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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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You Be Ladies Now, Ya Hear! — The SFWA Bulletin Dust-up

Just when I was planning to move on from “lady” stuff, apparently a bomb of controversy exploded at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) concerning the organization’s newsletter, the Bulletin. It had been a slow brew of exasperation that bubbled over just before SFWA President John Scalzi was safely able to exit and pass his post over to in-coming President Steven Gould. A fairly good summary of events with commentary that I think is fairly apt is offered by Trisha Lynn.

Back in the day, the Bulletin, the main newsletter of the organization, was basically a bulletin. It was published in plain print on 16-20 double-sided pages on thick, stiff paper usually colored vanilla or an office memo pastel shade. It had a few small ads of only print and graphics, and it was filled mostly with announcements — publication opportunities, the movement of editors, agents and imprints, member author book deals and publications, convention and conference schedules, SFWA news, services and legal campaigns. There might be a few brief articles on sales and other trends in SFFH, or a brief author interview. It looked like a dull brochure and you could subscribe to it if you weren’t a member of SFWA. It was something of little interest to most people, but had useful information if you were in the field or trying to break in.

Over time, SFWA tightened up its membership regs and the Bulletin itself morphed into a semi-glossy magazine with cover art and more articles. Somebody running it got the idea to have prominent SFF author Mike Resnick and writer/editor/former agent Barry Malzberg do a regular column in which they have a conversation about various topics. And with the Bulletin approaching 200 issues, Jean Rabe, the current editor, asked the two to talk about women writers and editors in the past for issues #199 and #200. Which they did, by talking about lady writers and lady editors, bathing suits, and how one editor’s main contribution was that she was a dish, and, well, you get the idea. Two older guys talking about the old days of the 1960’s and 1970’s when the “ladies” were around and working hard, but didn’t mind the comments and a slap on the rear — because it could tank their career if they didn’t put up with it. (This is not just an age thing, as plenty of younger people unfortunately also have these views.) What caused more than minor grumbling about this was that issue #200 with Part 2 of the guys’ dialogue was accompanied by a cover image that seems to be a Red Sonja reprint or tribute picture — Sonja in her traditional metal string bikini and cape in the snow standing over a dead giant. There are a lot of 1980’s or earlier art images they could have picked from SFF history, but in an issue that was supposed to be supporting women’s contributions in the field, that one was more than a bit out of place.

So there were a lot of complaints by men and women in the membership. And then the next issue, #201, came out and might have been unremarkable except that comics and horror writer C.J. Henderson, in an otherwise innocuous article about lasting in your career, decided to school the “lady” authors about how to behave if they wanted to keep their careers — like Barbie. An imaginary Barbie who was ladylike, neatly dressed, nice to people, had her career without demanding that Ken was blocking her from it, etc. Of course, the only reason that Barbie ended up having “careers” is because women got demanding and un-ladylike towards real-life Kens about not blocking them from the workplace and advancement with artificial sexist barriers. Mattel saw the change in society and what little girls wanted to emulate, and went with it. They also took rivals (Bratz) to court in a not very nice manner.

Issue #202 saw the Bulletin’s attempt to respond to the complaints about the cover of  issue #200 with an article by Jim C. Hines about women in cover art, related to his previous, hilarious cover art flips and writing that won him a Hugo. But they also figured they’d let Resnick and Malzberg respond to their critics about the previous ladies in publishing articles. And their response was, well, chiefly to declare that long ago women used to keep quiet if they had a problem with anything — because they never heard a complaint — and women should keep being quiet or they were liberal fascists trying to censor the two gentlemen by disagreeing with them and not liking what they said. You can imagine how this went over with men and women author members. They were angry and took the anger to the Net, because Resnick and Malzberg are right — it’s no longer the past when the ladies “don’t say anything about it.”

Scalzi apologized for dropping the ball on really understanding what had happened with the Bulletin and appointed a committee to review procedures on SFWA publications and help Gould out for future policies. So yet another incident yields a bright spot for improved dialogue about discriminatory problems and diversity in the field. But we are left with the knowledge that these incidents will likely continue because both men and women (Rabe is a woman,) unthinkingly say women are and should behave like docile dolls, and then get confused and upset when others angrily point out that they aren’t.

Overall, SFWA has been a smart organization run by sturdy volunteers and has changed and adapted to the needs of its membership in shifting market conditions, and it will probably do so again. And voices like Resnick, Malzberg and Henderson are not ignored, nor evil, nor do they have nothing to contribute as members and authors to the field. But because their viewpoints on women are so exclusionary, they can’t be the main voices speaking for the Bulletin or SFWA, nor can images of Red Sonja, groundbreaking though she was in her time. And neither can Barbie. Instead, SFWA and the field itself will have to put up with loud-mouthed, unladylike female authors and their allies, because in a conversation about women, women are going to keep talking.

Some links of possible and related interest:

http://www.jimchines.com/2013/06/roundup-of-some-anonymous-protesters-sfwa-bulletin-links/

http://jesshaines.com/blog/2013/06/01/sfwa-sexism-misogyny-and-a-call-for-change/

http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2012

http://www.thenation.com/article/173743/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters#

http://aidanmoher.com/blog/featured-article/2013/05/we-have-always-fought-challenging-the-women-cattle-and-slaves-narrative-by-kameron-hurley/

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/05/22/the-underserved-population-of-readers/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935.html#slide=more296089

http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/05/understanding-the-sexism-of-fantasy/

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Emerging

Scuba Diver photo by Adam Laverty

So I’ve been down in the depths and now coming upwards, how about you?

Things that have happened recently:

1) The Oscars, which I did not watch on the grounds that I never remember who won the year before anyway, though I’ve seen some clips. Show host Seth McFarlane, ordered to bring in the young male viewers, satirized sexists by using incredibly sexist humor, which mostly just made him look sexist,  (when he wasn’t forced to pay tribute to musicals because the Oscar show producers wanted to put on a Chicago number because they also produced that movie and apparently were annoyed they didn’t get to go onstage when the film won the Oscar years ago.)  So in a year in which women rocked the house, we got “We Saw Your Boobs” as the Oscar musical opener,  and jokes that George Clooney was waiting on a 9-year-old black girl to grow a tad older for sex as the definitive commentary. I am choosing to view this as a sign of the trickle effect. The females may have scared Hollywood just a little bit there, as they emerge as a more powerful force in the industry.

2) Random House has apparently launched several e-book only imprints (Random House is owned by Bertelsmann.) Contracts for these imprints have been coming to light, and they are a cross between a vanity press and a scam artist. The contracts offer no advances against royalties, which isn’t an enormous surprise as bigger publishers have been running various no advance “experiments” for years, looking for ways to get out of that particular business arrangement. The bigger surprise is that there doesn’t seem to be any royalties to base an advance on. The publisher’s contract seeks payment from the author for production costs, marketing costs, editorial services, cover art, etc. — all the things that publishers are suppose to be putting up as the partner in a licensing deal, while demanding well and above the usual licensing rights of a standard publishing contract. The model appears to be borrowed from the more predatory side of the music industry, an industry that has actual money and that has to produce actual varied physical products and placement services, not just an e-file as with e-books.  The goal seems to be to horn in on Amazon’s various turfs. Now, Amazon hasn’t exactly been a friend to new authors. They take way too big a cut of the profits for doing little for self-publishers, they charge for various services, and their contract is vaguely worded enough to give them something of a rights grab. But even Amazon didn’t conceive of pulling this sort of operation on new, desperate authors who don’t understand the weird business of book publishing.  So the author groups are very upset. Tune in here for what’s happening from the SFWA on that.  If this is the new business model that’s going to emerge more widely, then yes, publishers are sending themselves out of business.

3) My t.v. show Grimm finally came back on the air, to finish out its second season, after being taken off for three months by the stupid NBC network. The show got a special debut for several episodes on Monday nights, but that was not a permanent change, as I’d thought, and it’s remained on Fridays, at 9:00 p.m. in North America. The last episode back in November was the first installment of a two and a half parter, leaving us with a cliffhanger. SPOILERS: The break left us with the magical, deadly romance spell ensorcelling Nick’s amnesiac ex-girlfriend Juliet and Nick’s police boss  Cpt. Renard, who is a Wessen illegitimate prince involved in various schemes including an alliance with a Wessen rebellion force, and the discovery of that problem by the rest of the gang, which was rather hard on poor Nick. A showdown emerged, back at the big bad wolf’s ivy covered cottage where the show originally started off, leading to a big new plot direction for the series going into their back half and another cliffhanger for the episode ending  involving counterspells and political intrigue with the European royals. All in all, it was a satisfying if soapy return for the gang, with some great comic moments, the full return of Rosalee, and the chance of Juliet being brought finally into the fold of knowledge and even getting her memory of Nick back. The actors playing Juliet and Renard had great fun playing psycho steamy and we got to meet a new type of Wessen — an owl one — who was a locksmith.  Claire Coffee also did beautifully as scheming, de-powered Wessen sorceress Adalind.

The episode did very well in the ratings, pulling a number one position for its slot in the desired demographic and doing better than its last mid-season return despite the longer break. So loyal fans stuck it out and came back to watch. Since NBC has been having shows end or tank all over the place and they need to have something on Friday nights, here’s hoping Grimm will get a renewal for a third season and they will really get to rock out. If you want to jump in, again, they do lay things out for you and mostly it’s a police procedural show, so next week’s episode on March 15, “Natural Born Wessen,” which finishes off the big storyline and starts a new crime problem — bank robberies —  would be a good one to dive into. If the show gets a third season, then I’ll recap blog that one.

We’ll see if I make it to the surface for spring!

“Face Off” mid-season return

 

 

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