Friday, August 8, 2008

Judging the Montanas

The Wellington Museum of City and Sea hosted an interesting discussion on the Montana Awards last night including the two Wellington judges Lynn Freeman and Tim Corballis, and the three Wellington finalists who read from their work and talked about what the Montanas meant to them: Greg O'Brien (reference and anthology; illustration), Johanna Aitchison (poetry), and myself (fiction.)

This year's Montana Awards were deemed 'controversial' by the literary media and book bloggers and Lynn and Tim joked that they wouldn't be asked back. But hearing them speak you'd wonder why. Their commitment to the job was clearly exemplary.

Lynn (broadcaster) and Tim (writer), and third judge and publisher David Elworthy, were avid readers of the 220 or so books entered across the many categories, their knowledge of the books was detailed and impressive, they balanced out each other's areas of expertise, and there were no fights or nasty things said in making the decisions (with one small exception in 'poetry' see below.)

The controversy of the awards this year was around having four fiction finalists instead of the usual five, no first book shortlists, and a few winners from fringe publishers that had been 'under the radar' e.g. Judy Siers book on Chapman Taylor.

The two judges justified the 'four not five' by saying what they'd said before: in their view it wasn't a strong year for NZ fiction which is not to say there weren't some good books out there, it's just they were looking for excellence as per their brief. Lynn pointed out that fiction adviser Diane Brown also fed into the decisions, although she recommended strongly they choose a fifth finalist.

Both Tim and Lynn were happy with the four books in the fiction finals and seemed especially delighted with Charlotte Grimshaw's win, which they felt pushed the boundaries of short fiction in an exceptional way.

As a separate comment later in the evening, Tim Corballis said he felt there wasn't enough experimentation going on in last year's fiction list - which is something that interests him personally. On the other hand, both he and Lyn applauded the experimentation going on in poetry and the risks taken by poets and their publishers.

The judges were obviously excited by the poetry entries and confessed that was one area they got 'aggressive' choosing the finalists. They said Johanna's book A Girl Long Ago was definitely one that took risks (and her readings last night confirmed that -- she and her work are deliciously quirky.)

On dispensing with shortlists for the best first books this year, Lynn explained that as the only newcomer in the general fiction category The Blue had to be the Best First Book winner. The Booksellers felt they couldn't have shortlists for some first books and not others, so they did without them for the poetry and non-fiction too (I think I've got that right). When I asked if there still couldn't have been a newcomers' fiction shortlist to give the others their day in the sun, Lynn said booksellers preferred some who-will-win tension around a shortlist and felt without that it was not worth having.

Something else that interested Tim and Lynn was the way books were increasingly difficult to categorise. In fact, they seemed to embrace it as an exciting development rather than something that frustrated them. They talked about the way poetry could also be biography (Chris Price's Brief Lives in last year's Montanas) or essays could be biography (Martin Edmond's collection this year) or art/illustrative books could also be history books (Aberhart - which Greg contributed to.)

Tim felt The Blue used 'poetic' language and while it was certainly a novel, he wondered where a book-length poem would fit (he plumped in the end for 'novel'), he pointed out Greg's book A Nest of Singing Birds (winner of Reference and Anthology category)could have fitted into Illustration where his book Aberhart resided. (In fact, Greg himself is a long-time straddler of book categories as poet, illustrator, art historian etc etc) Lynn also said Mau Moko which won the Lifestyle category could have slipped easily into History or Illustration.

Publisher Mary Varnham, who was in the audience, asked a number of questions around this. She and the judges riffed about the huge numbers of books in the Lifestyle category including a vast number of Sports and Cook books, and how War books almost needed their own category away from History.

She also said she was constantly trying to encourage non-fiction writers to write better stuff, but increasingly the Montanas seemed to reward books with stunning illustrations over those without, and not rewarding excellent non-fiction prose. Her book The Transit of Venus was, she thought, possibly a case in point. She also said books on NZ subjects won out over non-NZ subjects any day, which cut out a large number of excellent books that needed support here if they were to sell elsewhere.

The judges agreed that while both these things were true to an extent it wasn't a conscious decision. Tim did confess, though, to thinking NZ-based books fitted more easily into the Montana format, but Lynn said if she'd read an excellent book on a non-NZ subject she would have happily short-listed it.

On increasing the number of categories, the judges thought this was a sticky slope. The booksellers already feel the ceremony is too long, apparently. On the other hand, both Tim and Lynn thought there was room for extending the categories to include crime fiction, for example, and possibly 'popular fiction.' Although Tim felt the latter was a very difficult one to judge, as its judges (the public) are diffuse, and the criteria would be different.

In answer to the other suggestions floating around the media and blogosphere about returning to two award systems - one for popular fiction, one for 'excellence' - Tim said art and commerce have always had a difficult relationship and he felt it was something book awards like the Montanas couldn't resolve and shouldn't try to. He seemed to suggest that the judges and the booksellers and the reading public had to accept the difficulty was there and wrestle with it.

Both judges did say booksellers and the reading public could make more use of what the Montana Awards offer them. Lynn said she always hassled booksellers about getting those Montana stickers onto the finalists and winners because it was a lost opportunity to sell some excellent books if they didn't. And she and Tim said they'd love to see more made of the judges' report of the winners which can be downloaded on the Booksellers' website.

Their confidential report to the Montana organisers is not available for discussion, and obviously contains some recommendations that couldn't be shared last night.

Tim and Lynn were exceptionally frank with the audience at the Wellington Museum which was small but keen - indicating perhaps that the wider public isn't as interested in the Montanas as the book world thinks it is. It was certainly interesting for Greg, Johanna and me and, no doubt, other writers in the audience to hear the 'behind the scenes' view of the Montanas, and the views of people like Mary Varnham and local bookseller, Murray Pillar.

It was also very nice to hear Johanna read and to hear Greg talk about how he came to write A Nest of Singing Birds, and for me to read again from The Blue. Thanks to the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea for the initiative.


Anonymous said...

What a very good, clear report. Thank you.
I might have attended this event had it been adequately publicised. Perhaps that offers a clue as to why the audience was small.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

Yes, excellent report and it's cleared up a few things. I'm glad to hear it said publicly that the short shortlist decision cannot be attributed to Diane Brown, as she has taken some underserved flak over that.

Tim Jones said...

Very interesting - and thanks for the report. Well done to the judges for being prepared to discuss the judging process in public, especially after this year's controversy.

I knew of the event, but couldn't attend for family reasons. I wonder whether the poor turnout is partly due to the venue? In January, the NZ Poetry Society hosted a reading by Fleur Adcock at the Wellington Museum of City and Sea, and I was amazed how few people turned up to hear her. I think the Museum is a fine venue, but it may be that many people think it's a little too far out of the way, or aren't quite sure how to get there.

Anonymous said...

For the record, I was not suggesting 'The Transit of Venus' should have won the Reference and Anthology category. Greg O'Brien's A Nest of Singing Birds is outstanding, and totally deserved top spot. The problem I was really
trying to pinpoint was that, more and more, the non-fiction Montanas seem to be gravitating towards books that are expensively and impressively produced - and usually lavishly illustrated. Production values are important, but as these are awards for writers should't the criteria be the quality of the writing, not whether the publisher has barrowloads of cash for a slap-up job? Design and production are rewarded at the separate Book Industry Awards, which take place the night before.

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Mary Varnham! I didn't mean it to make it sound like sour grapes from you because I know it wasn't at all. You were using Transit of Venus as an example of a book that offered up excellent writing without all the trappings.

I found it fascinating what you were saying about encouraging non-fiction writers and the need to put that first in judging writing awards. Thank you for attending the meeting and adding the all-important publisher's point of view to the discussion.