the present crop.
Then in 1991 and 1992, Brian Boyd's two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov carried off third and second prizes respectively, and suddenly a chink opened on a wider world we had been happy to ignore, perhaps out of shyness. We then retreated behind our mother's skirts, glimpsing out to celebrate Lynnsay Rongokea's Tivaevae: Portraits of Cook Islands Quilting in 1993.
Finally, as the 90s passed the halfway mark, getting braver: Emily Perkins, C.K. Stead himself, Charlotte Randall, Damien Wilkins and Knox's Vintner's Luck in 1999 all ventured into a playground that knew no borders of place or time.
This year, the wildchild packed his bags altogether and headed for his OE: two novels in the shortlist are set at least partially offshore, in Scotland and Argentina and the third, Stonedogs, is set, as its blurb says, "in a New Zealand the tourists had better pray they never stumble upon".
Where to from here? If the human-development analogy is correct, they'll play around for a few years out of sight of home, and come back again, all the wiser.
In the meantime, we'll continue our annual round of congratulation and complaint, writers and judges as nervous as each other.
Eight winners that bookmarked our culture
The New Zealand Sea Shore, John Morton and Michael Miller (Collins). GFW, 1968. First winner.
Smith's Dream, C. K. Stead (Longman Paul). GFW, 1972. First fiction winner.
Te Puea: A Biography, Michael King (Hodder and Stoughton). NZBA, 1978. The vanguard of interest in Maori history.
Plumb, Maurice Gee (Faber and Faber). NZBA, GFW 1979. First of several awards for Gee.
The Lovelock Version, Maurice Shadbolt (Hodder and Stoughton). NZBA, GFW 1981. From 1969 on, Shadbolt was a regular feature of the awards.
The Bone People, Keri Hulme (Spiral, Viking). NZBA 1984. One of only two Maori women (with Patricia Grace) to be noticed in the awards, Hulme came third, GFW, in 1986 for Te Kaihau/ The Windeater.
Potiki, Patricia Grace (Penguin). GFW 1986, NZBA 1987. Witi Ihimaera mentions a "glass ceiling" that stops Maori women winning more awards.
The Vintner's Luck, Elizabeth Knox (VUP). Deutz Medal, 1999.
By MARGIE THOMSON