A FABLE OF SFWA:
WHY I SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO GEORGE R. R. MARTIN TEN YEARS AGO AND HOW YOU CAN LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE
So, ten or so years ago, when I was a very new young published novelist, I was thrilled to send in my dues check to SFWA and (red alert) go wandering the forums for the first time. NB: This is the first of many errors I will be confessing to in this article.
While on those forums, I compounded my error by chiming in on a thread about “Why the new writers aren’t joining SFWA.” I pointed out that among my peers–who, even then, were showing signs of being the vanguard of the current Rainbow Age of Science Fiction–SFWA had a reputation for harboring a lot of people with racist, sexist, homophobic agendas.
Well, some people really didn’t want to hear it. In particular, I got into it with two of the same Rabid Weasels***** who still kick around the message boards, creating an aura of toxicity and self-complaints about how they should really be writing novels rather than getting into internet slapfights wherever they go*.** And to make a long story short, I quit SFWA in a huff, as is traditional in our tribe.
If I remember the timeline correctly****, some time later that same year (or early the next one) I got into a conversation (on his livejournal) with no less a light than George R.R. Martin about the same topic. And this is where I owe George an apology, which I make here, and publicly: because George took the time to point out to me that the way organizations change is through new blood joining them, and also tried to educate me about the work done by the Emergency Medical Fund, the Emergency Legal Fund, and Griefcom.
At the time, I was still way too stung to want to hear it.
In the decade or so since, I’ve realized that he was entirely correct, and I was entirely wrong.
I am a SFWA member again; I expect to be one until I die. Because I have come to understand that the people mouthing off on the forums are not in fact the heart of SFWA. The heart of SFWA are the people who do the hard boring work (volunteer work, mostly, by the way–I myself have done a very very small part of it and I am boggled by the scale of the chores that need to be done) of digging through paperwork and sending endless emails for Griefcom, for the Medical Fund, and so forth.
Yes, SFWA does have a certain percentage of Racist Sexist Homophobic Bigots. No, I don’t actually think we should be hunting them down and driving them out. (The Recent Unpleasantness With Mr. Beale being an exception to that rule, because Beale misused SFWA resources to pursue his disgusting agenda.) The reason I don’t think we should be driving out people whose politics differ from my own is simple: witchhunts are a flawed model, and easily turn in the hand.
But I also believe that when people voice their opinions, they can live with the pushback–both from colleagues, and from fans.
I do think we as writers who hold more progressive views should be joining SFWA. I think that SFWA is a valuable organization, and I think that viewing it through the lens of the worst-behaved members is tragic. SFWA is not a social club: it’s a professional organization serving some of the same purposes as a labor union.****** We don’t all have to get along and want to go drinking together to productively support the careers of speculative fiction writers.
I think SFWA should be striving for professionalism in the house organs; I support the SFWA Bulletin being edited with an eye towards modern recognition of equality of and dignity for all people. (I do understand that there are generational shifts in language and how it’s appropriate to refer to one’s colleagues and friends; I think we should strive not to come across as escapees from Mad Men or Life on Mars.)
The thing is, every organization of any size has people I am going to disagree with on many levels–personal and political. Hell, some of my close friends have politics I find incomprehensible, though I draw the line at conscious bigotry. The bulk of the people in SFWA are not horrible human beings; even some of the folks who have recently put their feet in their mouths are not horrible human beings.
But it’s not complicated to insist that female writers, trans* writers, queer writers, writers of color, writers of marginalized creeds need to be treated with respect by their (our) peers. And if that means everybody walking on eggshells for a while until we sort out how we can be comfortable around each other, well so fucking be it.
There is nothing wrong with being on your good behavior in a professional setting. It’s how most people go to work every day.
*For those of you who just nodded in recognition, yes. Them.
**I also got a number of totally reasonable reactions of dismay, and some calls for my peers to join the organization and change it from the inside***. And several lasting friendships, with people who actually listened to what I was trying to say.
***Oh, the sweet irony of hindsight.
****Forgive me. It was in another country, and several email clients ago.
*****This simile metaphor unfair to weasels