The room where it happened
Everyone now knows that the best New Zealand novel of the year is the fine and electric Auē by Becky Manawatu, and all that remains is to clear up the small matter of how the judges – I was one of three for the fiction category – came to that apparently surprising decision.
Literary awards are famed for their surprises. Just before being asked to judge, I’d coincidentally read Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words, an arch satire about the ‘Elysian Prize’. This is a world-respected award for Commonwealth books funded by an agricultural company that specialises in ‘radical herbicides and pesticides’ and GM crops that splice the genes of wheat with arctic cod and lemons with bullet ants. London’s salon-society machinations, by the author of the Patrick Melrose series, would bear little comparison to what we were to experience, but there was to be some truth to the claim, as a lover of one of the Elysian judges says, that literary prizes are ‘comparison, competition, envy and anxiety’. Real life agrees. Boyd Tonkin, a UK literary editor who judged the rather similar Man Booker Prize in the early noughties, noted, ‘The birth-pangs of the Booker endure five or six months and unfold in a glare of media gossip, innuendo, spite, envy, and authentic or concocted quarrels.’
But before any of this comes the reading. We – two writer/editors and surely one of the best-read booksellers in the country – had to assess the 46 fiction titles submitted this year. This was fascinating, enlightening, hard mahi. But it was genuinely, for the largest part, a joy and a privilege to read the best books in a year, something you’d normally not have the time, or possibly the inclination, to do.
Less heartening was the criticism. Not just the predictable 280-character gripes online. As Stephen Stratford put it: ‘I have been a judge five times, three times chair of judges, of our national book awards – Wattie, Goodman Fielder Wattie, Montana, Montana NZ, NZ Post – but back then we never had the benefit of Twitter telling us how we had got it so wrong.’ It also arrived by way of stories in the mainstream media over one novel which didn’t make the fiction shortlist – it would be peculiar not to name it as Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book.
To be fair, there were also complaints about the non-fiction and poetry shortlists – particularly the exit from contention of books of personal essays and a research-heavy history tome – but they were more grumbles than shrieks. Radio NZ, The Listener (RIP), The Spinoff and even The Guardian (snappy headline: ‘Ockham’s erase her’) weighed in, the nation’s public broadcaster reporting that the author would rather not comment, but her publisher – who is also her husband – said the judges had got it wrong and it was a disappointing result. Did the other five longlist authors or their publishers feel similarly aggrieved at missing out on making it to the final four? We don’t know. They and their publishers weren’t asked.
A couple of years ago, not one but two of the judges of the fiction award took to print to defend their decision, some reviews of the winning book having been puzzled by it or even unfriendly. So let me explain the inexplicable, why to our minds there really were no surprises.
One January morning, before Covid-19 infected all our lives, we three sat in a room at the University of Auckland to find our longlist. We had already had a couple of phone conversations while working our way through the two boxes of books, novels and story collections, so had a pretty good idea of what each other thought. On the day, a few very good novels hovered around the outside of that impressive pile of ten, a few in it came under discussion for possible defenestration. We settled on our longlist. Over the next hour, we swapped books in and out, arguing their merits, whittling down our top four. Then we went to lunch.
The honest truth is, there was very little disagreement, no Rug Doctor needed for blood spilt.
We were very close to being of one mind, which surprised me at least. I expected some horse-trading. There was none. Some books in the longlist were never going to make the shortlist. To be a finalist a book needed to have the whole enchilada: storytelling and characters that fascinated us, insight and judgment and wit that startled us and made us envious, but most of all the writing – it had to sweep us along.
When the shortlist was finally revealed, some thought that not only should the aforementioned book have been on it, it should have been a shoo-in for the win. Several former judges, who know well the tricky task that’s required of them, thought its omission an obvious travesty, despite one or two having not actually read it.
It was impossible to avoid the conspiracy theories. New Zealand judges don’t like speculative fiction. They prefer literary fiction over other genres – a theory perhaps fuelled by a few well-selling novels not actually being submitted. One book on the shortlist, Halibut on the Moon by the American-born David Vann – of course we checked his eligibility – had pushed it out to sit alongside the other shortlisters, Carl Shuker’s A Mistake and Owen Marshall’s Pearly Gates. The Miles Franklin Award is given to ‘a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases’. Perhaps because we are a slightly younger, less parochial country, there is nothing in the Ockham rules that says a winning book must be about the people or country of the award. Nobody mentioned the absent book’s 650 pages. UK critic and broadcaster Mark Lawson, a Booker judge in 1992, recently mused about whether Hilary Mantel’s third Booker might be denied due to judges’ resentment – he might have been projecting – about having to read longer books: The Mirror and the Light tops 750 pages. It wasn’t a factor. I mean, hello, The Luminaries.
The writer Rick Gekoski said when he was approached to be a Booker judge in 2005 he asked about the rules. The prize’s chief chortled. ‘There aren’t any. Choose the best book.’
What are the Ockhams’ judging criteria? ‘Impact of the book on the community, taking account of factors such as topicality, public interest, commercial viability, entertainment, cultural and educational values … the degree to which the book engages and nourishes the reader’s intellect and imagination.’ In other words, choose the best book.
But how do you choose? In the early stages, you ‘sort the sheep from the goats’, as author Val McDermid has said. Taste is, of course, subjective; but it’s also, hopefully, the accumulation of knowledge and discrimination, what TS Eliot called ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’. It’s not without flaws or biases; nothing is. I’ve been a judge a few times now, four times a peer-assessor for Creative NZ, a judge in all but name, and an arts editor, which as anyone who’s done it knows is like a constant beauty contest for books. Regardless of personal predilections, judging is usually a joint activity. Judges have to agree. The Booker regularly gets knickers twisted, not least the most recent one, the judges breaking explicit rules and awarded it jointly, to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. As Spectator literary editor Sam Leith, who was a judge in 2015, wrote, ‘BOOKER JUDGES, YOU HAD ONE JOB. Pick a sodding winner … That’s what you’re formally empanelled to do, and paid to do, and trusted to do. That’s what the public are expecting you to do. That is the whole point of the prize.’
For us it wasn’t a problem: the final vote for Auē was unanimous. Although it wasn’t for us like one of the judges of that earlier winner who said: ‘If pressed, we probably could have picked a winner in the first minutes of our initial meeting.’ The other judge for that year noted correspondence from author Philip Temple: ‘I concur with the widespread feeling that it has been a complete disgrace that Fiona Farrell’s novel Decline and Fall on Savage Street was not even included on the Ockham longlist. This may well go down as the worst omission in local book awards history.’ Temple clearly had no crystal ball to this year.
Judges get it wrong. It’s true, they do. We’ve all read prize-winning books that we’ve wanted to throw off a high bridge. And publishers get it wrong, bringing attention to one author over another, pinning their hopes on lesser works in a thin year, turning down promising manuscripts.
Surprise is always good. Debate is always good. One literary insider privately used the term ‘healthy flak’ and that’s right: we’re talking about books, a bit grumbly and a bit wrongheaded sometimes, but we’re talking about books. The arts get precious little attention as it is.
I do hope people read the shortlist, let alone the longlist, and decide for themselves. In Lost for Words one contender is an ‘ambitious and original’ novel written by a young New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare. Needless to say, it doesn’t win.
Mark Broatch is a writer, critic and the author of four books. He is a former books and arts editor at the NZ Listener and Sunday. His fellow fiction judges at the Ockhams were Chris Baskett and Nic Low, joined for the final round by international judge Tara June Winch.