Aurealis Awards Judge Gillian Polack on Judging and Dreams of LonCon

The Aurealis Awards are this weekend! I can’t go, but I thought it would be interesting to hear from one of the judges about the experience of judging, especially as she has a dream to get somewhere herself.


In the following interview, the estimable Dr Gillian Polack shares some very interesting insights about the experience of judging, what makes a story work, and trends in Australian speculative fiction.


My last question is about her quest to represent Australian speculative fiction at LonCon. She’s had a paper on Australian Writers accepted on the academic programme. I’d love to see Gillian get to Loncon.


Tell us what it’s like to be an Aurealis Judge. What are the highlights?


Each year is a different judging experience. There are some things that make patterns – meeting interesting people and working with them on the panel, watching the number of books grow and being thankful that I can read quickly, having deadlines and then deadlines on top of deadlines when publishers leave getting us material until the last minute.


Each judging panel is shaped by the lead judge. This year, for the YA panel, we had Stephanie, who did us up a lovely spreadsheet which we could update any time. It felt like a lot of work as we read each book and each story, filling in a bunch of categories, but it was so magic at the end. I kept looking for work, and there was none. Every bit of spreadsheet-filling-in paid off at the busiest time of year. All the head judges I’ve worked with have been this good, and all in different ways. Learning how they work has been a lot of fun, each and every year.


The biggest highlight for me, always (and the reason I volunteer for it) are all the wonderful books and stories. Sixty-four novels, this year.


I love the reading and the exploring and the discovery of new writers. Because we have to read every single Australian work in a given category, and because I’m someone who always reads every single word of every single work (most of us are, in fact) some of it can be a bit slow, but it’s never boring. Not even the dullest books are boring. Reading a complete class of books each year educates and entertains. It also means I actually get to read the books I love – they’re not all sitting in a pile waiting for me to find the time, one day. It’s a special kind of magic for a book addict.


I’ve discovered that I love the traditional narratives as much as the daring ones: what I vote for is the brilliant, in whatever guise it appears. This is also a highlight. Discovering that what I like about stories of all lengths isn’t whether it’s predictable or has vampires or is bizarre: it’s the crafting of the tale-telling; it’s the characterisation; it’s the mood and the language and the setting.


Have you noticed any trends in contemporary Australian speculative fiction?


The biggest trend I’ve noticed is a bigger gap than there used to be between the best and the worst. The best is the best in the world and the worst is sad and unpolished.


I’ve heard people in the wider community say that this is because of self-publishing. Reading everything, every year has taught me that this isn’t strictly true. Each year there is an increasing number of excellent (and even superb) self-published novels and short stories. They used to be occasional gleams in the dross. Now they’re proclaiming their identity loudly and strongly and deserve our attention.


More and more (alongside this trend) readers need to be able to do their own judging. The gems are not always the books that critics notice, for instance, or that are given reviews by bloggers. We need to be clever readers if we’re going to find the best books, and we’re going to have to gossip about our reading, and we’re going to have to learn to rely more on our own judgement.


Take the Aurealis and the Ditmar lists and combine them, and we each have good reading lists. But there’d be no exploration, which is why I’ll continue judging for as long as I’m allowed. Reading everything means I get to read all the hidden treasures and I get to watch authors developing.


You’re running for the LonCon GUFF Fan Fund. What will you be doing in London and how can we help you get there?


I want to go to the World SF convention and to the European SF convention (I’ve never been to Ireland!) and, if possible, the Finnish convention (I’ve never been to Finland, either!). I want to meet lots of people and talk to lots of people and get them interested in Australian fandom and Australian SF. I also want to have with drinks with friends who I only ever see online. I want to appear magically in the dealer’s room, and say hi to a German archaeologist and friend who will have a table there. I want to deliver a paper all about Australian writers on the academic programme. I want to make sure famous authors have enough to eat, by helping out in the Green Room. I want to do so many things, some of them nostalgic, some of them practical, and some of them (let’s be honest) quite daft.


More than this, I want Australian writers and artists to be seen, and I’m already doing my bit to make this happen. I’m a junior volunteer (because events are more fun when one volunteers) and I’ve already got that academic paper on the programme. I’ve talked to Europa (the fanzine for Europe) and they’ve agreed to interviews of several Australian writers in the lead up to LonCon.


How can people help me get there? Vote for me. The votes have payment attached, I’m afraid, but that’s part of how the funds are raised. The rest of the funds come from fundraisers and other places. I’ve already donated a whole bunch of stuff to be auctioned at Continuum – whoever wins is going to need that money. Fan funds are not about individuals saying “Look at me” (even if we have to do that a bit to get votes) – they’re about finding someone who you think will do a good job.


There’s online voting , and voting using forms – choices, choices. If you’re not sure about something (like what it means to be active in fandom) it’s worth asking.


And can I take this moment to point out that, if you’re thinking about voting for GUFF then you’re probably eligible yourself to be a candidate next time round? And that there are other fan funds? You could go to New Zealand for their national convention next year, for instance.


It’s very much worthwhile getting involved in fan funds (which is what finding the money to send someone to a convention tends to be called), especially at the auctions at conventions which can be hilarious. It’s a way of getting to a big convention if, like me, you have no money, but it’s also a wonderful way of discovering people who share your interests.


Very cool, Dr P! Thanks for your generous contribution to the Australian speculative fiction community. You are an inspiration and I hope you get to LonCon.


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