No, not sour grapes
People will always bitch about literary awards, and literary awards will always seem inherently unfair. This year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards will have thrown up their share of sniping, backbiting and dis-appointed egos. Some of it will be justified; most will not.
A frequent complaint about literary awards is that they are too much of a lottery, beyond the control of even the most scrupulous judging. But, accepting some inevitable arbitrariness, no-one – judges, advisors, organisers – is absolved from making the very best job of the occasion that they can. This year, in our view (and because New Zealand Books didn’t enter for the Best Review Page Award, we have no particular axe to grind), the judges seem to have got it pretty well right. However, we might mention in passing the undesirability of making joint awards that smack of uneasy compromise. Judges are there to make tough decisions.
Whatever the cynical might say, awards do have an important role to play in the literary life of the nation. And if the Montana Awards didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent an alternative. Some people, of course, look back nostalgically to the time when we had the New Zealand Book Awards as well. But we no longer have that luxury, and it is important to acknowledge the benefits that do in fact flow from the Montana Awards.
One undeniable benefit is that on at least one day of the year our writing makes national news, with television coverage, and authors and their books in the limelight. Moreover, books that often take a back seat, such as collections of poetry, and those concerned with the environment and the illustrative arts, are also allowed “their day in court”. Another benefit is that the awards affirm established writers and give a welcome boost to newcomers. A Montana Award has launched many a writer onto the literary reading and speaking circuit. Then, in addition to the recognition and the feel-good factor, an award is likely to increase sales; nor should we forget that the fairly generous cash prize makes a winner’s bank balance temporarily healthier. More importantly, it buys them another stretch of writing time. Above all, awards are a measure of excellence, even if not everyone is going to agree with individual choices. It is highly unlikely that a truly bad book will be shortlisted, let alone win a prize.
On the other hand, we do have some significant reservations about the conduct and structure of the current Montana Awards. First, the razzmatazz – the dry ice, the streamers, the fireworks, the pseudo-Oscar format, the split-second timing to coincide with the end of the 6 o’clock TV news – which is all to do with commercial imperatives and nothing to do with literature. We believe that neither writers nor readers – who are after all the “consumers” in this instance – are taken in by these cosmetics.
Secondly – and as a direct consequence of all this hoop-la – the blanding down of the product into forms congenial to a middle-class audience reluctant to leave its comfort-zone. Literature is all about taking risks, stretching the boundaries, and making the familiar unfamiliar. It needs hard edges, not soft furnishing.
Thirdly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the excessive emphasis on fiction at the expense of all other categories. Why is it that fiction gets five, rather then three, shortlisted slots, as well as its own mega-award, the Deutz Medal? And why does the news coverage always highlight the name of the fiction prizewinner, but not always those in other individual categories?
Fourthly, category anomalies. There are some books, outstanding of their type, which simply find no available niche in the Montana taxonomy, and therefore are not in the running, and so remain invisible. The fact is that the organisers need to re-think and extend the categories – perhaps to embrace short fiction, critical writing, reference books, anthologies, and to split off biography and autobiography from history. There is also the question of whether Maori writing should have a category of its own. One other curious anomaly we might mention is that to be a contender for the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, you cannot have published any other book, regardless of genre.
Finally, the judges. It is surely time for writers to be judged solely by their peers. This is what happens in all other professional circles. Montana, for example, would be highly miffed if its wines were to be judged by a smorgasbord of celebrities leavened with the odd professional wine-taster. What is more, judges and advisors should be paid at professional contract rates: not many literary people can afford to virtually donate their time “for a good cause”.
But a good cause it remains. At least we do have a set of premier literary awards, which are administered with efficiency and are generally beneficial to the literary community, the book trade and the reading public. So, in conclusion, we’d like to raise a glass of a decent drinking chardonnay to Montana, the Booksellers Association, the judges and advisors, and all this year’s winners. And, of course, we’d also like to grumble – along with everybody else.
Harry Ricketts and Bill Sewell