Ockham shock: Elizabeth Knox scorned

Announcing the shortlist of the 2020 Ockham New Zealand national book awards – minus Elizabeth Knox. Steve Braunias reports.

Shocker! Despite pretty much everyone anticipating that Wellington author Elizabeth Knox’s widely acclaimed and massively popular novel The Absolute Book would carry off the fiction prize at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand book awards, it’s failed to make even the shortlist.

The list was released this morning. Sixteen authors will be very happy and relieved to make it this far, and they can now begin to fret and stress about their chances of winning at the awards ceremony in May. But really fairly shockingly, or at least certainly very, very surprisingly, Elizabeth Knox is not among that elite; her book was scorned, cast aside, tipped out.

The four books which have made the fiction shortlist are:

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press): I love this novel, and named it the best New Zealand book of 2019.

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House): I haven’t read it.

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press): I love this novel, and think it'll win the prize on May 12. Manawatu’s novel is her first, and it’s rough around the edges; A Mistake, Shuker’s fifth novel, is taut, disciplined, an artistic triumph.

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing): I’ve never even heard of this guy.

To confirm and repeat: no The Absolute Book. Maybe judges were put off by its genrey-ness; it’s a fantasy novel, with demons and talking birds. And yet two of our best and most serious critics -  Charlotte Grimshaw, who gave it a rave review in the Listener, and Jane Stafford, who did likewise at Reading Room – saw past any kind of genre confines and regarded it as a brilliant work of literary fiction. Readers loved it, too. The book has been a number one best-seller since its release and of course sales just went actually crazy after a rave review appeared in US site Slate, which led to Knox being offered a six-figure advance by Viking as US publishers fought for the American.rights.

In short, the book has been a critical and commercial sensation. But judges went their own way – and good on them for that. They examined each book on its merits, had no truck with what anyone else thought or what the market registered, and selected what they felt was right and true.

Anyway, all awards are a lottery. It was widely considered that Wellington author Linda Burgess might win the non-fiction award with her memoir Somebody’s Wife, but it failed to even make the longlist. The four books which have made the non-fiction shortlist are:

Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press): I love this book and the author, and had lunch with him at Uncle Man's on K Rd on Friday, when I told him he’d made the shortlist. He was well chuffed. God I hope it wins; it was the most beautifully written book of 2019.

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press): I commissioned Meg de Ronde to review it at ReadingRoom and she was kind of yeah-whatever about it.

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press): I’m selling it for $10 at my book stall at the Te Atatu South Community Centre on Saturday morning March 14. Come along! Free freshly baked biscuit with every purchase.

Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin): I haven’t read it.

The four books which have made the illustrated non-fiction shortlist (I haven’t clapped eyes on any of  them; the publishers are welcome to remedy the situation and ship me a copy) are:

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gordon, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)

McCahon Country by Justin Paton (Penguin Random House)

Finally, the four books which have made the poetry shortlist are:

Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press): I haven’t read it.

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press): I haven’t read it.

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press): I dig this guy, he writes the most complex and difficult poetry in New Zealand, and this book hums with a strange ecclesiastical music.

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press): I love this book and the author, and hope she wins; her collection has a rare exuberance and wit, and is as easy to read as Toussaint is challenging.

The awards will be held on May 12. Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman will most certainly be in attendance, but his wife, Elizabeth Knox, may not.

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