The Value of the Ursa Major Awards

16 Feb 2015 |

It's Ursa Major Award season. Furry's biggest and best awards are now open for nominations of the best of 2014's anthropomorphic art. Anyone and everyone can take part.

The Ursa Majors are intended to be the furry equivalent of fandom awards, such as Science Fiction's Hugo Awards. And while it's fair to say that an Ursa Major doesn't have the resonance or recognition of a Hugo, the competition is in rude health, with around 1000 people casting their vote over each of the past few years.

Yet the Ursa Majors aren't flawless, and it's not always clear what purpose they are intended to serve. Are the Ursa Majors providing any value to the furry community?

The biggest strength and biggest weakness of the Ursa Majors is the voting system. They are a popularity contest, with the winner chosen by popular vote. This is good because it's inclusive, and bad because it favours already well-known works, instead of more complex, more meritorious, and more niche works.

Exhibit A: the 2013 Ursa Major Award winners included Pokemon, Frozen, and My Little Pony. It's reasonable to say that recognition of these works add nothing to the furry community, and that the creators of these works couldn't care less.

Yet these award winners, and the similarly mainstream and well-known winners that are awarded year-in year-out, are a good reflection of what is popular in the furry community at the time. This is a positive thing not just because it's the natural outcome of an open vote, but because it provides something of a historical snapshot of furry in any given year.

In general, works that are by-furry for-furry tend to lose out to those with mainstream or fan popularity, at least in some Ursa Major Award categories. There are exceptions, and those are where a work (or artist) has gained a very strong following within furry itself. Kyell Gold is a good example of this: he was a shoo-in for Best Anthropomorphic Novel, up until the point that he voluntarily excluded himself from the Ursa Majors in 2012.

In his reasoning for withdrawal, Kyell said: "I'd like to help the fandom's literary scene mature, and part of that is showcasing more of the authors that are doing really good work. My name's already up there in the lists; let's see some of the other people."

Essentially, the value of an Ursa Major awards had declined for Kyell, because he already had an established fanbase, and that he didn't see much value in the award merely confirming that fact at the cost of other writers. It is easy to make the same argument (writ large) for the likes of Frozen and My Little Pony, although of course in those cases there is nobody who cares enough to even acknowledge the Ursa Majors, let alone withdraw from them.

Of course, some fans of Frozen, My Little Pony, and Pokemon will have enjoyed their respective victories, just as fans of Kyell Gold will have enjoyed seeing him acknowledged. And by virtue of the popularity of these works, they attract more participation in the Ursa Majors, and more discussion on their relative merits. (To put it another way: in any given year there are for more furries who have seen ten animated films with anthropomorphic content than, say, read ten furry novels.)

It's worth adding that the Ursa Majors tend to award childish works (i.e. Pokemon, My Little Pony, Frozen). This is also a natural outcome of the popular vote, which will always favour the lowest common denominator. This is why you are much more likely to see Paddington Bear in the Ursa Majors 2014 "Motion Picture" shortlist than, say, Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. (Not that either of them stand a chance against Guardians of the Galaxy.) This isn't a bad thing, just a another reason why the Ursa Majors are unlikely to highlight anything new or surprising: to a large extent, they tell us what we already know.

The committee that runs the Ursa Majors, the Anthropomorphic Literature and Arts Association (ALAA), have introduced a partial solution to this shortcoming, creating in 2011 a juried "Choice Award". The Choice Award, which is selected by internal ALAA voting, is given to a work judged to be "outstanding". It's an opportunity to highlight a worthy but lower-profile anthropomorphic work.

The Choice Award has been given twice, in 2011 and 2013. The 2013 selection was, to my mind, a bizarre choice: The Ursa Major was given to a My Little Pony fan-made musical animation called Children of the Night. And while the animation in Children of the Night is impressive for an amateur and fan-made effort, it's hardly a great work of art, or lacking a ready-made and attentive audience.

Having said that, the Choice Award is not judged by me, it's judged by the ALAA. I suspect that the MLP fan animation choice is a product of the ALAA committee, which is made up of four principals (plus a dozen or so "convention representatives"). The four are Fred Patten (age 74), Rod O'Riley (50), Kay Shapero (64), and Bernard Doove (57).

All four are legends of the furry community, have been instrumental in the creation and moulding of the furry community, and still keenly contribute today. All four were involved with the early days of furry, back when it would have been best described as a fandom, before the shift towards the identity-based subculture we know and love today. Their choice of an amateur My Little Pony video feels, to me, like a fannish choice.

I don't question the quality of the their judgement, but I do think it's a pity that the Choice Award wasn't used to recognise some of the outstanding new wave of furry graphic art that is being produced. RRUFFURR Two, for example, is an outstanding avant-garde anthology that attempts to redefine the form of the graphic novel into something explicitly furry... and was published in the same year that Children of the Night was uploaded to YouTube.

There are several Ursa Major categories where by-furry for-furry art does not have competition from the mainstream: essentially books, published illustrations, and websites. These categories, websites aside, tend to draw the lowest voting numbers but provide the greatest value to the furry community. Furries looking to explore niche furry art can confidently dip their toes into the water based on the Ursa Major nominees and winners.

Interestingly, furries compete strongly with mainstream publications in the comic strip and graphic novel categories. I think that this is a sign that mature art is emerging from the furry community in these areas, and I would point towards a couple of recent highlights here on [adjective][species] for further evidence of that: my review of PIES, by Ian King, and Makyo's look at Rory Frances's comics.

There are three categories that cover comics and graphic novels, categories that probably need rethinking in 2015, as the world moves away from physical to digital media. The Ursa Majors were founded in 2001, and while the categories made sense at the time, it's hard to see the need for separate awards like "Other Literary Work" (which includes "comic collections & serialized online stories"), "Graphic Story" ("comic books and serialized online stories"), and "Comic Strip" ("newspaper-style strips, including those with ongoing arcs").

Another overdue update is the separate categories for "Website" and "Magazine". Over the past couple of years, Flayrah has been nominated for "Magazine" (but not "Website) while [adjective][species] has been nominated for "Website" (but not "Magazine"). In fact, in 2013, all five nominations for "Magazine" were internet-only. It's not clear to me why Flayrah is grouped with, say, In-Fur-Nation, while [a][s] is grouped with Fur Affinity.

(Okay, it is clear to me. It's because that's where nominations were made. I am going to take a stab in the dark and guess that some sites were nominated for both categories, and the Ursa Major committee pragmatically opted to excise one. My point is that the categories themselves have become anachronistic.)

All in all, these quibbles are minor. While I think that the purpose of the Ursa Majors is muddied by its reliance on popular vote, I don't see any obvious way this might be changed without affecting the healthy participation rate. Without a doubt, the Ursa Majors are the most relevant and worthwhile formal furry award. They are useful to furry consumers looking to explore furry works, and they are of undoubted value to the furry winners.

The Ursa Majors are decided in two stages: nomination (which is open until 28 February), and voting (which opens on 15 March). The most popular five nominees make a shortlist, which goes on to final voting. Effectively, you vote twice - like a French election, the least popular candidates will not reach the final stage.

So get nominating. You can nominate as many of as few works as you like in each category.

Here at [adjective][species], we have highlighted several worthy 2014 Ursa Major nominees. You might consider including these in your nomination form and, perhaps, vote for them too:

...and of course [adjective][species] (Best Website)

Nominations for the 2014 Ursa Major Awards