The prevailing theme of the discussions/debates/flamewars surrounding the 2011 Ditmars this past week has been that the awards process is broken and needs to be fixed. As I talked about yesterday, the productions and publications of one small press publisher (Twelfth Planet Press) accounted for 50% of the combined 2011 Ditmar/Tin Duck awards. For the sake of this post, however, I’m only going to talk about the Ditmars. This isn’t intended as a slight against or dismissal of the Tin Ducks, but simply an acknowledgement that they do not always coincide with the national award, and that the recent discussions did seem to centre around Ditmar Awards past, present and future.
[An aside for those who don't know: the Tin Duck Awards are the annual Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation (WASFF) Achievement Awards for WA writers and artists. The awards are always presented at Swancon -- the regional WA convention -- and only coincide with the Ditmars in years where SwanCon doubles as the National SF Convention (where the Ditmars are always presented). This was the case in 2011. Interestingly, the 2012 NatCon will be hosted by Continuum8 in Melbourne and will also result in a double act -- the Ditmars and the Chronos Awards, which are the Victoria equivalent of the Tin Ducks.]
With the Tin Ducks removed from the equation, we are left with a total of 11 Ditmar categories (including the Atheling) over which 12 awards were presented in 2011 due to one category being tied. Of these awards, Twelfth Planet Press won 5. It’s still an impressive amount, but it’s well under 50% of the total Ditmars given out this year. It does make me wonder if such a fuss would have been made had this tally not been compounded by the additional Tin Duck wins, but that’s something we’ll never know. I suspect there would have been some fussing because a) Ditmars always seem to attract controversy; and b) other award winners were grouped into the TPP conglomerate by way of association, as I discussed in detail yesterday.
Personally, I do not think the fact that TPP won a significant portion of the available awards is indicative of a problem with the process itself. The high level of quality, diversity and visibility of the work produced by TPP in 2010 is undeniable. These factors will always get you noticed, will usually get you onto awards ballots, and will often get you shiny trophies. (It’s well worth noting that it wasn’t simply one work or even one type/genre of work that resulted in TPP’s success.) Does this mean I believe that no one else in 2010 was producing high quality work deserving of awards? Of course not — the full 2011 Ditmar ballot shows just how impressive the work being produced by spec fic community in Australia is these days. But that’s how awards operate. Sometimes they’re spread widely and far afield, sometimes they’re concentrated. Sometimes the people you vote for win, sometimes they don’t.
The fact that the Ditmars are awarded by a popular ballot taken from members of the NatCon was also a matter of heated debate this week. Unlike WorldCons and other conventions overseas, the Australian National SF Convention doesn’t attract massive memberships. We’re talking figures in the low hundreds here, not the thousands. And only a relatively small number of NatCon members actually vote for the Ditmars in most years. Sometimes, as few as a dozen people can determine the winner of an award. Seriously. Twelve people liked your work enough to vote for you, and that means you have a trophy and a “Best Whatever”. I don’t say this to denigrate the Ditmars but to point out that voter participation really is a problem that the Awards need to overcome. (I’d hazard a guess that regional awards like the Tin Ducks and Chronos would face similar problems on an even smaller scale.) It’s also useful to remind people that an apparently “lopsided” ballot where one person or publisher wins quite a few awards can happen quite naturally in such a small voting pool.
Any popular ballot has intrinsic problems. Someone might have only knowledge of a handful of works on the ballot and choose to vote for them regardless of comparison with the other nominees. Likewise, she might have only come across a handful of works and choose not to vote at all because she doesn’t feel sufficiently qualified to do so. Someone else might base his vote on the personality of the nominee rather than the work being nominated. Another might decide to vote for a friend or colleague, regardless of any other consideration. And so on, and so on. However, if your voting pool is large enough, and enthusiasm and interest is high enough, then hopefully all of these wrinkles will be smoothed out in the bigger picture. Also smoothed out will be voting “hot spots” which can skew a result based on geographic and/or demographic factors, as well as concerns regarding “extrinsic popularity” vs “instrinc merit”. (And no, I am not getting any further into that debate here. See those inverted commas? Consider them my equivalent of grains of salt.)
But I absolutely disagree with the suggestion by some — with varying degrees of seriousness and snark — to change the names of the awards from “Best . . .” to “Most Popular . . .” in order to better reflect the voting process. Such a proposal would not only undermine the Awards, but would also belittle the integrity and judgement of the voters themselves by accepting the whole ugly argument of “popular” vs “quality”. (Grains. Salt.) Moreover, there is an abundance of highly regarded and popularly voted awards — Hugos, BSFA, Stokers, Oscars, etc — which all use the adjective “Best . . .” to describe their categories. It’s such an accepted usage of the term that it would actually seem a churlish, backhanded compliment to declare your award winners to be otherwise.
Another suggestion has been to open the voting for the Ditmars to the general public — although just how “general” that public would be remains undiscussed. Literally any Australian citizen or resident, or only those designated with the cryptically nebulous “active member of fandom” moniker? What about members of the spec fic community overseas who participate in the Aussie scene, or who simply hold an interest? Who gets to vote? Who doesn’t? Who decides? However the rules for such awards are worked out, one thing is clear: you couldn’t call them Ditmars.
The formal name for the Ditmars is “The Australian SF Awards” and they have been awarded annually since 1969 at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention (Natcon) to recognise achievement in Australian science fiction (including fantasy and horror) and science fiction fandom. They are voted on by members of the NatCon, in the same way that the Hugos are voted on by members of the WorldCon, the BSFA Awards are voted on by members of British Science Fiction Association (and, recently, by EasterCon attendees in general), and the Stokers are voted on by members of the Horror Writers Association (though in 2012 they will change to a partially juried award). As a result, the awards are given to the “Best . . .” as determined by the members of the group/organisation which presents them.
I’m not sure I see the point in removing NatCon membership as the defining voter attribute or indeed why this would make the awards more meaningful. If anyone — with or without a vested interest in the spec fic community — could vote, then this would surely leave the process wide open to wroughting and vote-wrangling from friends, family, work buddies and passing stray cats. The Ditmar voting rules have already been broadened in recent years to allow eligibility for the members of the previous NatCon to vote in the current ballot — meaning two years worth of NatCon members can vote if they wish to. The actual nomination process is open beyond the constraints of NatCon membership, which is intended to allow for the creation of a more inclusive and representative ballot. As far as rules and procedures go, the Ditmar Awards are both simple and solid. Sure, there might be cause for tweaks and amendments in the future, but changing the nature and identity of the Awards themselves seems a drastic measure — and not one that would even be likely to fix the perceived problems surrounding the “popular” vote.
[Note: For those unaware, supporting members of the NatCon are also eligible to vote in the Ditmars. This could be seen as operating as almost a defacto "general public" vote. You don't need to fork out for travel and accommodation and a full NatCon membership, nor do you need to take time away from work, family or other commitments. If you are passionate about voting for the Ditmars but can't make it to the convention, you can take out a supporting membership at a much cheaper rate and have the same voting rights as attendees.]
So what can be done to increase the size of the voter pool and enhance the reputation of the awards? Perhaps voting should be open to anyone who attended a NatCon in the last five years. Or ten. Or any NatCon, ever. But who gets the unenviable task of keeping, collating and cross-checking those records? And would someone who went to a NatCon ten years ago and never again have any interest in voting for the current Ditmars anyway? I suspect that increasing the eligibility pool probably isn’t the answer — mostly, because no matter how big your pool of eligible voters may be, it’s only the active ones who count in the endgame.
What we need are more active voters. And that means voters who are enthusiastic, involved and informed. There are a hell of a lot of people who do not vote because they haven’t read/seen all the eligible nominees on the ballot and thus feel they aren’t qualified to make a “good” decision. Personally, I think that’s a bit of bunkum. I certainly do not condone voting for something of which you have no knowledge, but I do think that it’s perfectly all right for you to vote — for example — for a work in the “Best Novel” category even if it’s the only one of the nominees you have read. As long as you loved it and think it’s worthy of an award, then your vote is valid. I know there are people who vehemently disagree with me on this point, but my belief is that everything tends to get smoothed out in a large active voter pool. There will be a lot of people who only read the works they have voted for and there will be others who read and critically analyse everything before coming to a decision; both kinds contribute to the resulting hivemind of the Ditmar voting body.
Perhaps incentive is also needed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the provision of a digital voting pack containing the nominated works for the Hugo awards has lead to an increase in enthusiasm for and, hopefully, participation in the voting process. I know there was a Ditmar voting pack issued by the NatCon in 2008 or thereabouts but I think that’s been the only time — although I stand to be corrected. At the very least, such a voting pack will provide those people who need to feel fully informed with the material to be so — which will in turn hopefully lead to more active voting from that segment of the pool as well. However, this would all mean extra work for some poor soul in a community of volunteers which is already thinly stretched. Not to mention extra expense and possibly lost revenue for small presses — allowing one story from an anthology into a voting pack can be seen as promotion; packing in an entire novel or collection would most certainly result in lost sales. There are few easy answers.
Possibly most important of all is the need to actively promote Australian spec fic within the community and to encourage discussion and support all year round — not just at awards time. There are a lot of folks who already do this with great enthusiasm and they are to be commended. Sometimes, even, with awards!
Look, we all know that awards aren’t the be all and end all. They aren’t — or shouldn’t be — the reason to actually do any creative or critical work whatsoever. With the exception of a select few (usually those with generous purses attached) winning an award won’t do much for your career, happiness or general well-being. But they are a genuine sign of appreciation and admiration — whether awarded by your peers or via a jury panel — and it’s heartening to receive them. It’s equally heartening to see someone you admire and respect receive one, and possibly as disheartening when that same someone misses out. When it comes right down to it, awards are all about emotion.
One thing remains clear from the debates of the past week: the Ditmar Awards are far from meaningless. There are obviously a lot of people who care about the results and the reputation of the awards themselves — one way or another — and ultimately this is a good thing. It remains to be seen whether or not this translates into a greater increase in participation during nomination and voting for the awards in 2012. I’d certainly encourage anyone with an interest in Aussie spec fic to make note of your favourites over the course of this year so you can nominate them when the time comes around. If you weren’t at SwanCon36 and won’t be able to make it to Continuum8, then consider taking out a supporting membership. And vote. Vote. Vote.
Because in the end, as with so many things, the Ditmar Awards we get will be the Ditmar Awards we deserve.
[Addendum: On the subject of conventions and awards, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that voting in the 2011 Chronos Awards remains open until 15 May. If you are a member of Continuum7 to be held in Melbourne in June this year, then you are eligible to vote. If you are not a member but wish to vote for the Chronos Awards anyway, a voting membership is available from the Continuum Foundation for $5. The full Chronos ballot and further information can be found here.]