SFWA Ripples

So last year, the Bulletin, the official magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) writers organization, got into a scandal that was complicated and disenheartening and sexist. Members called for changes that would keep the Bulletin to the standards and policies of the SFWA towards all members. The editor resigned, the Bulletin was suspended, and a large overhaul got underway, starting with a task force to work out new procedures. One of those, after lots of discussion and input from members, was an advisory review committee, which would be formed with volunteers who then would advise the SFWA President, the person in oversight of the Bulletin, about material that broke the standards.

A really horrible petition that presented a false characterization of this committee — which isn’t even formed yet — recently was floated, written by a guy who seems to me to be a reactionary kook, and unfortunately a lot of prominent authors signed their names to the thing, including several prominent female authors. This led to several other incidents/conversations, such as one on SFF.net, where a contracts administrator at Macmillan went after his house’s own author, Mary Robinette Kowal, former VP of SFWA, for feminist activism. 

John Scalzi was President of SFWA when the Bulletin put out its controversial issues, which did upset a lot of people, particularly because Scalzi has been a strong supporter of diversity and civil rights values, and of making the organization more professional. He admitted he’d messed up by not doing enough oversight, ap0logized and pledged to support in-coming President Steven Gould in fixing the issue and making SFWA more professional, particularly by staying out of the way so that others could speak up. But he nonetheless couldn’t help talking about free speech issues when the petition popped up, and he’s thrown himself more into the ring after a number of really awful comments were springing up on the Net, by proposing in comic support that those fighting discrimination and under-representation, those wanting the industry and SFWA particularly to treat female authors and others more professionally, should form an Insect Army. This was in direct reaction to a particular comment on SFF.net that called those speaking up for equal treatment “insects.” This call to arms has gotten terribly silly, but the impetus behind it is sincere. Discrimination doesn’t end unless people speak up, unfortunately, and that speech is the one good thing that comes out of these conflicts. 

On this particular thread at his blog Whatever, I did a post comment, one of several, looking at the chain of history of discrimination on this issue and the recent conflicts. You can read it on that thread, but some folk asked me to also post it here, so I will. I was responding to a commenter named Bruce, who was wondering about the intent of the person who went after Kowal and who I quote at the beginning in italics. (The cricket references are because I chose to be a cricket in Scalzi and Kowal’s mock Insect Army.) Warning: as always, it is long. 

Bruce:

“I can’t say that this anger is warranted, but I think what he wrote is more about his anger at MRK and not so much about sexism and/or censorship at SFWA.”

But he didn’t talk about his anger at MRK blocking his efforts. He talked about her body, about how she supposedly flaunted her body, about how her speech about sexism was therefore false, and he derided her credibility as someone anyone should listen to because she was a nobody writer, despite her books, awards, etc. He deliberately went after her on the basis of her gender and the issue of sexism. So it is actually very related. And it is also related because the people who objected to the sexism in the Bulletin, were doing so because they also want the SFWA to be a professional organization and focus on digital rights, copyright, etc.for all members, rather than write about how sexy some women writers are and how they shouldn’t criticize men ever, the little tyrants.

Let me see if I can cricket this for you:

Long way back, a handful of decades ago, women writers of SFF were told that it would be better if they wrote under a male pseudonym because fans (all of whom were erroneously assumed to be men,) didn’t want to read women’s writings.The threat was that they could have free speech (use their real names and show that they are women,) or they could have a successful career, hiding as men among men. You could do that back then, write anonymously under a pen name and not promote and still make a living, because of the wholesale market. And that was what was politically correct. So it was U.K. Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr., etc., and they stayed silent under the threat.

But you can make a better living if you do promote your work, go to conventions, stand up for awards, etc., so women started to partially or fully decloak and risk their careers for a better, more equal one with the men by promoting as themselves. They used their free speech. And the new women authors who came in, having that as role models, then sold their work as themselves. They came out of the shadows and refused to be scared by the light of the threat. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

But women writers were still frequently told that they shouldn’t write about certain subjects in certain ways. They shouldn’t write about sexism in society or issues related to their lives, nobody wanted to hear it from women and it wasn’t reasonable or fair. The threat was, you could have free speech (write about sexism or whatever you wanted,) or you could have a career. That was what was politically correct. But some women wrote about it anyway, fiction and non-fiction, and formed a movement called feminist SF that sold both in the field and in academia where they were sort of starting to realize it might actually be worth studying more female writers. And other women writers coming into the field also felt free to write about those subjects or to write about different subjects that had previously been declared men’s territory. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

But women writers and publishing folk and fans were still frequently told that they weren’t very important in the field or society, and that they should not object to men patting their bottoms or groping them at conventions or propositioning them or talking about their bodies and sneering that they were nonentities. It was unreasonable and exaggerated as a problem. The threat was, you could have free speech to object to the treatment, (and the assault,) or you could have a career. And that was what was politically correct. But some women spoke out anyway and objected, and allies objected. And new women writers coming in, seeing that their fellows had made things safer for their free speech, also spoke up and objected. And standards of professionalism towards women in the field slowly developed. And what was politically correct, changed and became more equal (and professional.) Although the discrimination didn’t totally go away.

I mean, it doesn’t entirely go away, even with women at the helm. So a woman editor okayed and designed, and a male president, who was JS, signed off on and didn’t catch/think about, threats in four issues of the Bulletin, the professional trade journal, threats that violated SFWA’s standards and policies. The threats were best expressed by Mr. Henderson, the Barbie guy, who told women members that the key to career success was to be like Barbie and never blame Ken for discrimination effecting her career. In other words, you can have free speech or you can stay silent and have a career. But women writers and their allies did speak up and object that this wasn’t professional, or equal, or what they needed from SFWA — nor what SFWA was allowed by its policies to do.

I doubt Mr. Henderson would feel that he made a threat, any more than Resnick and Malzberg did — he would probably characterize it as advice, but that particular type of “advice” — a threat against free speech, happens all the time. It’s happened to me here on Whatever, for instance, when a person I’m talking to brings up the advice that unless you are really, really nice and mostly quiet in talking to men about sexism, they won’t listen or help improve equality.

JS could have threatened defensively. Instead he apologized for having okayed threats to free speech. He helped set up a task force to work towards more equality and professionalism in the Bulletin and no threats to women and other vulnerable members. Some people still can’t forgive him for letting the threats go through and have gone away and aren’t coming back, as is their right. Others decided that he had understood the objections and worked to get back on track. And most are waiting to see how Mr. Gould does.

Then came the petition, which was a fairly blatant threat — give up free speech and stop being offended by sexist speech and unprofessional treatment, or everybody’s careers will be tanked and the field ruined. Tell us who is on the advisory committee so we can stop them. Tell us the standards even though we already know the standards because SFWA already has the standards, etc. Women should behave. Feminism ruins everything. Vigorous debate should happen as long as women know their place in the comments section.

Mr. Fedora didn’t threaten MRK with sexist speech. Mr. Fedora threatened incoming women writers who might see MRK as a role model. Since she was an influence as a former VP of SFWA, he declared her an unreasonable and hypercritical radical who had no real influence and sexualized her body — she’s not worth professionalism because she’s female. Because her career is successful despite her free speech, he argued that her career wasn’t successful. If you asked Fedora if that’s what he intended to do, I’m sure he’d say no, and he would honestly believe it to be so. After all, it was a casual conversation; he wasn’t pushing the petition. But that’s because these sorts of threats — free speech or your career, your family, your life, are so ingrained and ubiquitous towards women and disadvantaged groups, they’re habit.

So even though it was completely unprofessional to trash one of his house’s authors, he did it. Because women need to know their place, just like when J.K. Rowling was told, still, in the 1990′s, to pretend to be a man so that boys’ parents would buy her books, (nobody caring about the girl readers because they are girls.) Should she not have decloaked and used her free speech, do you think? She’s had a horrible, unprofessional career, having done so, and really should be given no respect. Because even if you are the most successful author on the planet, possibly ever, the threat gets made — your free speech or we talk about you in a bikini.

If the people on SFF.net in that thread really do care about having a trade organization tackle professionally digital rights, copyright issues, royalties, marketing, etc. — and representation and encouraging diversity which benefits the field and its profits — then they should have totally supported the outcry over the Bulletin about those very things, and the formation of a task force and an advisory committee, and upholding the standards SFWA already has. Instead, they are making threats to discourage free speech.

The insect commentator, who may be a woman, is quite open about that. Women writers are cockroaches, insects to be crushed if they make noise, who should be silent and hiding in the shadows and scared. But instead, they and their allies come out of hiding and speak up. And this isn’t new, despite what the commentator claims — it’s always happening. Because the threats don’t make things better, more equal, more professional, more full of choices and increasing reading audiences, etc. for women or male authors. They are just threats that cause a lot of damage and stagnation, that keep women authors from, say, getting as good royalty rates, marketing and digital rights deals as men. It’s the next frontier, and they’re swarming in. Chirp.

As you can see from that comment post, I’m pedantic and overly detailed when it comes to paper trails in negotiations and conflicts. It comes from my days as an agent doing book contracts, where the difference between “legal expenses” and “reasonable legal expenses” is all important, and from working as an editor where the job is to catch every problem, inconsistency and hole and go over them with authors. I truly believe the ripples from this thing are going in a positive direction. I just wish that all the turmoil didn’t have to come with them. 

 

 

 

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4 Comments

Filed under SFFH, Women

4 responses to “SFWA Ripples

  1. I came over here to follow you because this response was so gorgeous. Thank you!

  2. I’m not sure how exciting I will be for you, but thanks!

  3. Flo

    This is a thing of beauty. I’m only sorry it was buried so far down the page I almost missed it.

    • Well, I was trying not to be too wordy in that conversation up to that point. But the problem is, the SFWA stuff is historical in context, especially when C.J. Cherryh and Nancy Kress are involved. Hopefully, reviewing that history makes some folk think about the realities disadvantaged groups face before claiming that it’s unreasonable for them to push for change.

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