Books Formula 44: 2024 Ockhams Longlist Unveiled

A field of 171 entrants of rare genius has been quartered. These are the 44 titles still contending for the nation's foremost literary prize.

So to the longlist for the ninth edition of Royal Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – that annual literary scrum where the nation’s writers lock pens in a royal rumble for the coveted title of ‘Most Eminent Aotearoa Scribe’. This year, the longlist has been unfurled with  the pomp and circumstance of a royal decree: the 171 entries have been pored over, pondered and adjudicated and somehow whittled down to a mere 44 hopefuls. It’s a bit like The Hunger Games, but for people who use semicolons correctly.

Among the lineup are 12 souls making their first foray into the arena, their pens freshly inked, their awkward and (likely) introvertive victory speeches starting to take shape in the shower. These debutantes are jostling for position alongside seasoned veterans like Eleanor Catton, who probably pens Booker-worthy sentences while waiting for her flat white, and Catherine Chidgey, a name that twinkles in the literary sky like a particularly well-placed piece of tinsel.

Book Boudicca Nicola Legat, the chair of the New Zealand Book Awards Trust, couldn’t be more pleased if she’d found a forgotten Katherine Mansfield manuscript in her attic. “It’s a thrill to read this longlist and see both the high number of first-time writers, represented in every category, and the spread across a very wide group of publishers," says she. "A powerful and impressive list studded with books that entertain readers and offer important insights into our world has been put before our judges for consideration.”

What depth! What breadth! With entries spanning a gamut from fiction that tickles your fancy to nonfiction that slaps you with reality, there’s something for everyone. Well, everyone who likes to read, which presumably is a prerequisite for attending a book awards ceremony.

The contenders

The fiction section is a smorgasbord of emotional depth charges and narrative gymnastics, where tales of earthquakes serve as metaphors so potent, they could make an Aro Valley dialectician weep into her craft beer. Not to be outdone, the nonfiction contenders are staging a quiet revolution, proving once and for all that reality can be just as twisted and intriguing as fiction. Olive Jones’ Commune: Chasing a Utopian Dream in Aotearoa practically begs for a Netflix adaptation, or at the very least, a spirited discussion on a niche subreddit.

Poetry, that most enigmatic of categories, features the linguistic equivalent of a mic drop from Tusiata Avia and CK Stead. Their work reminds us that poetry isn’t just for tortured high school students but can also be enjoyed by tortured adults.

Then there’s the illustrated non-fiction category, a visual feast for the eyes and occasionally the soul, offering everything from botanical escapades to deep dives into Māori clay artistry. It's the literary equivalent of Instagram, but with more substance and less avocado toast.

So what next? Well, the coming weeks will be awash with literary speculation and puffs of the mildest indignation as our leading pundits – the likes of The Spinoff’s Dame Claire Mabey and Newsroom’s Sir Stéphanos Braunias – divine who'll be shortlisted and who will win (and who should win).

For completists, Kete Books have compiled an epic summary of the 44 contenders,  fiction and poetry here, the two non-fiction categories there.

And for those bluffers who are a little behind in their research and reading, you can hop aboard the bandwagon on Wednesday 6 March when the 2024 Ockhams shortlist is revealed to the world.