New Zealand Post Book Awards

by Guy Somerset / 01 June, 2011
Read all about 'em. Somewhere? Anywhere?
"The New Zealand Post Book Awards," according to the Booksellers New Zealand website where you'll find the finalists and Best First Book Award winners announced this morning, "are the highlight of the literary calendar, eagerly awaited by writers, publishers, booksellers and the media, and recognised by the New Zealand public as the gold standard; honouring the cream of this country’s literary talent."

Eagerly awaited by the media? That's why you'll find no report of the announcement in the print editions of this morning's New Zealand Herald, Dominion Post or Press newspapers, nor on their websites that I could see at the time of writing (11am). There was zilch on the Stuff website, too. (I can, however, read: "Kate Moss snaps up acclaimed photographer for wedding"; "Cone craze spreads over Kapiti"; "Misplaced feline flies north to new home"; and "DC Comics 'retooling' super heroes".) Of our major morning newspapers, only the Otago Daily Times carried a report (see comment thread below). There was nothing on its website, however, although it did find room for "Bieber, Pippa to work together".

And there was me worrying yesterday that by not having time to write this post until this morning there would be nothing fresh to say on the subject because it would all have been amply covered elsewhere. What kind of fantasy world do I sometimes drift into?

Perhaps the papers have book fatigue, the adult book awards coming so soon after the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. They never seem to have sport fatigue, though. Perhaps in the case of the Dominion Post they were following the award announcement's 6am embargo to the letter (or second), lest some copy of their paper be delivered to a reader at 5.59am. After all, the Dominion Post must be acutely aware of these things after inadvertently breaching an embargo and printing the winners of the children's book awards the morning before their announcement.

As I write, I am listening to These New Puritans' Hidden. I bought this album in January after it was named No 1 in the New Musical Express's 50 Best Albums of 2010. I would probably have bought it anyway but I was especially intrigued because although it was No 1 in the NME it didn't even make the Top 50 of either of the other two magazines I bought for their end-of-year wrap-ups, Mojo and Q. You don't expect these Top 50s to be the same, but what kind of critical chasm can mean the No 1 in one magazine is not even the 50th best album in another?

The same critical chasm that can mean I share most of Jolisa Gracewood's misgivings in her Listener review of Lloyd Jones's Hand Me Down World novel (with a few others on top) but that it was almost without exception acclaimed elsewhere. The one exception I encountered was the first review I came across: a panel discussion on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review. (Listen to it here.) That gave me some heart, but thereafter Jolisa and I were out on a limb as Hand Me Down World received rave review after rave review.

More recently, I was appalled to discover that Gracewood is a vehement critic of a novel I consider virtually flawless, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. Clearly, she doesn't know what she's talking about.

All of which leads to the question: are reviews (and awards) worth the paper or whatever else they are written on? To which the answer is: they both absolutely are and absolutely are not. In my line of work, I wouldn't be able to get up in the morning if I believed otherwise. No matter what your line of work, they're all we've got.

And right now, we've got the New Zealand Post Book Awards, where the critical chasm presents itself in the form of their perhaps most notable omission. No, not Hand Me Down World, although there will be eyebrows raised in certain quarters about that, but Patrick Evans's novel Gifted, absent from a fiction shortlist that comprises Laurence Fearnley's The Hut Builder, Charlotte Grimshaw's The Night Book and Tim Wilson's Their Faces Were Shining. (Wilson is another opponent of Egan's Goon Squad, but I won't hold that against him.)

Since, for some reason, Graeme Lay's Listener review of Gifted does not seem to have been archived on this website, here it is (with apologies for any infelicities of its first-edit status):

It was one of the most significant interludes in our literary history: Frank Sargeson’s sheltering in the army hut behind his Takapuna house of a 31-year-old aspiring writer, Janet Frame. CK Stead depicted a fictional version of this period in All Visitors Ashore (1984); now Patrick Evans reconstructs the writers’ relationship in an inventive and frequently amusing novel.

The point of view is that of “Frank”. When the novel opens, his beloved but footloose friend, horse trainer Harry Doyle, has left for parts unknown, leaving Frank bereft. Writer’s block has also set in, causing him further anguish. Then Janet arrives, revealing nothing of her former life, and settles into Frank’s army hut.

The constant tapping of her typewriter torments him. There are other intrusions upon his domestic routine: Janet must eat and carry out her ablutions within Frank’s house. He wonders what it is she is writing. Could the cuckoo in his nest be sitting on an egg that will hatch into a grotesque version of himself? He seeks solace in his vegetable garden and in trying to make contact with another elusive friend, Solomon.

Janet’s behaviour becomes even more enigmatic and maddening. Closeted in the hut, she continues to write furtively, while inside his house she teases Frank with literary riddles, with language that “shimmers on the edge of meaning”.  Then one day she presents him with the result of her labours, a manuscript. And Harry turns up again.

Evans’s Sargeson – vexed, fretful, long-winded – is the writer who produced Memoirs of a Peon (1965) rather than Conversation With My Uncle (1935). Only 52 in 1955, when Janet came to stay, he is a prematurely aged figure, calling himself “an elderly gent” and referring to “my old man’s fancy” and “my advancing age”. Yet Evans’s Sargeson is also inquisitive, reflective and drolly entertaining.

Frame’s 16-month sanctuary in Sargeson’s army hut has been chronicled, notably by Frame herself in her enchanting but romanticised memoir, An Angel at My Table (1984). But those close to Sargeson – in particular Kevin Ireland, who moved into the army hut after Frame left – have recorded just what an ordeal for him her eccentric demanding presence proved to be. It is this ordeal that Evans depicts so well, while his portrayal of Harry and Frank’s relationship goes to the heart of the matter. A stylistic irritant, however, is Evans’s recurring use of that almost always redundant expression “of course”. A more rigorous editing would have excised this textual tic.

Since I knew and admired both Sargeson and Frame, Gifted held a special fascination for me. Both writers were sui generis: temperamental yet fun-loving, personable yet private, self-centred yet kind. And yes, gifted artists. Evans’s account of their relationship emphasises their less than flawless natures and in so doing makes both characters seem more completely human.

For many people I canvassed for the Listener's 100 Best Books of 2010, Gifted was by far and away the book of the year.

Also among the missing: Bill Manhire's The Victims of Lightning, squeezed out of the poetry shortlist by Kate Camp's The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, Cilla McQueen's The Radio Room and Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan's anthology Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English - Whetu Moana II. Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts's Steal Away Boy: Selected Poems of David Mitchell would have been a strong contender for that category, too.

Here is Sarah Quigley's unarchived (grrr) Listener review of The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls:

Kate Camp is the very antithesis of the cliched notion of “poet”. Her work is forthright rather than febrile, earthy rather than exalted – which is not to say it lacks erudition. But it’s the crackling energy of her style and her wry, sometimes ribald, vision that have most clearly characterised her work thus far.

The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, her fourth collection, marks a subtle shift in mood. The foreboding title is that of a 14th-century work that caused its author, Marguerite Porete, to be burnt at the stake, and Camp borrows from the original to create her own poetic sequence.

Some of the Porete quotes seem overly portentous, and Camp’s responses to them somewhat uneven, as if she’s become so immersed in Porete’s writing that her own distinct voice has been drowned. “How the Soul has arrived at understanding of her nothingness” is Porete’s line, and Camp’s one-line reply: “Or she says she has.” “How the Soul sings and chants” is Porete; “At all times music is entering and emerging from her” is Camp – but not really the Camp we’ve come to know.

I began to fear that Camp, in going serious, had gone wrong. Yet even in these subdued and somewhat shuttered pages, the occasional marvellous image breaks through. Lines such as “Apologies and excuses…/They pour from her like golden wheat” feel like brief, bright glimpses of the contemporary poet.

Venturing further into the collection, I discovered that Camp has indeed retained her sharp eye and her sharply original voice. At the coming of Autumn also draws on a centuries-old source, yet here Camp has absorbed and transformed the borrowed material rather than being stifled by it: “the apple I shine to a dangerous gloss/and in my roof arm spiders with tiny forks/that this winter they may eat in a civilised fashion.”

One of the very best poems is Deep navigation, a dazzling example of extended imagery linking a piano to the body of a whale. Like Russian dolls, smaller metaphors are hidden within: “the body’s living furniture”, “the small/household of my bag”.

Mute Song, as an endnote explains, was inspired by a news story in which a black swan became besotted with a white-swan pedal boat. Yet this poem, like so many others, carries its own radiance, independent of back-lighting. The beautiful lines “I hated to think of the dark/covering you over like a mouth” allow any number of readings.

The hallmarks of Camp’s earlier writing are still present: the irreverent humour, the tough springy style, the swift changes in viewpoints. But one certainly senses that a sea-change is taking place. With a more sombre atmosphere, a steadier pace and an increasingly confident linguistic control, this is poetry of true maturity.

General Non-Fiction looks pretty much on the money: Paula Green and Harry Ricketts's 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry; Chris Bourke's Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964; Ian Mune's Mune: An Autobiography; Paul Millar's No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson; and Neville Peat's The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean.

Here is Helen Watson White's unarchived (grrr again) Listener review of 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry:

There’s an alarm ringing here: where poetry is concerned, beware the paraphrase… The bell would have been clanging for 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry's authors, Paula Green and Harry Ricketts, both themselves poets; but it may not be heard by teachers rushing to apply their guide. Having said that, I think every school should have one - both the book and the alarm.

Green and Ricketts aim to make accessible the mass of New Zealand poetry in English: an extraordinary undertaking, when the mainstream is so wide. Not only do they take a comprehensive view of current work, and of writing by last century’s self-consciously nationalist (and self-consciously internationalist) poets, they base their categories and observations on the much larger inheritance of English poetry generally. There are nods, as well, to literature in other languages, including Maori.

There is unquestionably a need for a book like this, when university Eng-Lit study is such a smorgasbord, with multi-choice offerings sourced from anywhere/nowhere. In characterising what has become a distinctive tradition, Green and Ricketts have done well; but then they are only telling the truth, that writers live off a collective cultural memory: poets present, they point out, are nearly always indebted to poets past.

Our poetic tradition is at once painfully particular in its origins and gloriously heterogenous in its effects. It is not mainly treated historically here, although four subsections of “Poetic Contexts” cover poetry from pre-1945, from the 50s to the 70s, the 80s to 90s, and in the new millennium. This 72-page summary, though essential, is a small part of a volume of 625 pages (including a full index, generous bibliography and short biographies of selected poets).

The main emphasis is on craft: the poet as maker and the poem as something made. The first section investigates poetic forms – from a reader’s and a practitioner’s viewpoint. A pattern is established for the whole book, whereby types are exemplified by whole poems, with selected poems further elucidated by remarks on their creative process. Portraits of poets and colourful book-cover designs round out the analysis, which is less of a critical essay and more of an exhibition of artistic possibilities.

The “Poetic Contexts” section shows the influence on poetic choices of a writer’s place as well as time; how poetry is related to other art forms; how new media have enlarged the communicative field. “Features and Effects” includes observations on political/polemical verse, on silence and difficulty; and “Poetic Identities” canvasses Maori, Asian-influenced and Pacific writing, poetry by women (like the aforementioned, no longer a bloc identity) and poetry for children.

This is a winner: a shrewd, knowledgeable and balanced overview of poetry writing - and writing about poetry - in the least prosaic sort of literary prose.

Mary Kisler's Angels & Aristocrats: Early European Art in New Zealand Public Collections would have its advocates (ie me), but is inexplicably absent from Illustrated Non-Fiction, which instead includes the Athol McCredie-edited Brian Brake: Lens on the World; Russell Beck, Maika Mason and Andris Apse's Pounamu; Jane Ussher and Nigel Watson's Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton; Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Claire Regnault and Lucy Hammonds's The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940; and Damian Skinner's The Passing World: The Passage of Life - John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai.

The Best First Book Award for Fiction would have been hotly contested, with the judges opting for Pip Adam's Everything We Hoped For over Craig Cliff's Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book winner A Man Melting and Stephen Daisley's Traitor, just shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards in Australia, where Daisley lives.

No argument here about the Best First Book Award for Poetry going to Lynn Jenner's Dear Sweet Harry.

The Best First Book Award for Non-Fiction went to Poia Rewi's Whaikorero: The World Maori Oratory, which I'll have to take on trust, since I cannot recall any other first books of non-fiction from the year.

Plenty to chew on there - if our newspapers ever give their readers a chance to chew on it.

Perhaps one of the judges needs to generate a bit of controversy by spitting the dummy a la Carmen Callil.

I can see it now: Emily Perkins denouncing the inclusion of Tim Wilson, complaining: "It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe."

Meanwhile, a chance for you to judge for yourselves if the NME was right about that These New Puritans album:

This post has been updated to take account of the comment below about the Otago Daily Times's coverage and the fact that Kathleen Jones's Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller would not have been eligible for the General Non-Fiction (or any other) category, since Jones is not, in fact, a New Zealander.
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