A brief history of appalling behaviour at the book awards

The 2020 Ockham New Zealand national book awards are being held tonight - as a virtual ceremony. Steve Braunias takes a fond look back at good and bad behaviour at past awards.

The time a distinguished historian was not content with being judged runner-up, and  had an onstage meltdown. With shouting. All-time sorest loser.

The time – actually it was last year – when Stacey Morrison led everyone at the after-party in a rousing (and impromptu) “Tutira mai ngā iwi”.

The wife-swapping scandal of ’89. It went too well for one couple, who later married; the other couple made a go of it, almost out of a sense of symmetry, but their relationship fizzled out in less than a  month.

The time a certain publishing posse traipsed in and out of the ceremony in search of drinks, and talked like teenagers during the announcement of awards that didn't involve their own books. Actually this happens most years.

The time the Dictionary of NZ Biography won an award, and publisher Bridget Williams went up to accept the cheque; Kevin Ireland, enraged by the fact that the publisher and none of writers of the book would get the money, shouted out something abusive to that effect and started booing. Quite a few of the Dictionary’s authors joined in.

The time Michael Cooper won the non-fiction award for his book The Wine Atlas, much to the chagrin of its critics, who were horrified that a commercial book should win. But when publishers Hodder Moa Beckett celebrated the prize by shouting a cash bar, the critics were quick to fill their boots with top-shelf. The bill was epic.

The time a distinguished novelist, widely tipped to win, came and sat next to one of the judges in the front row. Mucho chat and banter – until Maurice Gee won. When it came time to leave he snarled “Well!”, and stalked off.  He didn’t speak to the judge for about 10 years. Second all-time sorest loser.

The radical feminist separatist lesbian after-party of '81. Apparently it wasn't much fun.

The time Glenn Colquhoun won for best book of poetry, immediately and spontaneously prompting publisher Roger Steele and poetry finalists Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Robert Sullivan to leap to their feet and perform a rousing haka, "Toia mai", which Glenn responded to in his acceptance speech by singing Flick the Little Fire Engine - in Māori.

The time the awards were held in Christchurch, and a distinguished writer from Wellington came down to his hotel the next morning – sporting a black eye, and deep scratches on his face. “Oh,” he explained, without embarrassment, “we got a bit carried away last night.” His boyfriend led him away to the breakfast buffet, and they both heartily tucked in.

The time that the winner of the poetry prize, Vincent O’Sullivan, attended the after-party and ballroom danced with Heather Nicholson, winner of the best non-fiction award. Everyone was agog. O’Sullivan, on top of everything else, is an awesome dancer.

The time a distinguished literary editor roared, "OH FOR CHRIST'S SAKE GET A MOVE ON" at yet another endless and endlessly boring awards ceremony. I make no apologies for this.

The time Allen Curnow won the poetry award, much to the chagrin of Denis Glover, who was a finalist. Glover stood at the back of the room and shouted insults at his old friend; Curnow cried. A novelist recalled, “I think he knew he was running out of time and this was it for him. He died later that year. And actually, that whole thing was as sad as hell.”

The orgy of ’07.

The time a well-known writer accepted his award while deeply in his cups, staggered back to his table, loudly issued a warning to someone that he would give him a fucken hiding if he didn’t watch it, attended the after-party in a state of alcoholic stupor, and promptly disappeared – for five days. To this day he is unclear as to his whereabouts.

The time Nigel Cox sat in his wheelchair and gave a very moving and heartfelt speech, thanking the literary community for his life among books. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. He died about 48 hours later.

The time – actually it was last year – when Fiona Kidman won the Ockham New Zealand Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction for her novel This Mortal Boy. Asked to share any stories she might have of scandalous behaviour at past literary awards, she said, “Winning the prize is lovely and a huge shout out for Jann Medlicott for her generosity and for loving books enough to give money to writers. For me, it felt like the Booker. That is really what I'd like to say.”

Stacey Morrison presents the 2020 Ockham New Zealand national book awards this evening on YouTube.

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