So, the Montana New Zealand Book Awards are over for another year (and apparently the last time they’ll be sponsored by Montana wines, which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned because it can easily cause confusion, making people think we have something to do with a US state about which I know very little). Congrats to all the winners, and so forth...
I’m starting to think it’s healthy for there to be a bit of controversy each year, for publicity’s sake, and also as a catalyst to get everyone thinking about the value judgements inherent in book awards. Last year we had the ‘scandal’ about the judges only selected four novels for the Best Book of Fiction category, rather than the usual five. That led to much online discussion (and bitching) and some articles and even some thought about what the book awards is or should be. I also contributed my two cents to the debate.
The awards this year don’t seem to have had quite the controversy of last year, but I have noticed some discussion (and bitching) about the fact that all the finalists in both poetry categories (Best Book and Best First Book) were all from only two publishers: Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press. This is a fairly usual state of affairs.
While those two are, I think, the pre-eminent poetry publishers in New Zealand, they are far from the only poetry publishers. And while they publish fine books, they do not publish the only fine books (though, as a poet who is published by neither of those presses, and as a publisher of poetry myself, I would say that wouldn’t I). In fact some people might argue that those two publish a certain kind of poetry, and that their pre-eminence shuts down other voices.
I worry that we’ve ended up with a circular kind of thinking – it’s good because it’s published by VUP/AUP, and it can’t be good because it isn’t. I’ll be interested to see what happens in future years, whether anyone else gets a look in. As a publisher of books that I think are brilliant, I of course hope so.
If no small presses, or no other publishers, ever get shortlisted, then they’ll stop entering, viewing it as simply a way of throwing away a significant amount of money and five copies of the book. Perhaps that’s already happening – do small publishers usually enter the awards? Mine doesn’t always, and I don’t always.
Thinking further though, aren’t the book awards really just run by the institution, for the institution. Should we really expect anything else? This led me to another thought – perhaps small presses need to get together and have some kind of small press awards, which celebrates the work down by the many small publishers. Anyone want to organise it?