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.

2 comments to On Petitions and Flame Wars: My Thoughts About SFWA and Change

  • “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.”

    Could you please explain this?

    I’ve seen a lot of complete unknowns blogging about how SFWA is “more inclusive” by eliminating members whose politics they don’t agree with.

    On a personal basis, I find a lot of the members (and non-member writers) of any political allegiance to be complete gits. Some I can’t stand personally. Some I like very much but we avoid discussing politics because we’ll never agree. Some are complete noisemakers I just ignore. But I would not suggest any of them don’t belong, as long as they’re being published. The only exclusion I ever supported was the one to require a professional sale within the last 5 years, because there are life members whose last sale was 1982, and are therefore irrelevant to the modern business, no matter what they did back then.

    As far as “modern,” when I was a member (lapsed in 2010), I watched much hand-wringing at meetings about the “problem” with electronic publishing and open source, and how it had to be fought at all costs. Yes, members of a SPECULATIVE FICTION group were fighting a new publishing paradigm.

    But, I was welcomed to SFWA parties before I was published, had many productive interactions with those now “older” members, received advice, and was made very welcome upon my first sale. As of late, I’ve been called a racist, an “ultraconservative,” and various other epithets by those “younger” members. Besides being rude, they must be using some very unique criteria for those conclusions.

    I will say here, as I’ve said elsewhere, I can name a couple of dozen writers off the top of my head with a combined 1000 or more publication credits, who refuse to go near SFWA. I saw the final report on SFWA’s recent purging, and recognized perhaps 3 names. I googled a few, and none of those I did were earning even a modest living writing. So why is a writer’s organization chasing away people who make their living writing?

    Is SFWA attempting to be an organization for professional writers? Or an organization for complete unknown writers with political axes to grind?

    As for the GriefCom, they were completely useless on the two issues I broached with them, and I’ve heard the same from quite a few others. Every speaking gig I’ve gotten, was due to my efforts or a convention’s, not SFWA’s.

    I greatly appreciate Writer Beware, and I endorse and promote it. I wish the rest of SFWA was as productive and substantive.

  • Victoria Strauss

    It’s a process. It takes time. My point is that these upheavals–which I don’t think would have happened five years ago–are signs that the org is lurching toward change–not that the org is irrelevant or about to go down in flames. Time will tell, of course. And I wish things were moving faster. And I have lots of opinions about how that could happen, which I won’t burden anyone with. But change is occurring.

    In my opinion, SFWA membership should be determined by objective factors, such as earnings from publication (and that should include successful self-publishers). No other factors–including politics, no matter how abhorrent–should be considered, nor should they prompt re-consideration of membership once someone is admitted (and by that you may guess how I feel about the Beale Affair).

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