The PJ Tatler

Alas, SFWA

I first heard of SFWA – Science Fiction Writers of America — when I started trying to sell stories.  This was about six months after getting married and moving to the States.  Being completely without contacts in the writing/publishing field, I sought to inform myself of what I needed to do.  This was, of course, in pre-history when we chiseled stories on marble and sent them in by ox cart.  Okay, not really – for those of you who are young enough to buy that – but it was pre-internet, so I couldn’t simply type in some variation of “What to do to become a professional science fiction writer” and have answers thrown back at me.

Instead I read magazines, found the Writer’s Market and might have sent questions to local newspaper columnists.  (I didn’t meet another writer till five years later. The ability to meet professionals and other people who want to be professionals in your avocation no matter how strange is a benefit of the internet.  One that can never be sufficiently lauded.)

Somewhere along the line someone told me that the way to learn to be a professional was to join SFWA.  So I sent a nice letter with a self addressed stamped envelope, asking what the dues were, and that they send me an application form.

What I got back was a letter informing me that unless I’d sold three short stories or a novel at professional rates, I could not join.  (More on this later.)

Needless to say, this became my first goal on the road to being a “professional.”  Ultimately I wanted to make a living from writing, but to begin with I wanted to do enough that the professional organization accepted me.

I managed it twelve years later, with my first novel barely edging out my third professional short story sale to help me qualify.  By then I knew that SFWA had been created with Robert A. Heinlein’s help, that it helped litigate on the side of writers if writers had reason to complain of publishers, that they had their own SFWA agent, and that they put together SFWA-member only anthologies.

As an incurable romantic, I joined immediately.  I put the SFWA card in my wallet, in case I ever needed to prove I was a professional.  (I might still have it in my wallet.)

Almost immediately I started getting a feeling this SFWA thing was not all it was cracked up to be.  Perhaps it was that the elections always reminded me of the “elections” for student bodies in high school when everyone promised ice-cream for lunch, something that was so far out of their power to deliver, it amounted to gibberish.  Perhaps it was the fact that those who got involved with “governing” SFWA usually lost their careers (and hair, and muscle tone.)  Perhaps it was that most of in fighting in SFWA seemed petty and/or insane.  Perhaps it was that the talk of having health insurance available to members, someday really soon, just kept dragging year after year.

However, SFWA gave me accepted status as “professional” at conventions and more importantly, it gave me a directory of all my fellow authors.  When the net was in its infancy, having these contacts at your fingertips seemed essential.  (Though I actually only used it twice, both times to send friends things I’d promised them after I’d lost their address.  I used it more often to give addresses to other friends who’d lost their SFWA directory.)

I went along automatically renewing SFWA and MWA (Mystery writers of America) and RWA (Romance writers of America) – because I wrote in all three genres – and never giving them a second thought.  To me it was just the cost of doing business.

Yes, when I dipped into the discussions in SFWA I became aware that most of the people talking were unreconstructed college Marxists.  But given the organization’s policy of “once qualified you’re in forever” and the fact that the ever-shrinking advances (a subject for another post, really) made writing either a mad choice because you had to write six books a year to make a middle-class income, or a hobby, it was to be expected those with time to get into never-ending public wrangling would be college professors.  And we all know what those are like.

And then came Amazon and the possibility of indie-publishing.

SFWA was always resistant to the idea of self-publishing.  Its rules were designed to protect those who were traditionally published.  In fact, over the years, they ignored transgressions in contracts and behavior if the publisher was big enough.  After all the leadership of SFWA, too, had to work for the six publishers remaining.

To say they didn’t cope well with the new system when any writer can publish himself, there’s virtually no stigma attached and several new writers have made far more than the beginning advance is to understate the case.  There were alarums and excursions and loud Amazon denunciations and pledges of eternal love to the traditional publishers.  I think some members dropped out over these, but I was busy writing and paid no attention.

Then came the dispute between Amazon and IPG, a small distributor of small press books.  The details evade me after all this time, though to be fair they were never very clear, except that IPG screamed Amazon was bullying them or forcing them to sell their books cheaper or whatever and SFWA – with no question asked its members, no clear delineation of the dispute – immediately came down on the side of IPG.  This while many of us were making a substantial income from Amazon and while IPG could not provide a living income to any of the authors’ it distributed.  (The key word about IPG being “Small.”)

This penetrated through my fog of writing, and I dropped SFWA, and eventually MWA who took the same, if less vocal position.  (I’m also currently lapsed on RWA, simply because I see no benefit in the membership.)

I realized that of the things I expected SFWA to do, it was doing none: it did not provide for members in financial distress; it did not secure us group insurance rates; it did not dispute the abuses or ever-shrinking advances of big publishers, of even the wisdom of the push-marketing model, all of which materially hurt their members; it did not complain of contracts that frankly amount to RICO violations by preventing the writer from working except at the sufferance of the publisher; it didn’t even, really, teach new authors.  RWA has a division of unpublished authors, whom it gets in touch with mentors and teaches.  SFWA’s version of “beginning authors” are those who have sold enough to be called professionals – i.e. those who already have some clue how to navigate the system.

In fact, SFWA didn’t do anything that might be considered its legitimate interest, but continuously stuck its nose in things where it had no interest, such as disputes between distributors and Amazon.

This is when I let SFWA lapse and decided never to renew again.

I admit I’m regretting it now.  I’m regretting it because I find myself in the position of wanting to send back my SFWA card with an exclamation of disgust and being unable to.

As usual I was buried in work when my friends asked me what I thought of (Mike) Resnick and (Barry) Malzberg.  I said something like “Oh, they’re okay.  I like Resnick’s books better, but…”  And then I was told, no.  What did I think of the Resnick and Malzberg controversy.

I couldn’t imagine either of these gentlemen getting in a controversy.  So I traced it out.

These two men were being called everything from sexist to imperialist and everything in between.  You see, they’d written – for the SFWA bulletin, edited by a female, Jean Rabbe, who has since been forced to resign – a series of articles on the history of the field.  Specifically, they’d written about women editors and writers who’d broken in and risen to prominence when the field looked askance on women.  They called these articles “Lady Editors” and “Lady Writers.”

I read a few of the blogs screaming at them for using the term “lady” because it’s a term of “exclusion” and then a bunch of other articles about how they’d talked about women in bikinis, and then … crazier stuff.

So I got a friend to send me the articles (since I dropped SFWA, I no longer got the bulletin.)

Yes, they did talk about how beautiful an editor was, but not in anyway in prurient terms.  Yes, they mentioned she looked good in a bikini, but this was in the context of an author’s wife getting jealous and not “hubba, hubba, she sure was fihne.”

The tone of the articles was respectful and a little stodgy.  To get offended at them you needed to be insane, or to never have read them, or alternately to be looking for an excuse to eject authors who made you look bad.

I think – though mind you that’s only my opinion – that this is part of, if not all of the problem.  Traditional publishing is not dealing well with the competition by indie publishers.  They’re dealing even worse with the collapse of the top down sales model and of the bookstore chains.  What this means is that everyone’s advances (except those of authors who work for my publisher, apparently) are being cut across the board.

These people – almost all of them women, almost all in academia, almost all invested in traditional publishing – see their career collapse around their ears.  The publisher can no longer make bestsellers by fiat.  They don’t know what to do.  But being in academia and mostly female, and mostly young, they’re sure of one thing: it’s someone else’s fault.  Also, someone is discriminating against them.  And older, white males are the devil.  So using “ladies” is an exclusionary and offensive term, even though the women are described as overcoming discrimination and being better than men

The insanity directed at Resnick and Malzberg was bad enough.  But it’s gone on since then.  The entire organization now seems obsessed with the idea of harassment at conventions.  Sexual harassment.  To get how insane this is, you’d have to get how much of a party atmosphere prevails at conventions.  When “harassment” seems to mean “he made an off color remark” (and not, he grabbed, or practiced frottage) to demand more restrictions, just makes the cons no fun for anyone.

There were intimations of this before the Resnick/Malzberg storm in a B cup.  There was the convention who uninvited Elizabeth Moon (not one of my favorites, but an icon in the field and a staunch feminist) because she said something against Islam.  There was the “Race Fail” controversy which apparently was devoted to policing SF/F books and making sure they contain the right shades of skin color.

But now the “controversies” are coming closer and closer, as though the people involved in them were either not working anymore, or panicking so much that they’re looking for someone to blame for their downfall.

Or both.

And of course every time they throw one of those fits, another of us, long-working writers shrugs and quits.  Leaving the organization, increasingly, an organ of political correctness, determined to purge out all who are insufficiently enthusiastic.

This will not end well.