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: Continue reading