Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Final Thoughts So I Can Get Back to Writing About Writing

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 Issues 200 and 201. This is the end of a really long post I wrote on Saturday that I had to break into three parts. You can read the first two parts here and here.

Now, what I had originally planned to post today was based on my readings of the three bulletin pieces at the heart of the Kerfluffle and my readings of a pretty good cross-section of responses on both sides of the issue that were posted throughout the interwebs. It’s also colored by my reactions to several other kerfluffles that have been swirling around the ether and the intertubes. It still exists after the cut below in its original form (making this an obscenely long post, taken as a single thing). But yesterday evening I spent rawther a long time (several hours) reading the SFWA forum threads covering the issue and the discussions which have been going on at least since January when Issue 200 landed in folks’ mailboxes. That, friends, was verrry illuminating. So before you read what I was going to say, here’s where I landed at one in the morning last night, after reading the conversations that have been taking place out of public view.

You can’t read the forums if you aren’t an SFWA member, which is troubling in this case for the very important reason that a lot of would-be members are watching to see the organization’s response to the Kerfluffle to help them decide whether SFWA is something they want to participate with. A lot of current members are doing the same. But a lot of us (myself included) don’t visit the forums as often as we might. And while there’s a rousing dialogue going on online, very little of that has contained concrete information about what the SFWA itself is doing to respond. There has been an official apology and statement from outgoing president John Scalzi; vice president Rachel Swirsky has also apologized publicly and been appointed to a task force to evaluate the Bulletin and how to improve it based on this episode as well as ongoing grumblings about its usefulness and the readership’s expectations for it. Both of which are great, but it would be easy to think those are a couple drops in a bucket compared to the massive response of everyone else who’s spoken up on one side or the other.

If you are making the decision about whether to renew your membership, please, please login to the forums and read the threads about the Bulletin. And if I might suggest, while the early threads about the individual issues make for more, shall we say, entertaining reading, you should probably start with the thread titled “Moving Forward.” This is the one you need, and if you start with the other ones, you might never get there. Moving Forward is the thread in which you’ll find several instances of direct evidence that not only the leadership of the organization but the leadership of the magazine itself understands the magnitude of the situation and is responding accordingly. Although I suspect some of these things will be announced publicly very soon, a brief Google search suggests they haven’t been announced yet. But they’re there if you’re a member and can login.

More importantly, though, there is a rousing discussion between folks who are eager to contribute to solving the problems with the Bulletin–both the very real problems of these last few issues and the less immediately troubling but no less important questions of how the Bulletin can stay relevant to its readership and provide real benefits. One relatively new member, Carrie Cuinn, who wrote this about her response to the Kerfluffle back in April (this was the issue with the Barbie litany), contacted editor Jean Rabe and volunteered her skills and time to help at the Bulletin. Jean Rabe brought her aboard despite the fact that Carrie openly wanted to work toward changing the Bulletin. Carrie has not only been volunteering at the Bulletin ever since, but has been active on the forums not merely calling for change but offering concrete solutions and helping to extend the discussion by encouraging others to join in.

She isn’t alone on the threads, either. There are many, many voices who, after venting their reactions, followed up not with continued vitriol but with suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, despite the fact that one of the sad things that happens in all of the forum threads in question is, unfortunately, a predictable bit of what I’m going to call “this is our sandbox” posturing, mostly from two or three specific voices. One of those voices felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that Affiliate and Associate members don’t have the right to “make demands” of the organization. They may make suggestions and requests, this person said (I won’t quote the individual directly or by name; that would be inappropriate since the forums are not public-facing), but use of the word “must” (as in, the Bulletin must change) is inappropriate from anyone who isn’t an Active member.

The membership requirements are here if you’re curious, but to summarize, the difference between Associate and Active member is only the number of prose fiction sales that person has made to qualifying markets at certain pay rates, and Affiliate members are professionals who work in SF/F but not necessarily as writers; they are editors, agents, reviewers, academics, etc. A single sale of a prose novel to a qualifying market allows one to join as Active, and those who work in short fiction need three qualifying sales to join as Active or one to join as Associate, and of course they can change their membership later.

There are differences in the levels of participation allowed members at different levels, so maybe there are some theoretical grounds for The Individual’s suggestion that Associate and Affiliate members should not feel entitled to have the organization pivot to suit them. The problem is that everyone who believes in the work it does for authors wants SFWA to grow, which means it’s in all of our interests that people join at whatever level they can and upgrade their memberships when they can, which emphatically will not happen if all levels of membership can’t be involved in shaping the organization, at least by taking equal part in discussions about its future. If people feel that Associate members aren’t “real” members, then why should they bother plunking down their hard-earned dues money to join as Associates? Certainly they’ll have no reason to volunteer, or to participate in discussions like these. I’ve been an Active member for like five years; my first sale was a novel, so I was Active from minute one. But ask me how often I’ve volunteered. Ask me how often I visit the forums except to make sure there’s a PDF of my books available around Nebula/Norton season. Now take someone who works full-time as an SF/F editor and has several SF/F sales of their own but they’re verse fiction, not prose and therefore they can’t join as Active, and let’s further pretend that this person actually maintains a pretty decent level of involvement. My concerns–when I suddenly discover I have them–are more important than our fictional ‘sub-Active’ member? Riiight. Also not irrelevant: members at all levels are demanding change. Lots of members. And the concerns of non-members saying, “I don’t know if I ever want SFWA to speak for me if this is what it’s going to say” aren’t irrelevant, either. So. That’s what I think about that.

One of those sandbox voices also felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that the problem with younger and newer voices making all of these demands is that the SFWA and the Bulletin are what they are because of the recognized names and long years of contributions of the organization, and that they have earned their platforms and the right to a certain level of respect. Now, I think everyone deserves respect, and deserves to be heard. Basic human respect, though; not veneration and an ongoing platform. And most everyone in the discussion on the forum sees the platform issue as one linked to the Bulletin’s place as one of the mouthpieces of the organization. Someone said something I really liked–that just because someone’s put in a long career and made contributions doesn’t mean they get a megaphone and the right to speak for everybody.

But here’s the neat thing–although several times I literally slapped myself in the forehead while reading the forum discussions, they were, by and large, almost entirely civil and rational and involving people who were provably eager to solve problems, not just to gripe about them. Yes, there were the sandbox guys, who at the end of my reading still seemed to think that what was being asked for by those who were asking for change was a full-scale coup d’etat under the flag of Never Offend Anyone Again. And there were a couple times where both sides got a little strident. But between the superhuman moderators and some occasional “let’s make sure I’m hearing you right” reality checks from parties eager to keep the conversation going, things never escalated so far that the conversation couldn’t be made civil again. (Although I confess to being curious about how many comments the mods actually had to mallet; none of them were closed for comments at any point, but all four threads that I read did eventually wind up having ground rules set and all of them eventually went into active moderation).

And active in all the conversations were Rachel Swirsky (who as you will remember is heading the Bulletin task force) and incoming president Steven Gould. At one point, someone asked Rachel what the timeframe was on a related issue that had been raised as needing eyes on it, and Rachel’s response was (again, paraphrasing) that she had planned to tackle it in about two weeks, but was she hearing that it needed to be given a higher priority? Several questions were raised from people about things they’d been trying to get answers on for some time, and scrolling down other people came back with answers. It was not just a place to vent. It was (and is) a place to work. The Moving Forward thread is still active, and anyone who wants to be involved in the discussions should get over there asap. There’s also a thread for those willing to volunteer.

So what I took from the forums were two things: 1) sadly, my suspicions that there was a certain sandbox mentality going on were confirmed, although it’s hard to know how prevalent it actually is because only a few sandboxers joined the conversation; HOWEVER more importantly 2) the Kerfluffle had resulted in inclusive, solution-focused conversations and brainstorming  involving members at all levels and on both “sides” of the issue, and those things were already resulting in active steps being taken to improve the Bulletin both in terms of professionalism and inclusion and its value to the SFWA constituency. Oh, three things: I also learned that the Bulletin is and has been (although evidently almost nobody knew it) open to submissions from both members and non-members alike. Bonus: it pays pro rates. So another tremendously useful way to get involved in making changes to the Bulletin is to submit to the Bulletin. 

SFWA members who haven’t visited lately–this is a really good time to go to the forums and catch yourself up. I was extremely heartened by the discussions taking place. Those who are not members and who are still deciding, you may have to wait and see what the next couple of Bulletin issues show in terms of results. It isn’t clear what state the next issue was in prior to all of this blowing up, so it’s hard to say whether we’re going to see visible results with Issue 203, but I feel pretty good about the likelihood that Issue 204 is going to do a better job for everyone. And the Kerfluffle–well, it would have been better for it never to have happened, but certainly it’s gotten people involved who haven’t been involved before, and it looks like it’s going to result in some things that perhaps really needed to be examined being done differently. Those are both really good things.

And now, if your eyes aren’t crossing yet and you have more time to kill, you’re welcome to read what I was going to post up until last night.

Here it is:

My reading of these things took place a couple days after Lou Dobbs and a pair of Fox contributors dug themselves in pretty deep freaking out about the fact that a new poll indicates that in 40% of households, a woman is the primary breadwinner, and a day after I watched video of Megyn Kelly ripping into Dobbs and Erickson with a systematic precision backed by actual facts that I have really never associated with Fox before. I don’t think she convinced them, but I cheered for her anyway.

My reading of these things also took place a couple weeks after I lost a couple days reading about Kerfluffles in the technical world and the gaming world—two other communities that are coming under fire for not being inclusive of women. I’m not going to tell you specifically which ones I lost days reading about; the Tech Kerfluffle has been so widely talked about that I have nothing to add and there are so many Gamer Kerfluffles I’d hardly know where to start.

Robert Jackson Bennett wrote a great blog post on the 31st that was less about the Bulletin and more about what he called Shithead Fatigue, which he defines this way: “Shithead Fatigue is when a specific breed of blatant shitheaddery feels like it becomes so prominent, so unavoidable, so ubiquitous, that getting outraged over it is like getting angry over rain: this is what happens, you say, you do what you can about it, you get a little wet, maybe, and you move on.” It’s a perfect description of what I’ve been feeling about all these things.

On Saturday, the day I wrote the massive post, my husband and I sat in a diner and discussed all of these happenings and speculated that there’s something in the water. That something might just be that we’re hitting a point where enough people are comfortable speaking up and calling shenanigans on things that have historically been considered “no big deal.” Maybe at one point they weren’t a big deal. What makes something a big deal or not, appropriate or not, is (from a practical standpoint if not a morally absolute standpoint) is the consensus of the participants. (I wish we could agree on this from an absolute standpoint, but let’s start with the practical.) The constituency of these communities is changing, as is the willingness of a greater number of participants within them to speak up when they want to see a change in the behavior of the community, or when they want to make a change to the community’s definition of appropriate.

One of Nathan’s responses was to observe that perhaps the SFWA kerfluffle came from a problem of the fellows in question being a sample of a community that’s not generally, shall we say, clueful about women because that community didn’t historically contain that many women—kind of like, he added, much of his own tech community, much of the gamer community, and much of the community of elder statesmen and pundits that regularly turn up on Fox News. That these are all communities that generally haven’t had to interface often or well with the opposite sex and often bollocks it up when they are forced to deal with them on equal footing. That sci-fi as a genre typically does not market itself to women, even though a growing number of writers and a huge number of readers fall into that category, and now it’s having growing pains as it figures out how to work with all these females, who don’t find the same things funny and kind of wish they could exist in the community as equals rather than feel that they’re being tolerated. Who would like to be seen as fellow programmers, gamers, editors and authors rather than necessarily as women programmers, girl gamers, lady editors and female authors. (Looking at you now, Wikipedia.)

So that’s Nathan’s guess. Might be something to it. The alternative, I suppose, is that we really are dealing with truly entitled and exclusionary groups that can’t or won’t consider changing their ways and aren’t able or willing to be involved in discussions about how to be more inclusive and respectful. It’s been an old boys’ club for generations, and it’s done just fine, thank you, so why should it change just because chicks, man. I hate thinking that’s what’s really going on. But if this isn’t a question of what happens when nerdboys grow up in insular tribes that never force them to figure out how to deal with others, then that’s what’s left. I hate that idea, but there’s a lot of evidence for it.

I hate that, and I hate seeing what happens when other people believe that’s what’s really going on.

Kerfluffles like this one have ripple effects as they continue–the problem with assuming that whole groups are categorically incapable of change (or worse, don’t see the necessity to change at all) is that if you’re the offended party, you start thinking you have to be on the lookout for offenses all the time in order to prove they exist, because maybe the only way to affect change is to provide overwhelming evidence of that-which-must-be-changed and force the change. You, potentially, start looking for a fight rather than a conversation. Remember the Tech Kerfluffle I mentioned? In my humblest of opinions, it kinda looks to me like this is how that got started—someone was looking for a fight rather than a conversation. Which is not to say that a) I think that’s the only way of looking at that particular incident, b) the tech community doesn’t have plenty of sexism to answer for, or c) there aren’t plenty of times when a fight is the necessary and appropriate response. I’d like to think if there was less entrenchment at the outset, we wouldn’t have to go to fight stage quite so often, but I don’t know if that’s true. We all come into situations like this with so, so much baggage, much of it very painful and all of it very hard to set aside. So all that baggage winds up getting thrown right on the scales, and it colors our responses to each new situation.

Another example of what happens when we choose a fight over a conversation can be seen (again, in my humblest of opinions) in some of the responses that have come to what are clearly absolutely legitimate and heartfelt apologies by certain folks who’ve commented on the Kerfluffle. I think, for example, SFWA President Scalzi’s official apology and the creation of a committee to look into improving the Bulletin and its message were both appropriate and sincere responses. Many agreed. Many disagreed. Both are valid. I’ve read several comments that took issue with his apology for not being absolute enough, for choosing the word “offended” over the word “wronged,” even for addressing “all members” rather than just women. Valid opinions, all, but I’ll admit that some gave me another facepalm moment. Because what I took away from some of those things was this:

Never mind whether I think you get that there’s a problem or whether I think you are doing something meaningful about it. Your apology isn’t good enough because the thing happened in the first place; because you didn’t choose the words I would have chosen; because this isn’t about everyone, just about women; and by the way in acknowledging that no response will be satisfactory to everyone involved you’re really saying there’s no moral absolute right here. There is only one right side to be on, and if you understood that you would have done more to make sure your apology was satisfactory to me. And it would have smacked those old geezers down hard, along with everyone who thinks like they do.

It kind of is about everyone. Every argument for equality and respect should be about everyone and making sure we’re all given equal voice and respect. (Not to mention that a service organization certainly has an obligation to its entire constituency.) That doesn’t mean we’re under obligation to accept the other guy’s point of view or treat, for instance, an offensive rebuttal like it wasn’t utterly offensive and take steps to respond officially to it. But we don’t get to choose each others’ words. We’re free to disagree with them, but we all get to choose our own. And everybody who has ever apologized for anything hopefully knows that, when people feel strongly about a given incident, no apology is enough, not without corresponding action and often not even then, because it can never undo what’s been done. An apology isn’t meant to do All The Things; is meant to do two things: to say I’m sorry, and preferably to do so in a manner that demonstrates understanding of the seriousness of the situation and actual remorse.

I guess this is where I differ from the woman who took issue with the apology–she must not have felt that it demonstrated an understanding and/or remorse. That’s her right, and it’s her right to voice it. Personally, I do think it demonstrated remorse, took responsibility, and promised action, so I found it satisfactory. Discussions of the precise verbiage there don’t interest me because if I sit around arguing over every word of the apology of someone who obviously agrees with me that the Kerfluffle happened because of real, actual inappropriateness, I keep that person from moving on to, you know, get actual stuff done in response to the incident.

I’m a practical girl. I like to gripe (as evidenced by not one but three blog posts on this topic), but in the end, mainly I want shit to get done and things to change. I want the discussion, which necessarily means I raise an eyebrow when folks on either side tell others willing to have the conversation that they’re doing it wrong. Or frame their responses in ways that suggest they aren’t actually interested in a discussion, they just want the other person to either agree with them in total or shut up. Resnick and Malzberg clearly framed their response in this way, and I think it’s critically important that those of us who were offended by that fact really make sure we don’t do the same.

I maintain a naïve belief that there are enough reasonable people in the world that sometimes a conversation does the trick, and helps us all to see eye to eye. And I also don’t believe that just because one person finds something offensive, that means that thing is always and forever wrong or bad or needs to be wiped off the planet. It often simply means there’s a conversation to be had. But I’m not stupid enough to think that always does the trick–it clearly didn’t work with Resnick and Malzberg, and here we are in the middle of a Kerfluffle (which is, if not quite a fight, certainly closer to a fight than a conversation). And often it’s simply not a matter of people not seeing eye to eye. This Kerfluffle has caused a number of women who’ve been overtly harassed if not physically assaulted outright at cons to write eloquently about their experiences with sexism in SF/F. Those are not opportunities for conversation. That’s when you go to the mat, but it should never, ever have gotten to the point where anyone thinks–as clearly some still do–that this kind of thing is in any way acceptable. 

(I’m going to say right now that despite all the stuff I say about assuming good intentions at the outset, if I am ever groped in this manner, there will be no eloquence or “quiet dignity” in my response. I will cheerfully reply by immediately putting a fist in the offender’s face with very bad intent. And be forewarned, potential offenders, if after you put a hand on me inappropriately I grab your neck and pull your head down toward my cleavage, it doesn’t mean I’m inviting further physical contact. In muay thai it’s called putting you in “plum” or “clinch” and it means I’m about to put my knees into your midsection as hard as I can and then throw you five feet across the room to catch your breath in a crumpled heap on the floor.)

Setting aside my grope-response plan, if both sides were more willing to at least begin with conversations as opposed to leaping straight to kerfluffles or fights, if we could all be a little less defensive, if we were all willing to assume good intentions, if we could accept that sometimes we offend when we don’t mean to but understand that that doesn’t render the feeling we gave the other person unimportant, if we were really willing to give every person we encounter the same amount of respect we expect for ourselves…but this is asking a lot of everyone, and in many cases, it’s asking far too much. There’s a lot of baggage out there, and there are a lot of people who simply don’t believe in that kind of equality and respect, either in principle or in practice.

There are a lot of reasons it’s hard to solve the ugly isms in society. Even a minimally reasonable effort requires a lot of work from both sides of any given awkward moment. But a first really good step is to honor the other person’s feelings and to be willing to have a conversation with them. The problem with Resnick’s and Malzberg’s responses to the complaints about Issue 200 is not that they had no ground to stand on—an opinion is an opinion, after all, and we’ve all got them, much like many assorted body parts we all have—but that they refused the conversation by calling the complainers either stupid and/or censorious (and it would probably have been best not to call them “liberal fascists” either, or to compare them to Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao. Just a thought). They were unwilling to see that the consequence of the rest of us allowing them  to voice their opinions on the subject is that they are equally obliged to allow everybody else to voice their opinions, too, and to honor them as being as meaningful and legitimate as their own. And when we voice those opinions in public forums, we all have to accept the consequences of doing so. In our own spaces on social media, the consequence might simply be anger. In a space that is not your own (like an industry publication), the consequence might be that you lose that forum. Them’s the breaks.

As I was getting ready to start writing up this post which became three posts, Nathan called in and said, “I kind of think this might be Chinatown. I don’t think you’re likely to change any minds here.” Now, he might just have meant to delicately suggest that, since almost nobody actually reads my blog (hi, mom!), it’s unlikely that anyone who doesn’t already agree with me is going to read any of these posts. But the more depressing possibility (and one I have confirmed is the correct interpretation) is this: my husband, a voracious reader of science fiction, thinks the sci-fi/fantasy community is Chinatown–it can’t be changed simply by reasonable people doing their best to do the right thing and hold each other accountable. Way to go, SF/F community. That puts you, in Nathan-land, on par with the pundits who were freaking out about women breadwinners. He’s one of your very devoted readers, and he thinks there’s enough evidence out there to believe that, unlike the tech and gamer communities (where there’s hope for change, even if it’s not coming quickly as one might wish, because younger, more malleable minds willing to converse and debate are in the majority), the sci-fi community is most likely to change when a generation of ingrained minds unwilling to give ground or engage in meaningful debate literally dies off.

Please prove him wrong.

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