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Apr 01

Going Chris Priest on the Aurealis Awards

Unless you’ve been away from the Internet for the last week, you’ll know that Christopher Priest went ballistic on this years Clarke Awards short list.

What you might have missed is that a week or so before the Clarke Awards list was released the short list for Australia’s premier genre award (also judged by a jury) the Aurealis was announced. Which is all well and good. But what’s interesting is how little commentary there’s been on the short list from Australian critics and writers, including me. Theres been no claims that the judges for each section were incompetent or that the awards should be canceled this year or that one of the books might have been written by a piss-soaked internet puppy.

Instead we get some people note that the awards have been announced, the odd pat on the back to friends and colleagues and… well… that’s about it.

You could argue that the lack of comment might be because of the strength of this years list. And you might be right. But no matter how good a list it is, if it’s not generating discussion – whether positive or negative or somewhere in between – then what’s the point of it.

That’s why there’s a part of me that wants to go all Chris Priest on this years Aurealis Awards ballot. I want to rant and rave about how the fantasy novel category is filled with another bunch of multi-series doorstoppers and how fucked Australian horror must be if it can’t muster up a decent book for the list and how… I’ve run out of puff.

You see, when I look at that award ballot I realise that other than the Westwood, the Hannett and Life on Mars edited by Jonathan Strahan, I’ve read bugger all on that list. And you know what, I bet I’m not alone. I bet that a good chunk of Australian fandom only becomes aware of what their fellow country-people have published when the ballot is announced. And maybe that’s a good thing – exposing people to new stuff that they can read. But it also means that no-one voices their opinions on whether the ballot is actually any good. And so arguably the main function of an awards ballot, to continue the SF dialogue, is lost for another year.

A few years back we did have our very own Chris Priest dissecting the Aurealis Awards. Ben Peek* spent two years commenting on each category.** His critiques were honest and harsh and weren’t necessarily met with smiles and congratulatory boxes of chocolate. It probably didn’t help that he also mocked the award and those involved on his LJ. Peek was also a lone voice and so when he decided not to bother anymore… well that’s when the crickets and tumbleweeds took residence.

What I loved about the aftermath of Priest’s critique was that the smart people in the room decided to take what he’d said seriously and actually explore the issues further. And for the last week the internet has been abuzz with pro-active discussions about the Clarke award and the nature of awards and ballots in general.*** I just wish that each year the Aurealis Awards would provoke a similar sort of positive outburst rather than fade in the background.

Maybe I’m asking for too much. I mean if I can’t be fucked reading Australian fiction throughout the year then I only have myself to blame. But I think that at very least, even if we haven’t read every single thing on the ballot, we should be discussing the Awards. For example this year there should have been an outcry from the Australian horror community. Not necessarily at the judges – who I know and trust – but at the community itself for failing to generate novel(s) interesting enough to actually form a ballot.

But the silence is deafening.

So I suppose that leaves me with the following questions. If no-one is actually discussing the Aurealis Awards ballot, than what’s the purpose of it? Is it really just an opportunity to recognise the best Australian writers in a given year? Or more distressingly is Chris Priest showing us that here, in Australia, we’re simply not passionate enough about our own awards?

* Admittedly, Priest has been around the block a few more times then Peek.

** Find the posts here and here.

*** Nial Harrison on the Strange Horizon blog has helpfully provided links to all the commentary. For my money, it’s a toss up between Cat Valenete and Nick Mamatas as to the best reaction to the Priests’ post. That said, most of those links are worthy of checking out.

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  1. Jonathan M

    As I’ve said on Twitter, I think the responses to Priest’s post showed quite how debased online discussion of science fiction has become. Rather than engaging with the substance of what Priest had to say, people reacted to the tone and then the bulk of the discussion revolved around whether or not he had the right to say the things he said or whether he had crossed some kind of line. In other words, Priest’s post generated a lot of noise but as far as actual discussion is concerned, the crickets were still chirping.

    From where I’m sitting, the only advantage the Clarke has over Aurealis is that its jury selection process is so non-transparent and down to knowing the right people that fandom can’t use the old “why don’t you put yourself forward?” defence to silence critics.

    1. Mondyboy

      I’m not sure the crickets were chirping. A number of people did engage with his actual criticism and other were willing to take in the broader issues without fobbing him off as a nut or just making fun of him. I mean, yes, Charles Stross has gone and turned the whole thing into a t-shirt, but that doesn’t discount those in blogdom, highlighted by the links above, who’ve had genuinely responded to Priest and his response to the award.

    2. Sean the Bookonaut

      I am with Mondy on this one. I think there was enough genuine engagement with the content of Priests post, the criticism that is. I also think its good that to discuss the line crossing I believe Priest engaged in with regards to his comments about incompetence.

      Does someone with the pedigree of Priest really need to engage in an angry rant to be noticed while commenting on the Clarkes? Can we not have passion and civility?

      I keep thinking back to the discussion around the Ditmars last year and how embarrassing the was as an outsider looking in.

  2. Alisa

    So if the judges for a ballot get it right, and noone needs to dissect their choices, so there is no “discussion” aka righteous ranting, then the award serves no purpose? It only serves a purpose if it gets it wrong?

    Not saying the Aurealis Awards got it right or wrong, just … surely there is only need for discussion and dissection when they get it wrong. We did discuss it for an hour on Galactic Suburbia last episode if that counts?

    1. Tansy Rayner Roberts

      Heh that was what I was going to say – we DID discuss it! But discussion can be more nuanced than ‘all the judges were crazy, let’s burn down the awards’ or ‘I hope my friends win, their stuff was the best.’ Surely?

    2. Mondyboy

      Commentary can be positive and negative. I just want to see some passion, even if that’s someone extolling the virtues of the ballot and explaining why. Positive discussion is also part of the dialogue. The reason I pointed to Priest is more about the passion of his words than the negative tone.

  3. catsparx

    Yeah, it’s no fun without the bitchin’ and moanin’. Bring it on I say!

    1. Mondyboy

      It’s also got to be uncalled for and unfounded.

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