Monday, June 10, 2013

A brief word about the latest SFWA tempest

The writers organization, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), is somewhat legendary for its internal discord. Issues crop up on a regular basis, and by "crop up" I mean "explode unexpectedly with the fury of thermonuclear napalm." More than once I've described SFWA membership as akin to constant pit-fighting, and that is one of the reasons why the group has continual issues with membership attrition. So, the latest issue to crop up is a somewhat (depending on your perspective) misogynistic piece in the Bulletin, which is essentially the membership's trade magazine, in a long-running column by authors Mike Resnik and Barry Malzberg. The column, titled the "Resnik/Malzberg Dialogues," has prompted very strong reactions from very many quarters. Rather than rehash much of which has gone before, I'll invite any morbidly curious readers to check out this excellent round-up of relevant reactions put together by Jim C. Hines.

Finished reading all of that? Good. Now, I'm going to let you in on one angle that isn't addressed in the ongoing back-and-forth. You see, this didn't have to be an issue. I was a member of SFWA until letting my membership lapse a year or two back--I can't quite remember when. The long and short was that I'd gotten burned out and aside from a couple of narrow instances, didn't see much tangible benefit from being a SFWA member. Keep in mind that I'd volunteered off and on with that organization, and starting 2007 handled publicity and/or media relations. Which proved an arcane pain in the ass, but that's par for the course. A few years back, not too long before I dropped out, serious consideration was given to revamping much of SFWA's internal and external workings, with the Bulletin earning specific attention. That magazine, see, is pretty tired. Because of publication schedules, the market listings are chronically out of date and much of the content is either very basic or carried along by inertia if nothing else. Such was the case of the Resnik/Malzberg Dialogues. The opinion was floated--and I did not disagree--that the feature had outlived its usefulness, that any fresh insight the piece once offered had degenerated into "Back In The Day..." ramblings. The reason it was still carried by the Bulletin was that it had always been carried by the Bulletin. Inertia ruled the day. So, to remake the magazine, dropping the tired Dialogues was a priority. But immediately other quarters pointed out that this course of action would provoke a firestorm, as both Resnik and Malzberg have lots of friends and are well-known members of the old guard. I suggested recruiting a new team of more forward-thinking young writers to produce a column that would alternate issues with Dialogues, as a way of introducing gradual progressive change. Nobody liked that idea. Then again, nobody liked my idea for changing the name of the Bulletin to something, anything less generic than a flyer you pick up every Sunday on the way out of church. But hey, what do I know?

In the end, nothing changed. The Resnik/Malzberg Dialogues continued uninterrupted, and now has cost editor Jean Rabe her job (irony is cruel that way). The Bulletin still has a sucky, non-genre name. And SFWA is still mired in pit-fighting rather than creating real and lasting benefits for membership.

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  1. More than one thing can be going on at a time. I don't like the resolution of this particular catfight either, but in addition SFWA is working on "real and lasting benefits for membership." Among them, preparing a presentation for the Congressional committee that's looking at changing copyright law (to point out, among other things, that copyright was cited in the Constitution to benefit the individual creators of works, not those to whom those works were licensed.)

    Griefcom continues to work. The Emergency Medical Fund continues to work. The Emergency Legal Fund continues to work. SFWA has been involved in the past year in defending writers' rights when major publishers proposed lousy contracts for novice writers.

    The bathwater is dirty. The baby is still in the tub. Don't dump the whole thing.

  2. I'm seriously considering rejoining out of support for Steve, and I recognize and acknowledge those "meta" contributions SFWA continues to work on. But I'm a little frustrated by the lack of direct benefit to individual rank-and-file members who aren't suffering catastrophic illness, etc. Those are good and noble pursuits. But why not, say, offer a contract review service for members ala Authors Guild (and yes, I'm aware of Issues with that group, just offering a f'rinstance).

    I've seen dues increase to "bring them in line with other professional organizations" but not seen a proportional give-back to the membership. In contrast, the professional photography organizations The Wife belongs to have comparable membership fees, but far more direct and practical benefits for members. Plus, their publications are MUCH nicer and they don't fight amongst themselves nearly as much.

    SFWA is a great group, in theory, but it's mostly unrealized potential.

  3. And just to clarify, I never resigned from SFWA (for any particular reason). I just never got around to renewing, and haven't felt compelled to alter that reality.