19th Nervous Breakdown? 34th Kerfuffle? SFWA & The Petition

Update: 5:20 pm est:  SFWA President Steven Gould has issued a statement regarding the petition here
Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about this yet.  Well ok.  Those who have, a bit of patience please.

Last year, SFWA’s “house organ”, The Bulletin, published three issues containing material that was problematic for some members (and non-members).  They spoke up.  Those members who hadn’t had a problem responded.  Kerfuffle ensued.

The then President of SFWA, John Scalzi, took responsibility for the issue(s). The then current editor of The Bulletin resigned, publication of the magazine was suspended.  Some folks resigned from the organization.  Much internet traffic ensued.

I’m hesitant to detail the issues over which this blowup occurred out of concern that doing so (and the inevitable criticism over whether or not I’ve characterized things properly, fully, &c) will distract from the current kerfuffle.  I do think it important to keep your kerfuffles straight.  Nevertheless:

Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg – long time regular contributors to The Bulletin (and long-time and important contributors to the field) – wrote an article about women in the field with whom they’d worked.  Reviewing the past apparently makes up a goodly portion of their column’s content.

In describing the women, Resnick & Malzberg used modes of description and terms, and discussed topics, that, while intended to be positive, came across (to some) as marginalizing, sexist, unenlightened, dismissive and negative.  Their characterizations of those women editors was criticized for focusing on the wrong things – looking good in a bikini as opposed to wielding a red pencil in an effective manner.  This was regarded as yet another example of old white men expressing their privilege.

There was a lot of discussion on the members-only SFWA forum, none of which I am privileged to have seen, but references that leaked out suggest that the exchanges were pretty vitriolic in some cases and that those who were participating diverged into two camps:  those who found the essay problematic and those who found the critiques to be an infringement of the author’s rights to express themselves.  Censorship, if you will.

At the same time, The Bulletin published the now infamous chainmail bikini cover – right in the middle of Jim C. Hines’ campaign regarding how women are depicted on SF and fantasy cover art – physically contorted positions that emphasize sexually enticing characteristics.

This was followed by a rebuttal from Malzberg & Resnick in the very next issue, in which they accused their detractors of trying to throttle debate;  of anonymous posters engaging in censorship and their concern that historical fact was being sacrificed on the alter of political correctness.

…AND we had the “Barbie” article.

Needless to say:  Gasoline.  Fire.  Throw.

(I’m not trying to sway the arguments with my summary;  if anyone responsible for original commentary on those subjects feels that I have mischaracterized the debate, please feel free to weigh in.  There’s plenty of links to the original material (below) so that folks can make their own judgments).

And now, Act II or, as David Gerrold has characterized it “SFWA Indignation Riot, Round#34 is about to begin.” (from his Facebook page)

Dave Truesdale, editor and publisher of TangentOnline (the contemporary version of his long-running fanzine, Tangent, and a contributor to Amazing’s weekly news round up with OTR recordings), a former editor of the SFWA Bulletin and a former member of SFWA, was sent a set of the new guidelines for selecting the new editor of The Bulletin, developed and/or approved by current SFWA President Steven Gould.

David wrote several emails to Gould requesting clarification of those guidelines, was not immediately satisfied and eventually wrote and began to circulate a petition, demanding that the guidelines be thrown out, as they seemed to institutionalize censorship and political correctness by running all content past a review board. (The email exchange is included in the link to the original draft of the petition.)

The original draft of the petition was problematic for some (see below for full text) (commentary on that draft here on Radish Reviews);  it was in fact amended to reflect changes requested by some SFWA members to whom it was circulated for their signature (See K. Tempest Bradford’s Facebook page – particularly Nancy Kress discussing the fact that she refused to sign the petition as originally written, but did sign the re-drafted version.)

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was sent a copy of the petition and was asked to endorse it as well.  I have declined to do so for the moment as I am still familiarizing myself with the issues.  This particular event took place while I was picking my wife up at work, ten minutes before the whole building exploded;  we’re still unclear whether she’ll have a job anymore; her brother and nephew work there as well so the latter half of my day was concerned with other issues.  Additionally, I am not currently, nor never have been, privileged to be a member of SFWA, so I’m not exactly sure if I should be signing the petition or merely commenting on it.)

David Gerrold has done a good job on his FB page of framing the surrounding discussion – the larger issue:  that SFWA has always had kerfuffles due, at least in large measure to the fact that its membership represents such a diverse spectrum of opinion AND that its members are disproportionately made up of writers who have a tendency to express themselves with the written word (and do so effectively – who knew?).  He suggests that in the long run we may need to have these kinds of blow-ups in order to let everyone vent;  once the bile has passed, everyone is so emotionally exhausted that there’s finally room for learning, compromise and evolution.  David has signed the petition, stating that the imposition of a review board vetting Bulletin content is a threat to the freedom of expression that every author ought to be concerned about, regardless of their particular viewpoint(s).

Natalie Luhrs of the Radish Reviews presents the alternate side of the argument that The Bulletin, by publishing three “sexist” issues in a row has itself made the case for requiring over site.  She also strongly notes that the right to a Freedom of Speech is a requirement on the Federal government, not private institutions.  She and others have noted that “editing” is being conflated with “censorship”; that organizations have a right to control the content of their publications – especially those that put a public face on the organization.

Someone else (can’t remember who) mentioned that there was a time when this kind of rancorous debate among the members was restricted to the online Forum – a private forum where everyone was free to express whatever (un)popular views they might have, and that perhaps providing such a venue again might be a way to hairsplit the issue.  ((I can’t verify that, not having access to the forum.)

Those in favor of the petition seem to largely object to the imposition of a gate-keeping group of volunteers (who?  how selected? what criteria?) accepting or rejecting articles submitted to The Bulletin.  Arguments range from “isn’t that the editor’s job” to “NO CENSORSHIP!  This time it may be me, but next time it will be YOU!” (Quotes only for effect.)

A surprising number of high-profile names seem to have signed as of this writing. (Full list as of 10:30 am est, 2/11/14 below)

So what do I make of this whole thing?

Well, first things first.  Caveats.  As I’ve said before, I’m not a SFWA member and therefore not a recipient of whatever in-house communication on these subjects may be in the process of distribution.  Some of what I say next may very well be mooted by such.

Second first thing:  I’m a former game designer and a former commissioner of a sports league.  There are very few hard and fast rules for writing hard and fast rules, but one of them is surely the following:  never write down a rule that you are unwilling to enforce in every and any circumstance, regardless of the consequences.  Another one is: never write down rules that require interpretation without providing the interpretation in the rules (otherwise everyone is free to add that part themselves).

The presentation of SFWA’s guidelines for The Bulletin’s editor seem to me to be so open-ended and rudderless that they are bound to cause a problem in the future.  As an editor, I would be hesitant to apply for the position because what it suggests is that every Nth issue, I may very well be trying to please an entirely new set of reviewers, with no possible way of determining what their decisions will be regarding the content I’ve selected for publication.  I’d be stuck in the middle, constantly having to reject work that I’d already accepted, having to accept work I’d previously rejected.  It would be one of those jobs that ends up accepting all of the blame while having none of the responsibility.

But I don’t think that’s the major issue.

From everything I’ve seen so far, the more important issue, the one that needs to be solved first is this:

what’s the purpose of The Bulletin?

Perhaps even more important than that is:

does SFWA have guidelines for how its divisive membership is going to comport itself privately and publicly?

There’s no secret that members of SFWA represent a wide swath of the political spectrum of beliefs.  (All you have to do is read some of the things members have called each other to know that.)

If every member of SFWA is free to express their beliefs within the organization (on the Forums, in the publications, while campaigning for office, while trying to create and implement policy) than it is inevitable that members are going to clash, offend each other and probably fight about it in ways that while they may be appropriate will also take time and energy away from the business of the organization and its members own work.

I think that before a resolution to this issue can be found, SFWA needs to consult with its members and determine exactly what the purpose of The Bulletin is to be.

I also think it is pretty clear that if The Bulletin’s purpose is to present SFWA to a wider (non-member) audience, than guidelines describing what is and is not appropriate content should be developed and distributed.  The members will be free to weigh in on political correctness, offensive content, vote on what their collective position(s) will be and those who are not satisfied, for whatever reason, will be free to resign, or work harder from the inside to change things.

SFWA is a private organization that is free to make just about any rules governing itself that it wishes to.  If its decisions do not largely reflect the positions of those who would be members, it will become an ineffective organization and something else more appropriate will eventually replace it.  Perhaps several something elses.

I think it also clear that if the face SFWA presents to the public is not largely in line with that public, it will also cease to be a meaningful organization for the public.  And something else will eventually replace it.

I think that members of SFWA should be free to express themselves – without concern for censorship – within the organization. Which again raises the question – what is The Bulletin’s purpose?  What is it’s audience?

If it’s purpose is to engage with the general public, it behooves a (successful) publication to present itself in a manner acceptable to the widest possible audience;  this does not mean the avoidance of controversy (where appropriate), but rather the manner in which controversial subjects are presented.  The words chosen should be ones that invite debate and commentary, rather than words that engender hate and resentment.  (There is a difference between saying, “Your position is stupid and you are obviously an idiot with an idiotic political agenda” and “I disagree because…”)


What do I think?

First, I think that SFWA needs to do some more work behind the scenes and directly address these competing viewpoints of freedom of expression versus the right to remain free from offense.  I don’t really care how they come down on the issue (well I do, I’d hope they do so in an enlightened fashion) but I want to see some statements that try to delineate what is acceptable and what is not, both in terms of internal operations and how the organization presents itself to the public. Rules that everyone can look at and understand, even if they disagree with them.

Second, if The Bulletin continues as a general purpose organ for a writer’s organization, the editor should be given the right to accept or reject, the right to edit, in a way that gives them decision making capability and responsibility for following whatever guidelines are developed for content.  SFWA’s recourse in the event that the rules are violated would be to fire the editor and hire a new one.  The organization, through its elected officials, should decide what the purpose of the publication is and what kind of content it will publish.  The editor should have the means and authority to make the detailed decisions.

Third, I expect to see the organizations members, most, if not all of whom, are very intelligent, well-educated people with a facility for using words in an effective and deliberate manner, to be able to express themselves and make their arguments in a way that is not offensive to parties that do not share their views. If your intent is to be offensive, or, perhaps worse, you just don’t care to keep up with the latest sociological happenings (remaining ignorant of what may be offensive in this brave new world), then perhaps a SFWA publication or forum is not the place for that particular expression.  It is possible to make powerful arguments without being offensive and I’d expect a writers organization to be the first place to look for examples of how to do so.

Fourth, seems to me that an organization such as SFWA ought to be focusing on the things that are within its collective interest and, like many special interest organizations, ignoring (or even prohibiting) discussion of or engagement with issues that don’t impact that collective interest.  Finding those (few) things that most everyone can agree on and working on them with common cause is often an effective way to solidify and strengthen an organization.

Here’s some links to other views on this subject:

James Nicoll 

Black Gate Magazine


Angela Korra’ti

World in a Satin Bag

The Ferrett

C.C. Finlay

S L Huang has a somewhat round-up with lots of good links on the R&M/Bulletin Cover/Censorship/Anonymity/Barbie issue


Bennett North

Resnick & Malzberg response to criticism of their original article pages 1  2  3  4  5  6

D. Truesdale’s original petition draft

Current Version of the Petition with Signatories



Cyd Athens

Gregory Benford – Nebula winner

David Brin – Nebula winner, Past SFWA Secretary

Amy Sterling Casil – Nebula nominee, former SFWA Treasurer

C. J. Cherryh – Nebula nominee

Lillian Csernica

Jack Dann – Nebula winner, former Bulletin Managing & Asst. Editor, past member of the Publicity Bureau, Nebula Rules Committee, and Grievance Committee; current member of the Anthology Committee

Harlan Ellison – Nebula winner, SFWA Grand Master, Past SFWA V.P.

Sheila Finch – Nebula winner, past SFWA V.P, and Western Regional Director

David Gerrold – Nebula winner, Western Regional Director

Janis Ian

Nancy Kress – Nebula winner

Mercedes Lackey

Dr. Paul Levinson – Past SFWA President

Barry N. Malzberg – Five time Nebula finalist, appearances in six of the annual Nebula volumes, editor of the Bulletin in 1969, Eastern Regional Director for two years in the late 70s and Grievance Committee 1980-1984.

Jack McDevitt – Nebula winner

Larry Niven – Nebula winner

Dr. Jerry Pournelle – Past SFWA President

Mike Resnick – Nebula winner, past SFWA ConAlert (8 yrs.) and Anthology Chairman (6 yrs.)

Ralph Roberts

Chuck Rothman – Past SFWA Treasurer

Susan Shwartz – Five-time Nebula nominee, member of Nebula Jury (2 years); on committee exploring reinstatement of film Nebula

Robert Silverberg – Nebula winner, SFWA Grand Master, Past SFWA President

Norman Spinrad – Past SFWA President (twice)

Allen Steele – Three time Nebula nominee, Past Eastern Regional Director

Brad R. Torgersen – Nebula nominee

Harry Turtledove – Two-time Nebula nominee, Past SFWA Treasurer

Mary Turzillo – Nebula winner

Vernor Vinge

Jay Werkheiser

Gene Wolfe – Nebula winner, SFWA Grand Master

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