Story: Awards and prizes

Page 1. Awards and their origins

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What are awards and prizes?

The terms ‘award’ and ‘prize’ are often used interchangeably. However, an award generally refers to a form of institutional recognition for achievement or other merit, with the winner chosen by an appointed panel. Sometimes, winners are not aware in advance that they have been considered for an award.

A prize is usually a sum of money, a symbolic object such as a medal or some other tribute. People generally enter or apply to win a prize, and the winner is determined by a competitive process.

Why are they given?

In general, awards and prizes for the arts and sciences encourage and recognise excellence in those fields of endeavour. They can also provide financial support, especially valuable in small countries such as New Zealand, where working in the arts or sciences may not provide a living income. Awards and prizes of money, accommodation, travel and other measurable benefits can support the winners to carry out further activities in their field. Awards and prizes can also increase public awareness and status of specific art forms or scientific activities, making it more attractive for people to pursue those activities.

Awards for writers

Until the mid-20th century, competitions run by newspapers and magazines such as the Auckland Weekly News were almost the only source of prizes for writers. The first Labour government, which took office in 1935, showed a high regard for cultural activities and believed they should be made widely available, if necessary by state funding. The 1940 official centennial commemorations for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi therefore included one-off prizes for the best novel, short story, play, essay and poems.

Jessie Mackay Poetry Award

The writers’ organisation PEN NZ (later the New Zealand Society of Authors) convinced the government to sponsor an annual poetry award, the first such award in New Zealand. It was named for the recently deceased Jessie Mackay, the first locally born poet to achieve national prominence, and was first awarded in 1940. Notable winners of this award for best first book of poetry have included James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow, and, in 2010, Selina Tusitala Marsh.

Poet laureates

The Poet Laureate award was established by the Hawke’s Bay winery Te Mata Estate in 1997, the year of the winery’s centenary, and modelled on the longstanding British Poet Laureate award. Bill Manhire was the inaugural Te Mata poet laureate. The National Library assumed responsibility for this award in 2007. For a two-year period, each laureate is supported to create new work and promote poetry throughout the country, and presented with their own tokotoko – a ceremonial carved walking stick created by Hawke’s Bay artist Jacob Scott.

Hubert Church Award

In 1945 PEN NZ introduced a further award for prose writing, named for Hubert Church, a poet, novelist and critic who died in 1932. The Hubert Church Award for the best first book of prose published in the previous year has since been won by many of New Zealand’s most distinguished writers. Both this award and the Jessie Mackay Poetry Award later became part of the Best First Book Awards in the New Zealand Post Book Awards (sponsored by property developer Ockham from 2016).

Esther Glen Award

Another early literary award was the Esther Glen Award for children’s literature. Glen was a Christchurch journalist and children’s writer. She received early encouragement for her writing career when, at age 11, she won a story competition run by an English magazine. Glen died in 1940 and five years later the first annual Esther Glen Award was won by Stella Morice for The book of Wiremu. Since its inception the award has been administered by the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA, originally the New Zealand Library Association). In 2014 the annual LIANZA Children’s Book Awards also included the categories of young adult fiction, illustration, non-fiction, te reo Māori and a Librarians’ Choice award.

State Literary Fund

In addition to founding individual awards for poetry and prose, PEN NZ lobbied the government to set up a permanent state Literary Fund, and this was formed in 1947. The fund was managed by the Arts Branch of the Internal Affairs Department.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Awards and prizes - Awards and their origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 March 2020)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 9 Aug 2016