And the winner is
Literary prizes are, of course, a good thing, and only the most curmudgeonly of spoilsports would want to abolish them. In a profession with few career markers, prizes like the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (see p23) and the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards are the outward and visible sign of individual success, as well as a welcome opportunity for a literary party.
And everyone likes to be a winner, as one of us recently discovered when Spirit in a Strange Land: A Selection of New Zealand Spiritual Verse won the anthology and reference section of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards. But grateful as he and his two co-editors were for the affirmation, and enjoyable as they found the celebrations, the experience did raise a few questions about who benefits and how.
As far as booksellers are concerned, the rewards are plain enough – and fair enough: more sales and better opportunities for promotion. The same benefits accrue to publishers. And their reputations will, if their authors win, enjoy a fillip that’s especially deserved when they’ve taken a punt on a new talent or an unconventional book.
For their part, commercial sponsors – on whom, these days, literary prizes often depend – acquire the kudos of having their name and product linked with literature of quality. And this is not to forget than several prominent sponsors and their representatives have a keen appreciation of the books and authors they support. Readers, in their turn, are offered a must-read list, and, perhaps as importantly, non-readers may be encouraged into bookshops as the result of seeing literature featured in the newspapers and on the six o’clock news.
On the face of it, the rewards for writers are equally obvious. Or are they?
Winning books sell more copies, with different prizes stimulating differing sale patterns. Being shortlisted for the Montana awards can boost sales by several hundred, while winning usually pushes that figure into the thousands. By contrast, a New Zealand Children’s Book Awards’ winner gains little more in sales than their competitors on the shortlist.
The less tangible rewards for writers are also significant. Public recognition is unquestionably gratifying, announcing the arrival of newcomers and confirming the mana of established writers. Winning a prize can lead to readings and appearances, national and international tours: it means being taken seriously.
Then there’s the objective corroboration of the writer’s personal myth: “I am the real thing, and here’s the medal/scroll/cheque to prove it.” Writing is a high-wire act: anything that keeps the head up stops the downward glance and consequent loss of nerve. Writers are as vain as the next person – vainer, some would say – but this is more than a matter of mere vanity: writing crucially depends on confidence.
But dismay can set in when you read the small print on your award: Can you do it again (and again)? Baudelaire may have gone too far in claiming that prizes actually “bring bad luck” and “freeze the spontaneous upsurge of a free heart”; but more than one author, here and overseas, has been stopped dead in their creative tracks by the great expectations and writer fright springing from a big win.
It may not be plain sailing away from the desk, either. Challenge and debate, envy and schadenfreude are inevitable companions to any competition, but are necessarily exacerbated in a small community. Nor will the financial rewards in this country often change a winner’s life. And while it’s great to take a turn on the literary merry-go-round, that’s also time away from writing, which can eventually prove a displacement activity and a frustration.
None of us should begrudge a writer their moment in the sun: they have earned it. But no one’s a star at 9am faced with a keyboard and white space. So warmest congratulations to all this year’s Montana winners, and good luck with getting back to the desk.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway