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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

and the only solution was to stand and fight

A FABLE OF SFWA:
or,
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.


NB: Comments are unscreened for now. Do not make me regret this choice.



*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
******Edited to clarify hyperbole

Comments

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SFWA is a workplace (a labor union as you say) in some ways.Getting it to the place its members want to be takes work. It's like diversity, sensitivity training or harassment training. You have to get the employees to build the culture that the workplace wants and give them the tools to do it.

Good behavior, as you say.

And bad behavior needs to be headed off at the pass, and not tacitly accepted as "that's the way Pyotr is" or "we've always done it that way." That way...well, that way has been a lot of the F/SF field, and for far too long. (c.f. Readercon and other cons where such behavior has been the norm too long)
The problem is, in an actual workplace, much of the culture is set from above. If the bosses don't hire POC or women or queer people or trans people or whatever, then there won't be a lot of motivation for the people who are there to be accepting, because there won't be anybody for them to need to accept. It's the management who arrange for sensitivity and harassment training, and employees pushing for it can only get so far if the bosses are just flat against it. It's the employees who have to change their own attitudes, but there's only so much they can do to change the company as a whole, and it's not so much their responsibility to do so.

Which is where that analogy breaks down.

A labor union, on the other hand, isn't a workplace for its members, it's an organization that serves their interests. And it is members' responsibility to change that, because they are ultimately the ones with the power. It does behoove union members to behave professionally at union functions, but, unlike a workplace, they can't be fired for failing to do so (because they're not employed by the union), and it's generally fairly difficult to get them kicked out. (And should be.)

Unions really are a much different thing than workplaces, and the SFWA is much more like a union than an office or business. I think it's important to make that distinction, in a practical way: If people are thinking of it as a workplace, the model is all wrong, and people will be thinking of top-down tactics instead of bottom-up and -out ones.

I don't write fiction, and I'll never be eligible to join the SFWA. I watch with interest because I'm a queer woman SFF fan, and this affects what's available for me to read, eventually. But as an activist, I know that to have the best tactics to cause change, you have to know how the thing you're trying to change works.
*attempts to find the Like button on this interface*
Likewise.
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.



Hear, fucking, HEAR. A thousand times over.
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 [SIC] be it.


LOL!
*admires*
I've decided to re-up every year for similar reasons (although you couldn't get me to visit the forums with a cattle prod). I'll never be much for volunteering or nominating for Nebulas, but I consider my dues to be a donation to the field in general for whoever needs. it.
I believe it was pnh who floated the magical idea of the SFWA Platinum Membership, where you pay a little extra not to get the Bulletin, and not to have access to the fora.

I've also learned to never go to the SFWA.com forum, and have given myself shock aversion therapy to stay the hell away from the sff.net annex.

I'd like a future where I look forward to the Bulletin, really. I want it to be full of actual publishing and member news.
As it happens, I just upgraded my membership today, to Active. The Forums are a much nicer place today than they were when I joined as an Associate member -- certain folks seem to have taken their chill meds, and a group of truly wonderful people have started making the space their own. If you haven't been by in a while, I recommend it. (There are honey badger drawings!)
Also, I think a lot of the toxicity remained off at the old sff.net site when the big Move happened, and the new Forum is less horrible. But I am trying to REMOVE internet timesinks from my life.
I'm not published, but oddly enough, this latest batch of issues is actually giving me more motivation to get stuff together, polish and get out there and see if I can get published, and then add to the changing from the inside idea.
I remember that kerfuffle. I'm glad you came back. And while I wish we could boot-kick the Rabid Weasels out, you're quite right: that's not the way it needs to work.

I joke (in the way that's not a joke) that I became a lifetime member of SFWA so I'd no longer be able to quit in a huff of irritation/frustration/annoyance, and would have to keep chipping away at the crap, instead. Some years (like this) seeing people push back against the rabid frothing make it all worth it.
In the (at this point highly unlikely) event that I ever become eligible to join the SFWA, you have just renewed my desire to do so.
Very, very well said. And thank you for it.
Excellently put. As a life-long activist, this I know. Real change comes when those who want it are willing to dig in their heels and refuse to be pushed aside. The old guard is retreating and like a pit full of dying rattlesnakes making a helluva a fuss on their way out. SFF and SFWA needs to belong to ALL categorizes and all kinds of people. Let's make it so.
Most of the people in SFWA whom I met initially were focusing on things like the EMF, and a number of them warned me away from the rabid weasels, so I didn't have much of a problem as far as that went (mind you, I didn't go onto the forums). I am not a member now, as it's not really helpful for anyone who is not in the US; although I had and have a US publisher, it was largely useless in career-building terms.
There is nothing wrong with being on your good behavior in a professional setting. It's how most people go to work every day.

That's it, absolutely! I have only skirted the fringes of the recent brouhaha because a) I never did sell enough to be a member of SFWA, b) I'm British so it's not really relevant to any potential career I may have as a writer and c) I'm also trying to avoid internet timesinks, but I was appalled by the fact that such things were happening in what was, ostensibly, a professional organisation and its official publication.
GRRM talked me into joining, too. In my case the reservations were based on geography -- not American, not in the US, just published there -- and I expected to be marginalised. In some ways, I am, but far less than I thought, but there is also a lot of good stuff.
And I believe in unions. The medical fund will never be of use to me, given geography, but it matters to me that it's there for those colleagues who are in the US. The racist/homophobe/sexism crew make me angry, but I am committed to talking back to them. I was raised argumentative and left wing, and I do believe we can change things for the better if we have the will and the stamina.
Also, the sfwa suite, it turns out, often has cake :-)
The SFWA suite often has cake. And coffee.
As a non-unionized, severely underpaid indie writer who still might enjoy coming in out of the inclement weather some day, I just wanted to say 'Thank You' for your intelligent viewpoint on this discussion. I will admit my kneejerk reaction to all of this is to see certain members shouted down and silenced for a while, so that saner members can get the house back in order. However, as I have no skin in the game, I've tried (and admittedly failed, on one occasion earlier this month) to avoid shooting my mouth off about people I don't personally know.

That said, I do wish more people with soap boxes would take the time to read the temperature outside and learn what is no longer credible or acceptable behaviour for public discourse. I don't want to see a great PC Hivemind replace human thought, but still, some of what was said by certain persons earlier this month should never have been uttered under any circumstances. Alarm bells should go off in your own head when you catch yourself thinking that someone's gender/sexual politics are reason to condemn their work or their personal character, particularly when the lens you're using is pretty foggy and not just a little soot-covered.

And that is, I believe, the last thing I will say on the subject. Again, thank you. I knew I could rely on you to have reasonable words on the subject.
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