Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Call Your Detractors Liberal Fascists, Lose the Argument

This was supposed to be my last post on getting yourself unstuck when you’re putting a story together. I guess it has to wait. Sorry, guys.

A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issue 200 and spring’s 201. Going through the magazine rack on the back of our bathroom door as well as Nathan’s wastebin and my own wastebin on Saturday, I located all three issues and read the articles in question after reading E. Catherine Tobler’s blog post in which she explains why she’s leaving the SFWA (spoiler: it’s because of Issue 200, with a cameo by Issue 201, and the responses of some of its contributors to some complaints by readers).

Yes, I’m an SFWA member. No, I hadn’t read any of the Bulletins all the way through. The truth is that I don’t typically find that they feel relevant to me or my writing and publishing experiences thus far. I always chalked that up to the idea that middle grade fantasy is maybe a different beast in many ways from what most of the SFWA membership is up to. But now this kerfluffle is making me wonder if that’s not the only reason it doesn’t feel relevant.

In Issue 200, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have a dialogue about “lady editors.” That phrase did put a few backs up, but more bothersome than that seemed to be the repeated references to the physical attributes of the ladies in question. There was also an anecdote about how editor Beatrice Mahaffey joined the Cincinnati Fantasy Group and how after “ the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon…the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.”

Now, as a personal strategy for looking at comments that I find offensive, I try very hard to assume good intentions on everyone’s part at the outset, and I try to look at context. I don’t find “lady editors” to be immediately offensive. And to be fair, the dialogue does actually talk about the accomplishments of the women it profiles. It does mention some women without starting off their segments by calling them “knockouts.” And there is clearly a lot of admiration for these women. The anecdote above came from another woman who knew Ms. Mahaffey personally. Other anecdotes are included that seem clearly intended to draw more detailed portraits of the women, not necessarily to suggest that these things (including their physical attractiveness) are more important than their editing.

On the other hand, read this paragraph: “Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950’s knows she was a knockout as a young woman. She was invited to Chicago to edit Other Worlds by Ray Palmer when she was barely out of her teens. In the process she also edited or co-edited Mystic, Science Stories, and Universe. (Some of them were the same magazine under different titles; Palmer changed titles a lot to keep a step ahead of the printing bills.)” Now, I don’t necessarily have any issue with including the fact that a brilliant editor was also beautiful, but I’m just going to say that if it had been me writing that paragraph, I would probably have mentioned it at the end if I really felt like it was that important. Just, you know, to keep anybody from thinking I thought it was critically important. And by the way, in the article, that’s the second of three mentions of Ms. Mahaffey’s attractiveness.

I’m sorry, Mike and Barry—I don’t think you meant to suggest that she accomplished what she did because she was beautiful, but bringing up one lady’s hotness three times in two pages…it’s weird if that’s not the point. Sloppy writing at least. At worst, well, it’s easy to read what is ostensibly an article about female editors and to come away with the impression that you might think one’s beauty was as important as her literary contributions. Which one would hope you can see is sufficient reason for readers to maybe get their backs up. And you certainly left room for that interpretation, gentlemen. Moreover, coupled with this, “lady editors” starts to seem less quirky and more condescending.

We’re writers. We put content out there for readers, presumably after we have honed it in order to do our very, very damnedest to make certain that the message our readers take away is the one that we intended to get across. I’m not going to say it’s always the writer’s fault every single time a reader takes something in a way the writer didn’t intend, but if a bunch of readers get their backs up…well, maybe it’s not just that the readers got it wrong. Maybe the writer/s needs to own the perceptions his/her/their words have created.

So, to summarize: I’m willing to assume good intentions and true regard for the women in question in the “lady editors” column, but in that case it’s seriously sloppy work. However, I also think it takes absolutely no work and certainly no agenda to find the column problematic or offensive. I certainly did (although admittedly I read it after reading about the shitstorm it caused, so I wasn’t a totally unbiased reader).

But Issue 202 contains Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the complaints they and/or the SFWA received about that column, and boy, even I, with my high-minded assumptions of good intentions, had a hard time reading that.

Their argument is that for the entirety of their careers, they have never (or almost never) before been “censored” despite writing stuff that could have offended plenty of people along the way, including the gatekeeper types who, if they had chosen, could easily have stopped publication of those racy pieces. But they worry that the complainers are calling for their censorship now, by those who responded negatively to their article and to the warrior babe on the cover.

Malzberg calls the objectors’ concerns “stupidity”—which he is willing to stomach as long as the objective isn’t to “shut us down” (which, presumably, is what would push those concerns from relatively harmless “stupidity” into true “censorship”). They argue that romance novels are just as bad about objectification of men on their covers. This might be a fair point, but while I’m not a member of the Romance Writers of America, I’m pretty sure the RWA would happily to discuss that any time its readership and membership choose to raise it as a concern. (Note: since writing that line, I found this excellent post, which–apart from containing the cover of 200 and the pdf of the dialogue column from 202–addresses that particular note directly. Evidently there is robust discussion on the topic. Hooray for robust discussion! That’s a good thing.) That’s what service organizations do—they respond to the concerns of their members and the readers they serve. And raising concerns is what many members and readers of the SFWA did, which is why the SFWA needs at least to have the discussion.

So, halfway through the rebuttal column, I had learned this much: the authors consider that either those who objected to the cover and dialogue in Issue 200 are at best stupid and at worst censorious. Resnick and Melzberg are also upset about the “anonymity” of those who complained, although ten minutes on Google would’ve given them ways to contact plenty of people eager to discuss their concerns—assuming they’re interested in discussion, and if I were still assuming good intentions, I’d presume they’d be pleased to do that. But by this point in my reading, I was no longer assuming good intentions. In order to explain why, let me tell you where I lost my ability to read objectively. It’s where Melzberg says this:

“Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective (who unlike Ms. Dworkin will not identify themselves) fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call “liberal fascists,” and I cannot disagree with that description.” He then goes on to quote Sean Hannity: “The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.” Melzberg continues: “This seems to be the subterranean issue here…the conviction held by at least some of the protestors that what they found offensive should be banned. That does not take us to anyplace that a writers’ organization should want to go, and I find the central issue here as distressing as you do.”

Actually, what I find distressing is the idea that a writers’ organization would not respond with discussion and debate to evidence that one of its mouthpieces (the Bulletin) does not represent the values of the community it serves. The problem is that the community is not one homogeneous organization. It now contains a lot of younger writers and fans and a growing number of women, many of whom, as Resnick points out, are making noise, demanding that the SFWA—which represents them as much as it represents the two men writing the dialogue—hear their concerns and take them into serious consideration.

And my interpretation of those concerns—having read rather a lot of them now—is not that hard-bodied Warrior Women should not exist or be on the covers of any books or magazines, and it certainly isn’t that women should never be described as beautiful (the adjective Melzberg mentions having “enemies” in the quote above). It’s not that no one should ever write or read material that anyone anywhere finds problematic. It’s that in 2013, many people are bothered when they see, coming from their writers’ service organization, so many potentially problematic things in one place—one of the mouthpiece publications of the organization—and they want to be able to discuss those things with the organization. And they have the right to that discussion by virtue of having paid dues.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure is almost universally true: when we disagree about something, there is a marked difference in the way we speak when we are willing to discuss that something on equal footing with the other party in an open exchange of views, and when we just want the other party to shut up. And the evidence that these fellows are too angry at being challenged to consider the possibility of the opposite point of view being valid and unwilling to engage in discussion is the way the article ends: with references to thought control, to Stalin and Chairman Mao; with comparisons between the negative response to their previous article and “the Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom and with whom.” This not the language of anyone willing to consider that they might have caused legitimate offense and willing to take part in a discussion. This is the language of someone who isn’t willing to consider the other party’s point of view at all. The message here is: shut up and stop complaining, you’re behaving like a bunch of idiots and would-be dictators, and your challenging of what I wrote is on the same level as withholding my civil rights.

Note that at no point here have I accused the authors of the dialogue of behaving like Old White Men, which they claim is one of the reasons people are trying to silence them. On the other hand, dude, I’m really thinking it. I wish I wasn’t, but I’m not going to lie: I totally am. I also really wish that they hadn’t made the argument a liberal-conservative thing. I really wish they had just been willing to take part in a discussion. To have a conversation rather than a fight.

The conversation is important. The conversation has value. And it has value in this case especially, because, having now discussed Issue 200 and Issue 202, I should just mention one thing from Issue 201: CJ Henderson, in an article on how to maintain a writing life even when it seems to have stalled, includes an unfortunate bit of advice: Be like Barbie.

Now, once again, let me start from a place of assuming good intentions: while Henderson says, “Yes, Barbie has always been perfectly long-legged and tiny-waisted, perfectly proportioned in every way with dazzling blue eyes, terrific hair, and oh right, quite the pair of sweater-fillers as well,” (honestly, why would you even go there?) he completes that sentence with, “But, that is not who she is.” He goes on to suggest that Barbie’s great staying power is due to the fact that who she is is more—and more important—than the sum of her measurements. “That’s not who she is inside.” So far so…well, so far so really, really awkward, but I kind of see what you’re trying to do there. There’s a weird sort of parallel here to what I think maybe Resnick and Malzberg were trying to do—refer to a woman’s prettiness as part of her but not all that she is. But then Henderson puts his foot in it. “She has always been a role model for young girls…because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

No, no, no… And I’m not even touching the other thing he said that raised lady-hackles, about how Barbie’s staying power was due to the fact that, unlike the Bratz dolls who “dress like tramps and whores,” Barbie is a “nice girl.” I don’t have the bandwidth. But the net effect, of course, is that the rest of Henderson’s article, which on the face of it has nothing to do with preaching to women about how they ought to behave, disappears from the conversation, because, like Resnick and Malzberg, he says something he somehow thinks is complimentary but which makes a chunk of readers drop their heads on their desks in either (charitably) embarrassment or (more likely) disgust.

There are bright spots here. I had to break this post into three because I had so much to say, and the next one talks about a really excellent rebuttal piece that also appeared in Issue 202, from Jim C. Hines. Also, both SFWA President John Scalzi and Vice President Rachel Swirsky responded immediately to the concerns raised by readers and members alike. A task force has been created to evaluate the state of the Bulletin. And a lot of people are talking.

And that’s good. Even if Resnick and Malzberg aren’t willing to have a discussion, plenty of people are. And that’s good for everyone.


  1. Great post! I have to admit I didn’t have the energy to take on this whole thing. I didn’t even notice the warrior-woman cover until the controversy started because that kind of sexist nonsense is so typical of fantasy art. And frankly, a lot of Bulletin articles strike me as male-oriented, so I don’t read them. That’s why I missed the “lady editors” and the barbie sequence. This whole kerfluffle has actually improved my view of SFWA though because there are so many people who want the Bulletin to be more inclusive.

  2. I hear you. Most of the time when I write angry posts I don’t ever actually post them, it’s more a question of getting it out of my system. But I really do think the SFWA is working hard to serve its entire membership. Rachel Swirsky said on Twitter the other day that a really helpful thing would be for more people to be involved in writing for the Bulletin, too, which I think is a great observation. Maybe part of the problem is that a lot of us just ignore it because it doesn’t feel relevant rather than trying to take part to make it more useful to a greater number of people.

  3. Thanks for mentioning my post. Considering that there’s a crossover in romance & science fiction and fantasy with paranormal romances, time traveling romances and what not, the fact that I *knew for a fact* that Resnick wrong about his point really got me mad, in addition to the things so many others have said.

    Scalzi’s statement on the SFWA site & blog will help, as will the task force, I think.

  4. No, thank you for a great post, Trisha, and in particular for the way you actually offered solutions from an editorial standpoint. It’s easy to get angry about stuff like this; it’s harder to think constructively and suggest ways to make improvements. Your post is awesome.

  5. Not to mention that with the position in the paragraph of “[lady editor was hawt]” just before the list of her impressive accomplishments could be taken to suggest that her accomplishments (particularly being an editor at a young age) are a result of the hawtness. And not, given the time/obvious view of her, in spite of her looks. But perhaps that’s an angle they would never get–the idea that looks might hurt as much as help.

  6. Exactly. There are tons of problems with it, but at bare minimum, it’s sloppy writing. Same thing with the bathing suit anecdote. What am I supposed to take from that? Wives see her in a bathing suit and they all join the organization? Are the wives SF/F-involved too? Did she just make it suddenly seem glamorous? Did they think they needed to keep an eye on their husbands around this gorgeous lady? Did joining up inspire them to become SF/F-involved? 50/50 male/female membership is awesome, and something to be proud of, but kinda irrelevant if the 50% females are a glorified Ladies’ Auxiliary and not active new members. Did the wives start writing/editing/illustrating/whatever? Were they or did they at least become regular SF/F readers? I just have no idea. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that.

  7. I was just so confused by the bathing suit thing my brain just closed down and skipped over it. (Why even was she seen in her bathing suit, for that matter?) I guess I would assume that she was so hawt that the wives couldn’t trust their husbands around her (or vice versa), but it’s more fun to assume she was just so hawt that everyone wanted to be close to her.

  8. And the net effect is, here we are thinking WTF and unable to let go of that, and meanwhile I have yet to look the lady herself up and read more about her (no doubt substantial and important) contributions as an editor. Which is a total shame.

  9. I think I just found an answer to this, and wrote about it in my publisher blog. Basically, according to my mother-in-law, in those days, if a woman was conventionally beautiful and *also* interested in intellectual pursuits like writing, science, etc., it was “unusual” and worthy of notice because most beautiful women back then weren’t encouraged to be intellectuals but rather to marry and have kids. And if a woman was smart, used her brains, wrote, etc., it was automatically assumed that she wasn’t attractive.

    Thus, Resnick and Malzberg were pointing out that because the wives of the male writers saw that beautiful women were also interested in science fiction and fantasy, they felt better about being members of the SFWA because it meant that beautiful women could be smart, too.

    And that makes me sick in an entirely different way.

  10. I have been trying to make heads or tails of this. I have been perplexed. Although it has been said that the SFWA journal gave Resnick and Malzberg a chance to respond, I think those two are writers, not political commentators, and the approach to dialog that was adopted failed for that reason. “A chance to respond” should not have been the editorial response, because of course they felt attacked, and of course then responded by vigorously expressing their perception that they were being attacked. Dialog among non-politicians should not mean both sides have a chance to point-counterpoint and express their views, because neither side has spent time situating itself in the shoes of the other side while refining those views. Dialog should mean that both sides have a chance to explore and try to understand the views of the other side. But no: apparently name-calling etc. ensued. This is what we have been trained to do by numerous sources in our American culture (media of every stripe and ideology, our education system, etc.) If you want to be well and truly counter-cultural, resist the American norm of freeze-framing, labeling & personalizing. Saul Alinsky’s advice is combative, and a combative stance guarantees combat. Instead, start with a nice compliment, preferably a genuine one. Then ask, “By the way, what exactly did you mean by “x”? Oh, you know, it would be possible for some people to assume that by “x” you meant “y”…

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