Editorial — Issue 80

Fruit and veg

Who’d be a judge? Particularly a literary judge. As Kevin Ireland once observed, when you’re a judge, the only ones who love you are the winners. Which, taken to the other extreme, can mean former mates crossing the road to avoid you. Sometimes years after the event.

We like to think we’re made of sterner stuff. But lately we’ve begun to wonder.

In the dozen or so years that the Montana New Zealand Book Awards have included a best-review-pages prize, NZB has won once (when Colin James was editor), and been shortlisted twice (with Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts as editors, and, most recently, the two of us). Not too bad a record on the face of it, but – excuse the immodesty – why not more? In his recent Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, Owen Marshall said he was unimpressed by the standard of reviewing in this country:

Books are often clumped together by genre and given a cursory ranking rather like the horse racing results. Poetry and children’s writing are especially poorly served …, and important non-fiction work may go unremarked except by a serious review journal such as New Zealand Books.

 

Quite. And, noting the shrinkage of newspaper book coverage and the rise of the literary blog, US critic Adam Kirsch observed in the New York Sun (12 June 2007) that “Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with [its own] scope, complexity, and authority.” We couldn’t put it better ourselves.

So we took a closer look at the submission criteria, and tallied them with a few judges’ reports. The award aims:

to encourage and promote high-quality book reviewing in New Zealand media. It will be made to that publication, website or programme which, in the opinion of the judges, presents the selection of highest quality book reviews in a style that is relevant to their target audience. The selection may be a dedicated page, or section of a page; it may be a dedicated part of a newspaper, journal or magazine; it may be a dedicated section of a website; it may be a dedicated review section on a television or radio programme. Publications, websites and programmes which are wholly literary in focus are eligible.

 

This looks fine until, after the reassuring phrase “highest quality book reviews”, you collide with “in a style that is relevant to their target audience”.

Do award judges understand what this means? Because we don’t. “Audience-relevant style” seems to take the notion of the level playing field to puzzling lengths. Would a 50-word, rap-style, student rag review of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf fit the bill? Or a 400-word plot summary of Anne Enright’s The Gathering buried in a provincial newspaper, leading up to the inevitable “a really good read”?

And yet in 2005, when we were last shortlisted, reviewer of the year Tony Simpson was specially commended for a 2,500-word review covering half-a-dozen or more war books. Guess who commissioned and published that? Name any other outlet that would have provided the same opportunity? That year’s judges, incidentally, quoted an NZB editorial on what kind of reiews they were looking for: those unafraid of offering “a well argued, forthright
critique”, that “put the reader and the book first”.

And then there’s the submission criteria’s last sentence: “Publications, websites and programmes which are wholly literary in focus are eligible.” This must be where NZB belongs. Except that we’re “critical”, not “wholly literary”. “Wholly literary” includes Landfall, which won in 1999, and could also cover JAAM, Poetry New Zealand and TV1’s The Book Show. But the criterion seems to exclude – or at least make informally ineligible – a journal like ours devoted almost entirely to reviews, and, what’s more, to reviews of New Zealand books alone.

Which presents judges with another complication: weighing “the balance of New Zealand ‘vs’ overseas titles”, as the 2006 judges put it. If this factor is to be taken into account, what price local books? And, in particular, NZB’s aim of reviewing our writers’ work by international standards?

It’s become clear over the years that Montana judges just don’t know what to do with us, and the guidelines aren’t helping. This year they frankly acknowledged the “high degree of difficulty pitting magazines where books are part of an overall editorial mix of stories against a publication dedicated to book reviews.” They went on to say:

But, credit where credit is due. The comprehensive New Zealand Books is unashamedly there to promote New Zealand literature through lengthy, well considered reviews written by a very wide range of opinionated people and published with a vigorous editorial overview.

 

This misperception of our raison d’être is alarming – the notion that we’re some kind of “unashamed” publicity arm for this country’s book business. In fact, what we – the editors and Peppercorn Press trustees – are “there to promote” is a healthy critical culture that makes no special pleading whatsoever for the home-grown product.

But award judges work with what they’re given, doing their best, as the 2006 judges put it, to compare “peaches and potatoes”. Looks like NZB is kiwifruit and that we need a basket all our own.

 

Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway

 

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