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The Aurealis Awards: a librarian’s look

First published in the Australian School Library Association’s journal ACCESS, June 2016, Vol 30, No. 2, p. 18.

(Ceremony photos from the past 12 years by Cat Sparks, used with permission)

Considering its humble beginnings in 1995, with just a small number of judges and a ceremony held in a local bookshop in Melbourne, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Young Adult fiction (both novel length and short stories) have been recognised in the annual Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative fiction awards, since the first year, with Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Brian Caswell’s Deucalion sharing top honours for novel and Isobelle Carmody’s “Green Monkey Dreams” winning the short story award.[1] While the Children’s category was not introduced until 2001, and has been through several iterations, including long and short form, fiction told primarily through words and fiction told primarily through pictures, before becoming a single award for Children’s Fiction as it is today, the shortlists for these categories showcase a fascinating range of talent and quality work for young readers.

2015 Marianne de Pierres - Rowena Cory Daniells

This year’s ceremony hosts Marianne de Pierres & Rowena Cory Daniells

In 2016, the Aurealis Awards celebrated its twenty-first birthday in lavish style, with a sit-down dinner for 100 guests at an event in Brisbane, hosted by two well-known and beloved Queensland speculative fiction authors, Rowena Cory Daniells and Marianne de Pierres, and attended by writing luminaries from across Australia. Attendees frocked up and made the most of the chance to mingle and chat in a relaxed and entertaining evening. Creators at the beginning of their careers rubbed shoulders with distinguished alumni of the field, readers and fans got the chance to speak casually with their literary heroes, and judges sat back and enjoyed the looks of surprised delight on the faces of the winners in attendance. In an interesting turn of events, local author Trent Jamieson took home two trophies, and co-host Rowena Cory Daniells also won a prize. Sean Williams collected four awards, though only one was on his own behalf, and Glenda Larke was a popular recipient for the inaugural Sara Douglass Book Series Award, having being shortlisted eight times for her work over the years, but never taking home the trophy. Ever popular favourite Garth Nix took out two categories, and relative newcomers Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae won the Science Fiction Novel gong. Small presses held their own, with the Anthology category and several short story categories won by authors from this background, as well as the Convenors’ Award for Excellence with the non-fiction collection Letters to Tiptree from Twelfth Planet Press.[2] It was a night that showcased the very best of the speculative fiction field, and really demonstrated how very far things have come, in many different ways.

2015 Trent Jamieson - Sean Williams

Trent Jamieson & Sean Williams

Speculative fiction, as with most “genre” types, is often seen as the poor cousin of the more capital-L Literary awards. Observationally, it could be inferred that judges for larger awards (such as the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year, Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and the various state-based Premier’s literary prizes) are rarely aficionados of science fiction, fantasy and horror and all the sub-genres associated with speculative fiction, and thus may feel less comfortable awarding such work due to both lack of knowledge of and lack of affection for the style. However, proponents of the field will attest that speculative fiction can not only punch above its weight in terms of literary merit, but is also an excellent venue for exploring some of the trickier societal themes of the day. This is particularly true of Young Adult and Children’s literature.

2013 Allyse Near

Allyse Near with her two Aurealis Awards for Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Consider, for example, the winner of the 2015 Young Adult category, In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker (Allen & Unwin). A powerful story of identity, mental health issues and grief, told through the use of a slip-stream world and imagination. Few books dealing with mass shootings of young people can be explored in such a way as to examine the issue without didacticism or preaching a perspective, but through the use fantasy elements, Barker manages just this.

And again, the winner of the Children’s Fiction section, Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone, which crosses boundaries of genre and readership to stretch the reader, to take them on a journey into a place that empowers and yet constrains (in more ways than one) female characters, while at the same time exploring the darkness which can underpin and ultimately undermine a society. Yes, in a children’s book.

2015 Marlee Jane Ward - Maria Lewis - Alex Adsett

Marlee Jane Ward, Maria Lewis & Alex Adsett at this year’s ceremony

While there is occasional crossover between the finalists and winners of the Aurealis Awards and other major Australian awards (in 2015, Marlee Jane Ward’s novella “Welcome to Orphancorp” won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Young Adult Fiction, as well as being shortlisted for the Best YA Short Story in the Aurealis Awards, as just one recent example), it is not a common occurrence, and that is why the Aurealis Awards are so important. As Scott Westerfeld noted in his MC speech at the 2012 Awards ceremony (in May 2013), speculative fiction is big business, in film, in television and in literature, and yet goes frequently unrecognised in the “serious” awards. It is not, as some readers and viewers would have you think, because the quality is lower, but because of ingrained prejudices regarding genre (and this applies equally to romance, crime, thrillers and the like as much as speculative fiction): consumers in the main enjoy the genre work, but for whatever reason don’t consider it “proper” fiction/film/television of an acceptable type. It can be hoped this perception is shifting, somewhat, but until media of this type is regularly recognised at the Oscars in Best Picture and Best Director rather than only in the technical fields, until “realist” novels stop dominating the Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the “populist vs proper” issue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

2012 Scott Westerfeld presenting

Scott Westerfeld hosting the 2012 Awards

This means that awards like the Aurealis Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Hugo Awards, British Science Fiction Awards and the like are so important, for work that does not fit the “capital-L Literature” form and yet is of an intrinsically high standard, exploring themes and ideas that mainstream fiction often simply cannot. Some authors have deliberately distanced themselves from genre in order to find mainstream critical success. Margaret Atwood, whose hugely popular novel The Handmaid’s Tale sits squarely within a dystopic science fiction genre designation, at one point insisted the book was not science fiction (although interestingly, she did claim it to be speculative fiction, probably not under the same definition as we think of spec fic today). In the intervening years, she has now become more comfortable with the designation of her work as genre, which can only be of good to others in the field. It’s always fascinating as a reader to find horror novels by Stephen King in the “Fiction” section of a bookstore, yet horror novels by Clive Barker are in the “Science Fiction/Fantasy” area. There is little, if any, difference in the quality of writing or elements of genre between these writer, yet one is considered (these days at least) Literature and mainstream. Does it indicate that King no longer pushes the boundaries in the same way as genre writers do? Not necessarily. Too often, genre designations are purely publisher-based, as they seek to make the most money from their books as possible, which, while understandable, is disappointing in some ways. Because if George R.R. Martin can dominate the bookstore shelves and have readers of all ages and types howling for the next in the series, it’s unclear why Fantasy still takes a back seat to non-speculative fiction.

2013 Thoraiya Dyer - Joanne Anderton - Kim Wilkins - Kirstyn McDermott - Cat Sparks

Best Collection nominees for 2013: Thoraiya Dyer, Joanne Anderton, Kim Wilkins, Kirstyn McDermott & Cat Sparks

This is not to argue that popular necessarily equals quality, by any stretch. But it’s concerning to think that sometimes judging panels seem sometimes that is is the opposite effect — if a book is popular, then it can’t possibly have the hallmarks of “quality literature”. Which is a fallacy.

2012 Kaz Delaney - Margo Lanagan

Co-winners for 2012 Best YA Novel Kaz Delaney & Margo Lanagan

The Aurealis Awards judges are given guidelines for judging which include the following:

…literary merit is of paramount importance in selecting the shortlisted works. Genre elements should not be enough to see a book on the shortlist; the Aurealis Awards is first and foremost a literary award. However, neither should a problematic definition of what makes a work of a particular genre bar an excellent book that contains appropriate elements of that genre, and the Aurealis Awards prefers an inclusive view of what genre markers may include.[3]

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Richard Harland

The organisers of the Awards recognise that the definitions of speculative fiction genres are constantly evolving, have always done so, and will almost certainly continue to do so. No longer is science fiction solely defined as (for example) frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets. That doesn’t mean it will not include such elements, merely that it is no longer necessarily expected to, as dystopian, and near-future, set-on-earth stories have become popular. Fantasy does not have to take place in an imagined world, or include magic, or dragons, or elves… Horror need not include supernatural elements to be part of the genre. In terms of bending and twisting genre, Australian authors are right up there with the best of them, and it often shows in the shortlists.

2012 Cat Sparks - Kate Forsyth - Pamela Freeman

Cat Sparks, Kate Forsyth & Pamela Freeman

In the 2015 judging period, nearly 40 judges across 16 panels (plus the Convenors’ Award for Excellence) read over 750 entries in the regular categories; in addition, the inaugural Sara Douglass Book Series Award judges considered almost 200 books in 55 series. The smallest number of entries in any category was 12 books, while some short story categories had over 100 submissions. Aurealis Awards judging is not a job for the faint-hearted.

2014 Garth Nix - Margo Lanagan

Garth Nix & Margo Lanagan

Over the years, hundreds of Australian creators have been recognised in the shortlists. Luminaries in the genre have won many times, but it’s not unusual for relative unknowns to take out the prize, and in recent years, several self-published works have been shortlisted and even won in various categories. That the Aurealis Awards accept self, small and independently published material makes them somewhat of a standout on those grounds alone; that they actively encourage electronic submission of entries in all categories (although still accepting print if that is the entrant’s preference) possibly makes them unique. Being run by volunteers (no one involved in organising or judging the Awards is paid for their efforts) is very unusual, and although the Aurealis Awards is overseen by an incorporated body (at least since Fantastic Queensland took over the event organisation in 2004, subsequently managed by SpecFaction NSW, Conflux Inc., and most recently, the Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation), they rely completely on the goodwill of the community to step up and take part.

2005 Garth Nix - Scott Westerfeld - Justine Larbalestier

Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld & Justine Larbalestier

Each year, the organising team call for expressions of interest in judging for the Awards. Judges come from all over Australia, and from widely varied backgrounds. Librarians, booksellers, authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, reviewers and readers — anyone with an interest in and love of speculative fiction — are encouraged to apply, bringing with them a breadth of experiences and knowledge each year. Judging panels of between three and five judges (including a panel convenor) are put together, and once finalised, entries are opened for that year (usually around May or June).

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Alison Goodman & Miffy Farquharson

The Aurealis Awards has instigated the addition of a Novella category in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, distinct from the existing Short Story sections in these areas. This change was made in response to a growth in the field, partially due to e-publishing, where novellas are rising in prominence. It can be difficult to judge a longer story (7,500 to 39,999 words) against shorter pieces, and this addition has been greeted with much positivity by creators and publishers.

2007 Cat Sparks - Margo Lanagan - Kirstyn McDermott

Cat Sparks, Margo Lanagan & Kirstyn McDermott

Another new category implemented in 2015 is the Sara Douglass Book Series Award, named for the flagship HarperVoyager author Sara Douglass, who died in 2011, but who left the legacy of a strong fantasy publishing domain in Australia, and one that has, quite unusually for the genre when one looks internationally, been particularly focussed on female writers. This award is designed to recognise that there are book series that are greater as a whole than the sum of their parts — that is, the judges look for a series that tells a story across the series, not one that just uses the same characters and setting across loosely connected books. Shortlisted works are best enjoyed read in succession, with an arc that begins in the first book and is completed in the last. This idea is something completely different for literary awards in any country, certainly in Australia, and is somewhat idiosyncratic to the genre — while there are other literary classifications which do run to long series (crime/thriller and some romance books spring to mind), rarely are these encapsulating a story arc that completes over a set number of books. Indeed, the judges discovered that even within the broader umbrella of speculative fiction, most of the strongest series were of a distinctly fantasy flavour.

2004 Sean Williams - Janeen Webb - Jack Dann - Scott Westerfeld

Sean Williams, Janeen Webb, Jack Dann & Scott Westerfeld

The Aurealis Awards celebrates Australian literary speculative fiction in as many ways as possible. In 2008, in addition to the Children’s section, the Illustrated Work / Graphic Novel, Anthology and Collections categories were created, to celebrate an even greater range of works not previously recognised. From the original eight categories, there are now seventeen (if one includes the Sara Douglass, which will not be awarded annually due to the nature of the entries). For school librarians and teachers, the annual shortlists are a treasure trove of quality speculative fiction, which, as already discussed, tends to be far more popular by nature than other awards celebrating literary work. With distinct categories to Young Adult and Children’s, teacher librarians and other staff buying for schools can be assured that (within reason), work shortlisted in these categories will be suitable for most readers of the age groups (Children’s covers up to 12 years, Young Adult from approximately 12-18 years). Other divisions may also yield great additions to any reading list; the winners of the Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction Novel categories for 2015 were both also finalists in the Young Adult shortlist, for example. The Deep, a graphic novel by internationally renowned comics writer Tom Taylor (illustrated by James Brouwer) which won the Illustrated Work / Graphic Novel category in 2011, is for young audiences, and was recently transformed into an animated television series. Not bad for an independent comics publisher in Perth.

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Alison Goodman & Sean Williams

For many of these works, the publishers have created teaching materials to be used in conjunction with the books; one example is the anthology which won the Best Anthology category in 2014, Kaleidoscope from Twelfth Planet Press. A collection of young adult stories with an overarching theme celebrating of diversity, the book lends itself to teaching and learning opportunities in many ways, and the teaching notes suggest opportunities for discussion and explicit activities to use with the text. For other books, simply adding them to library collections, or even using as a class set, increases the richness of reading opportunities for students. A display encompassing the finalists in any given year (or even the winners of a particular category over several years) can draw attention to a range of Australian books that may not otherwise come to the attention of readers, and may pique a lifelong love of reading in a genre that permeates modern media in so many ways.

2015 Aurealis Awards trophies

2015 Aurealis Awards trophies

The annual Aurealis Awards are an excellent example of what can happen when a community comes together to showcase the achievements of those in their field. From small beginnings, a flourishing and respected set of Awards has grown, one that is national in scope and international in quality.

For more information, visit aurealisawards.org or follow the Awards on Facebook or Twitter to stay up to date.

Tehani Wessely

Head of Information Services, Marist College Canberra

Judging co-coordinator, Aurealis Awards 2011-2015

[1] Aurealis Awards. (2015). Finalists and Winners. Retrieved from https://aurealisawards.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/aurealis-1995-2014-complied-xlsx-sheet1-1.pdf

[2] ventureadlaxre. (2016, March 25). The winners of the 2015 Aurealis awards Retrieved from https://aurealisawards.org/2016/03/25/the-winners-of-the-2015-aurealis-awards/

[3] Aurealis Awards. (2014, July 27). Rules. Retrieved April 5, 2016, from https://aurealisawards.org/rules/

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