Scoop Review of Books

The Senselessness of Slimmed-down Awards

By Mary Varnham

In 2006 a modest paperback of just 25,000 words and one eight-page colour insert section won a Montana New Zealand Book Award in the awkwardly named ‘Lifestyle and Contemporary Culture’ category. How to Look at a Painting was written by a curator at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Justin Paton had produced wonderfully incisive texts for exhibition catalogues and academic works, but this book for Awa Press was his first work for the general reader. He wrote it over the course of one intense month. On the strength of the Montana Award, the book has to date gone into five reprints and a special hardcover edition. Creative New Zealand has sponsored the printing of an extract which went into 2500 gift bags at the Melbourne Art Fair. The book has been studied in numerous places, from high school art classes to overseas universities. It has changed people’s perception of art. This year it will be the basis of a 12-part television series, narrated by Paton himself, which will screen on TV One.

Would any of this have happened had the book not won the accolade of a major literary award? Maybe: How to Look at a Painting is one of those rare books with the power to inspire strong personal attachment, even (as we are often told by readers) a form of love. But maybe not: thousands of new books, local and imported, land on the shelves of New Zealand bookstores every year. Few of those published in New Zealand, lacking the massive pre-publicity of overseas blockbuster titles, sell more than a couple of thousand copies; most quickly disappear without a trace.

Often this is no reflection on their quality. All publishers will tell you of their ‘hidden treasures’, books that are beautifully written, deserve to be praised from the rooftops (and would be in many other countries) but barely sell because of the minuscule market, the dominance of book chains focussed on simple-to-sell mass market titles, and, even before the recent changes, limited number of literary prizes. (We must, for example, be the only sports-mad country in the world not to boast a sports book award.) For us at Awa Press, one of these hidden treasures is Harvey McQueen’s lyrical This Piece of Earth. Soon after it came out, a Canadian publisher brought to my attention a book dealing with a similar theme and, like McQueen’s, exceptionally – but certainly no more exceptionally – well-written. It had won a $60,000 literary award and sold tens of thousands of copies. This Piece of Earth received scant recognition and sold a couple of thousand copies.

One of the few ways a New Zealand-produced book and its author get a shot at fame and bookstore longevity – not to mention international attention – is to win an award. This is why it is both a travesty and a tragedy that, starting this year, the categories in the country’s leading book awards – formerly the Montanas and now sponsored by New Zealand Post – have been slashed from ten to a mere four.

In non-fiction, instead of six awards, there will be only two – illustrated and non-illustrated. The impact of this on New Zealand-produced non-fiction cannot be overstated. It is virtually certain that the two prizes will always go to ‘major’ works – ones whose scholarship, depth, and time taken for research and writing make them indisputably worthy candidates. Would, for example, How to Look at a Painting have stood a chance against Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English, the Montana winner for non-fiction in 1998? Or against Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design in 2005? Clearly not. The same goes for George Gibbs’ groundbreaking work of natural history Ghosts of Gondwana , which won the Environment category in 2007, Gregory O’Brien’s wonderful A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal, which won Reference and Anthology in 2008, or Rosemary McLeod’s Thrift to Fantasy, winner of the History category in 2006, to mention just three exceptional books that richly deserved the awards and attention they received but would have stood little chance under the new regime.

It is a simple fact that there is no more difficult place in the Western world to be an author or a publisher than New Zealand. President Obama may have earned a reported US$5.5 million in book royalties (‘Not bad for an after-hours gig,’ the booksellers’ newsletter Shelf Awareness commented) but for a talented New Zealand writer total earnings from a book are likely to amount to little more than the price of an upmarket mountain bike. For all the official boosterism about the high number of book readers in this country, few local writers are able to make any sort of a living from writing, or publishers from the sale of locally produced books. One of the few chances for a book to fly above the flock is to win an award, and therefore enjoy greater domestic sales, a longer shelf life – and, in some cases, the prospect of overseas attention and sales. It’s an interesting fact that one of the few New Zealand writers to be invited to speak at the Sydney Writers Festival, or indeed any Australian literary festival, in recent years has been award-winner Lloyd Jones. This is no accident.

So why has the golden goose been slain? Why, in an industry already struggling (as it is worldwide, presidential autobiogs and Swedish thrillers notwithstanding) have fourteen New Zealand writers been denied a shortlisting, and four an actual award? Why have they and their publishers been denied the encouragement and, in some cases, overseas sales and festival invitations that an award can bring? And why on earth have New Zealand readers been denied exposure to interesting books they may not notice otherwise?

I’ve heard only three explanations. First, it’s said that booksellers found it problematic to have to stock so many shortlisted titles. Really? Surely a shortlist is a heaven-sent opportunity to promote and sell more books. Second, the categories were confusing. Well, life’s confusing but most of us manage to sort it out sooner or later. Thirdly, there were complaints that the awards dinners went on too long. If the future of New Zealand literature depends on the interregnum between shrimp cocktail and pavlova, we should all be very afraid. Me, I’d settle for a sandwich.


Reprinted with permission of Mary Varnham and New Zealand Books from Issue 90, Winter 2010. Subscribe to New Zealand Books at


  1. Kate, 2. August 2010, 13:44

    Could the curtailing of awards be anything to do with the glossy, 32-page booklet with strange book-less interior design pictures?

  2. Keri Hulme, 27. August 2010, 21:10

    And the rather extravagent hosting of judges?

    I find the inexcusable limiting of the fiction award to just 3 titles an insult to every fiction writer in our very small country – and the judges should be mocked and shamed for that limiting of the field. Whoever wins – in their limited opinion – is damned by the tiny selection.