Friday, October 23, 2015

Clever Fiction

Summer 2013 Rowing Regatta, Clive River.

I looked along the row of parents supporting their offspring and counted 9 of us all reading ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton which had recently won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  A few weeks later, I was discovering that while many people had bought or borrowed the book I knew very few who had finished it – let alone understood or enjoyed it.

The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme, a Booker Prize winner in 1984, suffered the same fate and as a young library assistant I remember dozens of library members returning it unfinished. I read it myself and while I found it ‘so so’ it has always sat in the back of my mind. I reread it a few months ago and wow. I will no doubt read ‘The Luminaries’ again too – because I have to figure out the zodiac references and I completely missed that each chapter was half the length of the previous ones and that’s why I felt ‘rushed’ the closer to the end I got; so interesting!

Good fiction can sometimes feel a bit too ‘clever’ on first reading, making us feel incompetent or dull for not ‘getting it’. I remember reading Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf. I struggled through it the first time feeling completely confused because the entire book is written as internal monologues but it skips from one person to another – without telling you whose head you are in! By the time I reached the last page I vividly remember starting straight over again from the front because I’d finally figured out how to read it!

‘The Matriach’ by Witi Ihimaera, Wattie Book of the Year 1986, was another astounding book. It contained huge blocks of text in Italian. I remember feeling so disconcerted and disoriented because I really wanted to know what was happening but I just didn’t understand the language. Well guess what: welcome to the struggles of Maori in the land alienation shenanigans by European settlers and Land Courts. This was such a powerful way to force the reader to empathise with the main characters and their struggle comprehending the whole new ‘language’ of land ownership.

Award winning literature is a funny business. Literary prizes have been awarded since the days of the Greek playwrights and for millennia there have been arguments about what constitutes an award winner. We want awards to be clear markers of excellence but there are no absolute standards for judging aesthetic matters. The criteria for excellence in literature are entirely subjective; It all comes down to personal taste.

The Library has just launched a collection of award winning books for readers to get their teeth into so pop on down to your local library or view online: List: “Award Winners” on

Jo’s pick of interesting ‘new’ Award Winners