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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Those Montana Awards

Bookman Beattie asks WHAT CAN BE DONE TO REVITALISE THE MONTANAS? (The Montana being New Zealand's premier book awards.)

Then he goes on to say: "This is the very timely question posed by Listener Arts & Books Editor Guy Somerset in a page long thoughtful piece in the NZ Listener dated August 2-8."

Timely indeed. As discussed earlier (scan through the older posts), there was a bit of controversy here about only four fiction works being shortlisted, when five is the norm. Was this because the rest of the entries were not up to scratch? This, it was claimed, was the inevitable impression given. (No one mentioned another alternative, that the offering as a whole might be such an even standard that there were very few stand-outs, which could account for the other unusual fact, that two books of short stories were included in the short list.)

For further background (and also because a good friend who is just back from Aus. asked me to do it), here is the complete list of the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards:
Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry winner and Fiction category winner: Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw (Random House)
Fiction runner-up: Edwin & Matilda by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin Group (NZ))
Poetry winner: Cold Snack by Janet Charman (Auckland University Press)
Montana Medal for Non-Fiction winner and Environment category winner: Wetlands of New Zealand – A bitter-sweet story by Janet Hunt (Random House NZ)
Biography winner: The Life and Times of James Walter Chapman-Taylor by Judy Siers (Millwood Heritage Productions Ltd)
History winner: Te Tau Ihu O Te Waka Volume II: Te Ara Hou – The New Society by Hilary and John Mitchell (Huia Publishers)
Reference and Anthology winner: A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal by Gregory O’Brien (Learning Media Ltd)
Lifestyle & Contemporary Culture winner: Mau Moko: The World of Māori Tattoo by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku with Linda Waimarie Nikora, Mohi Rua and Rolinda Karapu (Penguin Group (NZ))
Illustrative winner: Bill Hammond: Jingle Jangle Morning by Jennifer Hay, with Ron Brownson, Chris Knox and Laurence Aberhart, designed by Aaron Beehre (Christchurch Art Gallery)
Each category winner was presented with a prize of $5,000. The winners of the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry (formerly called the Deutz prize) and the Montana Medal for Non fiction were each presented with an additional prize of $10,000. The runner-up in the Fiction category received $2,500. The Readers’ Choice Award carries a monetary prize worth $1,000.

The prize for the Best First Book of Prose was won by Mary McCullum's book The Blue.


As Bookman Beattie goes on to say, "Somerset makes a number of valid points about the need for a fresh look to be taken at the whole structure of the awards." A fresh look? I wonder if a backward look might be a good idea, too. In "the old days," that much maligned era, there was THE Montana award. I stand to be corrected, but my vague memory is that one book was chosen, because I remember the year that Harry Morton's wonderful The Wind Commands was the winner. Was it split between a fiction winner and a non-fiction winner? Or did that come later? Whatever, somehow, sometime, in the interval, a whole lot of categories have been born. Is this a good thing? Is there any guarantee the winner of one sub-category will be as great, in its way, as the winner of another sub-set? I don't think so.

I vote we go back to two awards, one for a truly outstanding work of fiction -- something folk will still be reading in 200 years' time -- and one for a non-fiction book that extends our knowledge of New Zealand in a fashion so remarkable that it is absolutely essential reading.

Bookman Beattie goes on to quote another interesting observation -- a commentary sent to him by bookseller and former publisher Tom Beran.

Beran says: "My concern regarding the Montana awards has been bugging me for years i.e. the Peoples Choice award which carries a monetary prize of $1000. I have never been able to understand the purpose of this award as the winning author in any year may have encouraged friends, family etc to vote for him/her and due to a small response for such awards (unlike the Children’s one) we may get a strange result."

Beran continues: "Surely the best process is to look at the sales of major selling titles over the calendar year to create a shortlist of say 5 titles, and then the Booksellers NZ/Montana Awards management committee who are unbiased towards any book, author or publisher can chose the appropriate winner by popularity and discussion. This would give the award some parity with the Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award which I don’t think carries any monetary prize, just the prestige of being the booksellers’ favourite title to . . . "

And there, I think, he has an excellent point (Beran, that is). Why is money attached to any of these awards? Isn't the prestige of having won it enough?

To go back to my own experience: back in the dim mists of time, David Ling, then with the now defunct firm Heinemann, published my first book, Exotic Intruders. I was so chuffed I left my teaching job, and changed my registration with the Inland Revenue to "writer." Lo and behold, Exotic Intruders won the Best First Book of Prose Prize.

In those days, you didn't arrive at some grand function, wait with your heart going pit-a-pat, and then stumble to the stage when your name was announced. Instead, you received a letter from PEN (now under the umbrella of the New Zealand Society of Authors) graciously informing you that you had won the prize, and a cheque for one thousand dollars (New Zealand) arrived in due course. Totally chuffed, I instantly joined PEN (NZSA) and have been a member since, through thick and thin, even thought most of my books have been published outside of New Zealand. Then I got a less welcome letter from the Inland Revenue, informing me that as my declared source of revenue was writing, the award was taxable. I eventually wrote a cheque. And basic tax rates were high, back then. So the eventual remuneration was very small.

That is one argument against monetary awards -- unlike winning a lottery like lotto, here in New Zealand awards won in the course of your declared occupation are taxable.

My solution is to remove the monetary component entirely. The three American awards I have received came without money attached, but have been hugely valuable in other respects. In a word, they look great on the curriculum vitae. What more could anyone want?

So, I would reduce the number of Montana awards to lend credibility to the authors and books that win. And I would remove any monetary component, so that the rewards were purely professional.

In a word, call me "Scrooge."

Comments welcomed.

(Photo of Bookman Beattie by Harvey Benge)


Mary McCallum said...

Interesting post, Joan! I personally would like to see more awards as with the UK Book Awards -- one for best popular work of fiction, one for crime fiction etc but still have the medal for the best of the best. In a small country it wouldn't hurt to allow a wider range of books their day in the sun.

Naturally enough, I think the Readers Choice Award isn't the travesty some think. It is clearly Readers Choice of the selected Montana titles not out of everything in the bookstores. The Booksellers did that by awarding Christine Fernyhough a prize for her book.

And I do like the money, I'm afraid, even if it's taxed. Every little bit helps when you earn such small amounts as a writer! And you never get bonuses etc. So the prize monies were like a bonus - a lovely and welcome surprise.

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Joan - hope that last comment went through okay. You should come along to the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea this Thursday night at 7.30. There's a discussion about the role of the Montanas in the book world. Two of the judges will be there and three finalists including myself who'll read their work and add to the discussion. Here's the link: