Aurealis Awards talk for Launceston Friends of the Library

On Saturday I was the guest speaker for the Launceston Friends of the Library, on the topic of the Aurealis Awards. It was a nice little crowd at the Launceston Linc, and I enjoyed it a lot! I prepared a bit of a talk (below), but the conversation and questions ranged far further afterwards, with a lot of discussion about speculative fiction in general!

Talking about the Aurealis Awards

The Aurealis Awards were established in 1995 by Chimaera Publications, the publishers of Aurealis magazine, to recognise the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers.

The Aurealis Awards are intended to complement the Annual Australian National Science Fiction Convention’s Ditmar Awards and the Australian Children’s Book Council Awards. Neither of those awards distinguishes between the different categories of speculative fiction. One of the aims of the Aurealis Awards is to increase the profile of Australian science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and provide an essential reading list for anyone interested in these genres.

The awards originally comprised four categories: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and young adult. These categories each have two separate awards, one for novels and one for short fiction. A category for children’s fiction (ages 8-12 years) was added in 2001. The YA and children’s categories cover works in all three speculative fiction genres. The category of Best Illustrated Book/Graphic Novel was included from 2008, as was the Anthology/Collections category.

Submissions within a category are reviewed by a panel of at least three judges, which selects each year’s finalists and winners. One of the judges on each panel is also the panel convenor.

There is also the Peter McNamara Convenors’ Award for Excellence, which is awarded at the discretion of the convenors for a particular achievement in speculative fiction or related areas in that year. This award may take into account a body of work or achievements over a number of years; it can also be for a work of non-fiction, artwork, electronic or multimedia work, or that which brings credit or attention to the speculative fiction genres. The award was originally known as The Convenors’ Award for Excellence and was renamed in 2002 after Peter McNamara (d. 2004), publisher, editor and the original Aurealis Awards convenor, shortly after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Because this is a special award and the scope of the entries may vary greatly, entries for this award do not feature on the list of general Aurealis Awards 2010 entries. (Most of the information above is taken from the Aurealis Awards website)

Over the years, the Awards have grown from a quite small affair where the ceremony was hosted in the Melbourne bookshop Slow Glass, to a rather fancy event showcasing the results of a year of work by an ever growing team of volunteers. 2012 is the third year the Awards have been administered by a non-profit group in Sydney called Spec Faction – for a number of years prior to that, Fantastic Queensland took responsibility, and it was during this period that the Awards gathered significant esteem among publishers, writers and readers alike. 2011 saw a record number of entries in the Awards, over 700 entries across the 13 categories, which highlights both the popularity of the Awards as well as the ongoing growth in speculative fiction in Australia.

The organising committee take responsibility for publicising the Awards, operating the online presence (particularly the website where entries are made), applying for funding for the Awards night (including acquiring the funds for trophies and venue), and ensuring the Awards process is as transparent and fair as possible. I have been a judge for the Awards since 2008, and in 2011 also took on the role of judging co-ordinator, which involves choosing the judging teams, wrangling the panels and administering the entries.

The judging teams are chosen from a wide variety of backgrounds – writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians are common, but anyone who feels they have the knowledge of the genre to responsibly judge can apply. In the two years I’ve been assembling the panels, I’ve had enough people apply to have to turn people down (which is really hard!), but in the past, it has been difficult to gather enough judges, with panels sometimes collapsed to cover them all. This becomes less likely to happen as social media allows us to spread our net wider and faster, but as the number of judges increases, so too do the number of entries, which can in itself cause challenges. It used to be possible for one panel to judge short stories and novels, but this is no longer the case for the science fiction and fantasy sections, where numbers increase annually.

One interesting factor impacting on entry numbers is the self-publishing phenomenon. To give just one example, in 2008 I judged the Fantasy Novel section, and we received around 45 entries. The same category in 2011 received almost 70 entries. Almost the entire difference in entry figures was self-published work, indicating that while the genre is fairly stable in mainstream publishing, the self-publishing authors are clearly growing, as technology becomes simpler and cheaper to access for this purpose. We did see a self-published book short-listed in 2010, but interestingly, it’s a very rare occasion.

The guidelines for judging are fairly broad. I invite judging panels to utilise a form of criteria for their discussions, which considers aspects such as Originality; Speculative Elements; Characterisation; Plot; World building; Style; and X-Factor (that nebulous element that is very difficult to pin down that sometimes makes a great story one that is simply excellent – the judges find this frequently comes down to memorability and lasting resonance). However, it is up to the panels each year to decide which elements carry the most weight, and how they choose to express that.

I have judged for a number of different awards, in panels of one, two, three, four and eight! It’s fascinating to be part of these differing processes, as it gives one a very different perspective on the essential “worth” of Awards, knowing that given a different set of judges, or a different criteria, the outcome could very well have been different. I think Awards are very valuable for many reasons, and juried Awards (as opposed to peer-voted awards) are essential to the health of literature – but at the same time, I acknowledge that all Awards systems have their weaknesses!

One Award I’m particularly fond of which does its best to eliminate unintentional bias is the Washington Science Fiction Association’s Small Press Award. For short stories published by small publishers, the Awards team gathers entries from publishers and authors (authors may only submit one stories in a year, publishers only three) and the stories must NOT have any names identifying the author on them. The entries are first given to a jury, which chooses a shortlist. The shortlisted entries (still with no identifying names) are circulated to all eligible voting members of the WSFA, who read and judge them on their merits alone. A lovely system! Of course, it’s not feasible for most Awards to operate that way, including the Aurealis Awards, but it’s still a nicely balanced approach to look at.

One of the things that has become apparent over the past several years is that Australia is placed somewhat differently in regards to who is writing in particular genres, and particularly, winning accolades for their work. Internationally, all aspects of speculative fiction, other than Young Adult writing, are dominated by male authors. In Australia, especially in the last ten years or so since the launch of HarperCollins’ Voyager imprint, spearheaded by the late Sara Douglass, Fantasy has remained a clearly female dominated genre. There certainly are Aussie men writing fantasy, but the women are miles ahead on the bookshelves and on the Awards ballots. It’s different in Science Fiction and Horror, which both skew towards a male supremacy, but that is evolving, with an all-female shortlist for SF last year, for the first time. With a smaller writing and reading population, and such powerhouse authors as Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan, Glenda Larke and Traci Harding garnering international publication deals, Australia is better placed than the US and UK to achieve a kind of gender parity among its genre writers, which is a great thing. We even spurred a major write up in the Sydney Morning Herald (and the Age online) showcasing this, which was rather cool.

I’m not actually a judge for the Awards this year, as I was overwhelmed with volunteers for the positions and couldn’t justify stealing a spot for myself on a panel! It’s pretty tough seeing all the interesting looking entries roll in and know I don’t get to have them myself, but hey, that’s what the library is for!

The 2012 Aurealis Awards are open for entry of any speculative work published for the first time by an Australian author in 2012. Publishers and authors, make sure your work is entered!

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