Friday, February 14, 2014

On Petitions and Flame Wars: My Thoughts About SFWA and Change

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Before I start, let me emphasize that what follows is my own personal opinion. I'm not speaking here for anyone but myself.

Many of you may be aware of the controversy that erupted last year over the content and format of SFWA's quarterly publication, the Bulletin. This resulted in the Bulletin's temporary suspension while a task force appointed by SFWA's then-President, John Scalzi, investigated the Bulletin's role within the organization, with the goal of recommending changes going forward.

Over the past week or so, controversy has engulfed the Bulletin once more, with a petition circulated by former SFWAn Dave Truesdale protesting "politically correct censorship" of the currently non-existent Bulletin. (It's also worth reading the original, much more wordy, version of the petition, which can be found here.) Among the 30 or so signers of the petition are a number of eminent speculative fiction authors. Current SFWA President Steven Gould has posted a response.

I'm not interested in addressing any of the allegations and counter-allegations over the petition (which in any case is protesting an imaginary issue: there's no Bulletin "review board", nor is one planned). What concerns me is the by-now predictable SFWA pileon, with commentators (many of them not SFWA members) tut-tutting about how backward, sexist, and juvenile the organization is (here's just one example). What value, many of these commentators demand, can SFWA actually offer writers, dominated as it is by flame wars and trumpeting dinosaurs?

For me--and again, I emphasize that this is my personal opinion--there is another way to look at this. Truesdale's petition, as well as the earlier brouhaha over the Bulletin, are actually symptoms of something positive: namely, SFWA's long, slow journey of transformation from an advocacy organization with its roots in the insular, clubbish spec fic community, to an open, modern, professional writers' group.

I wish this transformation were proceeding faster, because many younger SFWA members, as well as new writers who should be interested in joining, are alienated by the clubbish, fannish atmosphere that still dominates SFWA's public persona (including the Bulletin before it was suspended). But it is happening--the overhaul of the Bulletin is just one instance of that--and many older SFWA members, especially those who may feel they're being left behind by the huge shifts that are changing the face of publishing, are fighting to keep SFWA the way it always has been, and are angry and resentful that they're losing the battle.

I think the petition is a symptom of this. I think that many of the signers were still furious over the original Bulletin controversy, and saw the petition as a way to express that anger--which basically is anger over the ways in which SFWA is changing...and must change, if it is to remain relevant.

So what value can SFWA offer writers, both established and aspiring? Here are a few suggestions:

- The Grievance Committee
- The Young Adult/Middle Grade Authors list
- The Emergency Medical Fund and Legal Fund
- Resources for educators and readers
- SFWA's Speakers Bureau
- SFWA's Estate Project
- SFWA's awards: the Nebulas and the Norton Award for YA SF/Fantasy
- Amicus briefs and position papers on important issues like orphan works and the Google Books Settlement
- The new (well, relatively new) discussion forums, where members talk shop 
- And of course, Writer Beware

These are just some of the educational, advocacy, outreach, and support activities SFWA conducts. Unfortunately, because they mostly happen quietly and efficiently, they get much less press than the flame wars.

I am a strong supporter of SFWA. Without SFWA, Writer Beware could not exist--and I'm not just talking about financial and logistical support, but about SFWA's staunch and unwavering backing of Writer Beware and its mission over the years.

But Writer Beware isn't the only reason I believe in SFWA. I see great value in the organization, and I know that it is filled with good people whose priorities and views are in no way represented by this latest controversy. Despite the upheavals and flame wars and bumps in the road, I do believe that SFWA will find its way in its long journey of change, and will provide value for writers for years to come.

25 comments:

AJ Sikes said...

Well said, Victoria. I see a parallel in how reactionary some people in the writing/publishing world are toward Hugh Howey's AuthorEarnings launch, and the report on 2/12.

Times they are a changin', and a whole lot of folks aren't happy about that. What inspires the flame wars, I think, is that the benefits of membership, whether we're talking SFWA or the ranks of the published, are now being extended to people who had little to no chance of gaining that critical entre nous before.

Lines of privilege are crumbling to dust, and the people who've enjoyed that distinction are afraid they'll lose their little piece of the pie. If only they could see how much better it'll be when more people can come to the table and join in the feast, yeah?

niche-ob said...

While the shifting markets and writer demographics underlies some of these issues, I don't think any of the people who signed the petition would have endorsed that 'old white guys' should be the way writers of SF/F should be.

I think you hit it on the head that this is a culture shift that exploded because the 'vocal minority' got tired of being quiet, and they aren't as minority as expected. It's not really about benefits, except that members or potential members would rather their dues go to things like Writer Beware or the other programs than a publication that gives them no value.

Cat Rambo said...

Thoughtful and well reasoned piece. Thank you!

Ann Somerville said...

"What concerns me is the by-now predictable SFWA pileon, with commentators (many of them not SFWA members) tut-tutting about how backward, sexist, and juvenile the organisation is"

Victoria, I admire your defence of an organisation which certainly has done a lot of good. But I have to take issue with you over two points you seem to be making here - that criticism is coming mainly from outside the SWFA, and this criticism is of the 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' variety (that is, merely outraged hyper sensibilities).

On the first point, there was a *lot* of criticism of the SWFA coming from within, and this is acknowledged to be the impetus for actual policy change. Yes there were critics from outside of the organisation - some of whom are eligible to join but find the SWFA's public face actively hostile to them as women, People of Colour and so on. So these are people lost to the SWFA because of the things being criticised.

And then there are people like me. No name nonentities who just happen to love the genre the SWFA is for, and who read and admire the people who are its leading lights. You know, people like Robert Silverberg. It cuts like a knife to see people one admires behaving like a fool over issues which, in this particular case, aren't even actually issues.

We're the readers, the fans, the *customers* of the SWFA membership. We care deeply about what they do. And when it seems to be championing behaviour which denigrates and dismisses our importance as human beings, it's going to make us yelp. Some of us yelp in public, and some more cogently than others.

As for the non-membership doing the criticising, this whole brouhaha is at the instigation of a non-member sending out a sexist racist screed to a *very* select group of SWFA members (not the entire membership) and then purporting to speak on the SWFA's membership's behalf. Steve Gould should have perhaps told Truesdale that he wasn't going to discuss SWFA internal business with a non-member - god knows how that would have been twisted. But if SWFA members themselves are going to allow a faecal disturber like Truesdale to use them as cover for his crusade, then you can't complain if other non-members object to what this non-member is doing.

As for the 'tut-tutting' - do you honestly think that the actions of Vox Day over N. K. Jemsin weren't worth getting outraged about? That the use of your membership dues by Resnick and Malzberg to pen a *paid* abusive screed slamming their critics, wasn't worth objecting to, since that screed certainly didn't limit its abuse to SWFA members?

The SFWA twitter feed is not private. The bulletin is sold to the general public. These acts of aggression affect much more of society than the members of the SWFA and so the affected parts of society are going to yell back and demand that such unacceptable behaviour cease. You can't point to the good things the SWFA undoubtedly does and say the bad stuff isn't up for public discussion because of that. It's like the argument that Woody Allen's behaviour towards his daughter is irrelevant because he allegedly makes good movies.

I'm not eligible for SWFA membership, and if I were, I still wouldn't join. I'm sure that means my opinion is not worth considering on this subjct. But I have one, and respectfully, I am going to exercise that right of freedom of speech that Truesdale et all are so het up about, to say how I feel about yet another example of women's voices being dismissed.

TansyRR said...

Very much appreciated this post, Victoria! Thank you for writing it.

SFWA certainly deserves to be yelled at, at times. On this occasion, though, I have been grateful to see so many standing up and pointing out that, this time, they are actually being yelled at for trying to enact positive and much-needed change. (and indeed that in this specific instance, the outrage was based on a false assumption)

none said...

Have only got as far into this as reading Mr Truesdale's petition in full...one might wish he were capable of a little more concision.

ChulaSlim said...

I once considered becoming a SFWA member because I write science fiction. Upon reading the requirements I gave up in disgust.
Although I've earned more than eight times the required income from my books, I still don’t qualify. Why? Because I’m self-published, that’s why. And the place I publish, Smashwords, isn't on the approved list.
I think I know why SFWA won’t allow self-publishers to become members. They fear that opening the flood gates will change the face of the organization forever.
And they’re right. It will. But the irony of people who speculate about the future for a living not wanting change? That’s just dumb.
SFWA could provide a real service in this area, disciplining the hoards of self-publishers and bringing some order to them. But it won’t. And it’ll be out of fear and resentment not rational thought.

Victoria Strauss said...

ChulaSlim--

One of the ways in which I think SFWA has to change is in finding a way to admit successful self-publishers. If the Authors Guild can do it, so can SFWA.

SFWA is looking at this issue--it's just that things inside the org move at a glacial pace, partly because those who embrace transition must always struggle with those who want to keep things the same. But I promise you that many of us inside SFWA see the urgency of this issue, and are working to make things change.

Dennis Latham said...

I waited years to become an active member of the HWA several years back. I should have known better. Once I got in, I discovered a message board full of many name dropping star worshippers who just tried to crap on anyone who wasn't an active member or in their select group of actives. The HWA did nothing at the time except give out awards to people, who except for a few, didn't deserve awards. Other than that, they didn't do much of anything except to discourage non-active writers. Sounds like SFWA was walking the same route. When I left the HWA that year, more than a third of the members also left. Who wanted to pay membership money to be insulted by people with more mental problems than an entire psycho ward?

Victoria Strauss said...

Ann--

What upsets me isn't criticism of specific problems within SFWA (which of course comes from inside as well as outside). Internal criticism is one of the things that resulted in the suspension of the Bulletin, which I for one was very glad to see--I've felt for years that there was a lot wrong with the Bulletin, and that it didn't represent SFWA well or professionally. It always included some good material, but there was too much fluff and filler (including the infamous Dialogs, at which a lot of us rolled our eyes). This is one of the positive signs of transformation that I refer to in my post: SFWA's membership taking a stand on something unacceptable, and instigating change.

What bothers me (and what I meant by my "tut-tutting" comment) is condemnation of SFWA as a whole based on single controversies and minority opinions. I don't think, for instance, that one reactionary individual circulating an inflammatory petition about a non-existent problem, and leveraging outrage over an earlier issue to get SFWAns to sign, warrants writing SFWA off as an organization. Yet that's what a lot of people seem to be doing--especially those outside the organization. I'm seeing tons of "I'd never join SFWA because of stuff like this" or "This is why I don't like writers' groups" comments from people who appear to regard Truesdale and his petition, and the reactionary attitudes the petition embodies, as representative of SFWA as a whole--when in fact this kind of thing comes from a vocal minority.

I certainly don't champion behavior that denigrates anyone's importance as a human being. Nor do the other SFWAns that I know. Is it fair, then, to tar all of us with the same brush? Writer Beware is part of SFWA's public face, and we're not hostile to anyone (except scammers)--in fact I do everything I can to make WB as inclusive as possible. How do we fit in to those blanket generalizations? How does the Estate Project? How does SFWA's advocacy and outreach efforts? Criticize SFWA's decisions and policies. Criticize the behavior of its members. But don't write off the entire organization because of the actions and opinions of a few. That's all I'm saying.

(As for Vox Day, I think the whole thing was theater--on his part. SFWA played right into his hands by taking the action it did. And I have a lot of experience with the kind of trolling he was doing, so I know what I'm talking about.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Dennis--

I can promise you that SFWA is nothing like what you describe. Those who dismiss SFWA based entirely on Truesdale, Vox Day, Barbie comparisons, "lady editor" comments, and the bloviating of a small number of dinosaurs need to look closer. SFWA is a flawed organization--but it does good. And it's changing. I can't say it any clearer than that.

Ann Somerville said...

"Is it fair, then, to tar all of us with the same brush? "

Of course not. But when you have people like Dave Truesdale (non-member) attempting to speak for the whole organisation, and you have luminaries like Robert Silverberg signing onto his words - people like Mercedes Lackey too! - and they *are* members (and members non-members will have heard of), is it *unfair* to assume they represent a substantive view, if not a substantial one?

When you have Pournelle and Niven and Ellison - again, hugely famous writers - raging around like bull elephants in must, saying the most appalling things about women, and others who are members saying things attributed here:
http://informationjustwantstobefree.tumblr.com/

I really don't know how diluted they would have to be before you could say they didn't affect not just the reputation of the SWFA but the actual *experience* of being a member. It doesn't take many sexist racist employees in a workplace to make it a misery for their targets. One ounce of poo in a swimming pool is one ounce too many for most people.

I see what you're saying, and the SWFA definitely needs better PR. But while these utterly horrible people with their utterly revolting views remain as members, use the SWFA as a platform, and give strength to people with a definitely non-useful agenda, pointing to the good works the SWFA does just isn't enough. If the organisation is content to move at a glacial pace (your words), it will simply die for lack of new blood. It hasn't kept up with fast and massive changes in publishing like the digital first presses, let alone self-publishing which ave occurred in the last ten years, and it hasn't kept up with the changes in society which have occurred over the last sixty.

At some point, saying 'but but' isn't good enough. I understand why you think the criticism is unfair, and it is to those of you who aren't stinking the place up, but if your members aren't making it happen, you can't expect the rest of us to judge you simply on possible good intentions.

I speak, by the way, as someone who deeply admires many of the SWFA members, and I'm cheering on people like Mary Robinette Kowal, N K Jeminsin, Steve Gould etc who *are* pushing for change. I fear, however, that they may not win.

Victoria Strauss said...

But when you have people like Dave Truesdale (non-member) attempting to speak for the whole organisation, and you have luminaries like Robert Silverberg signing onto his words - people like Mercedes Lackey too! - and they *are* members (and members non-members will have heard of), is it *unfair* to assume they represent a substantive view, if not a substantial one?

Well, in a word--yes. Because it's not a substantive view. Unfortunately, though, I can see how and why so many people are making the assumption that it is.

Let me turn the question around. When you have SFWA members like me, Steve Gould, Mary Kowal, and others who are speaking out against reactionary views within (and without) SFWA--as well as too many members to name whose protests and criticisms finally resulted in the re-evaluation of the Bulletin--is it fair to assume that those views are not substantive, and those voices are not substantial?

Because that's what many of the critics seem to be doing. It seems to me that a lot of what's happening in this controversy is that people with pre-formed views of SFWA are cherrypicking which voices they want to treat as representative of the organization, and ignoring the rest.

Victoria Strauss said...

BTW, I've seen the newsgroup that the Tumblr page is quoting. The lack of attribution for the quotes makes it seem like a big group pileon, but it's actually a discussion between maybe fifteen different people (two of whom are not SFWAns), with most of the quotes coming from the seven or eight most active participants.

To put those figure in a bit of context: SFWA has over 1,500 members.

Ann Somerville said...

"is it fair to assume that those views are not substantive, and those voices are not substantial? "

I don't assume that. But as I said above "I really don't know how diluted they would have to be before you could say they didn't affect not just the reputation of the SWFA but the actual *experience* of being a member."

How many outright very noisy sexists and racists in an organisation - people with big names, people who work in publishing - are women and PoC supposed to ignore in an organisation whose qualifying market rules are already exclusionary of authors outside the mainstream?

The good guys need to make a lot more noise and be a lot more outright condemnatory of these hateful voices. Snarky comments on twitter don't count (I'm looking at you, Mr President of the SWFA).

I do wish you success in the task. I don't want these creeps to win.

Walt Fisher said...

As a longtime, and very minor, member of SFWA this spasm of incivility gives me heartburn.
I want a strong SFWA that stands up for authors and provides useful information to all writers. I want a welcoming SFWA because we need as many members as possible to demonstrate strength to the publishing world when we speak out on issues that effect writers.
I am sorry when I see people who have quit or refused to join when eligible because their numbers might bring about the change they say they want. You can't change the group from the outside.
Yes, we need to address and set standards for self-publishing. It is a professional writers' group so there has to be a goal to meet of some sort. It should have been addressed before now because sales figures for ebooks proved there was readership and money beng made.
Going it on your own is a hard road to take and writing is a hard enouBette . Better to be part of a group that has your back.

MIcah Ackerman said...

Maybe I'm naive, but why is there this constant battle between traditional publishing and self-publishing? The fact remains that we are all authors and most of us are struggling whether we're traditionally published or not.

If SFWA isn't open to self-published authors then that's their prerogative ie. their loss. There are a million different writing groups perhaps SWFA could have a different chapter for the self-published.

It's not about where the future is going and it's no longer about stigma or glancing down your nose at fellow writers. Most everyone is in a similar situation whether they will admit it or not.

I think it's time that people start realizing that there is no lower class of writers. The quality of self-published material is growing exponentially. The days of just throwing crap up to see if it sticks are going away. Nature has a way of naturally pushing that type of literature to the bottom of the pile anyway.

Just my opinion, it may not have a lot to do with SFWA, but it has to do with the writing community in general.

MicahAckerman.weebly.com

Richard C. White said...

Micah,

Not taking sides here, but throwing out something for people to consider:

One difference between commercially published authors and self-publishers is in the second title -- "publisher".

If SFWA is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, then by its nature, its focus should be on writers.

Self-publishers are by their own nature a business entity(albeit with a population of one), then does SFWA allow Tor, Bain, Pocket Books to join as full members - after all they're publishers too?

This isn't as cut and dried as it may seem on the surface. How do you allow the self-publisher author to join, but not have their publishing company join when they're the same entity most of the time?

And what's the cut-off? Does a self-publisher need to sell X number of books in a year/bianual/etc to qualify? As a commercial writer, I had to get an advance of X dollars to qualify. So, should there be standards or can just anyone join? Does a self-publisher who releases one book that sells 10 copies qualify? 100 copies? Thirty books that sell five copies apiece?

Does SFWA establish some means to identify the hobbyist from the professional?

Like I said, it's not an easy question and smarter people than me will have to make some decisions down the road.

Victoria Strauss said...

Micah, I think that the self-pub vs. trad pub battle is one of the most depressing things that's happening in publishing right now. You're absolutely right: authors are all struggling (well, most of us) and we shouldn't be enemies. There are many paths, but no One Best Way--only what's right for the individual writer and his/her book.

Self-publishing now is not what it was: it has become a genuinely viable alternative path for writers. Acknowledging the difficulties that Rich points out, I think that one of the most urgent issues confronting SFWA right now is finding a way to admit successful self-publishers. I know that a committee has been looking at this issue, and I'm really hoping that it gets priority in the coming year.

Ann Somerville said...

"How do you allow the self-publisher author to join, but not have their publishing company join when they're the same entity most of the time?"

I don't want to derail Victoria's post but I need to address this.

One, many self-pub authors are not also companies, so that objection can be removed. You could also simply institute a rule that company members must demonstrate a minimum number of independent authors on their books.

Really, of all the reasons to find it difficult to admit self-pubbers, this is the most trivial.

The SWFA admission rules are keeping out some of the most exciting - and successful - writers from their midst. I have written pretty damn good - and readable SF/F both for digital first and for self-publication. I have (I just totted up) sold over 13,500 paid copies of my self-pub stories and novels alone in the last four years - and that's in a highly niche sub genre (gay SF/F romance). That's without a marketing machine behind me or hiding behind a 'company'. Small beans to people who earn Scalzi level royalties, but hey, it's paid for some nice holidays, and made for some hefty charity donations.

If SWFA thinks it can prosper by keeping people writing stuff that isn't acceptable to the mainstream, but is nonetheless popular and 'real' SF/F, just because of *where* it's published, then it's wrong.

Victoria Strauss said...

As I said above: SFWA has formed a committee to address the question of how to admit successful self-publishers to the organization. In my personal opinion, they should have figured it out by now. But they are working on it, and it will happen.

Michael Capobianco said...

Sorry, and I hope this doesn't come across as rude, but it's SFWA, not SWFA. SF, as in science fiction.

As Victoria says, SFWA will tackle the criteria for admission of self-published authors as soon as it has finished its reincorporation and implements its new Bylaws. If it doesn't happen before the end of summer 2014, I'll be surprised.

Ann Somerville said...

"I hope this doesn't come across as rude,"

Thank you for the correction. It was simply a typo. I do know what it stands for but I'm a lousy typist when I type at speed.

" SFWA will tackle the criteria for admission of self-published authors"

Yes, I took Victoria's earlier comment on board, and was glad to hear it's under consideration. I was responding to Richard C White's floating of a reason why it's difficult to include self-pubbed authors. I find the logic not very strong, and I was simply pointing out that if this is the level of difficulty the organisation is attempting to overcome, it shouldn't be taking this long.

I still don't want to be a member. But it will be nice when other authors like me have that option.

Marc Cabot said...

SFWA already allows publishers (or the employees thereof) to join as Affiliate members. It is ludicrous that SFWA couldn't at least toss self-publishers a crumb and allow them to join in the same fashion, if they wished to. Why they'd wish to, I'm really not sure, but it would at least be something.

(I am another one of those authors, neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring, who more than qualifies for SFWA membership by the numbers, except that I am my own publisher. It matters not to me, save that I find hypocrisy a source of delicious, nutritious irony.)

Anonymous said...

I don't doubt that the organization has value. That's why I was considering joining when my first fantasy book was published.

This happened more or less at the moment the Infamous Bulletin Cover was printed. I then read the responses-to-the-responses in the Bulletin. Honestly, I have to say that I have no interest in joining now.

The house may look lovely on the inside. But to those of us looking at the outside, the good ol' boys on the porch throwing beer cans onto the lawn make us reluctant to knock on the door.