The World SF Blog

Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Editorial: In A Global Economy, What Place for the SFWA?

[Note: you may have noticed the site is currently in shut-down mode. However I'm in some early talks about a possible hand-over. In the meantime...]

I’ve been following with some interest the recent brouhaha (don’t you just love that word?) around the SFWA (there’s a round-up of links here).

I was struck by a couple of tangential comments, however, neither of which is directly related. One of them was sent to me privately, an excerpt from a conversation on the SFWA boards, in which a member said:

“SFWA is supposed to be an organization of those who write and publish science fiction in America.”

The other two comments came from Twitter:

“If SFWA tried to be a truly global Association instead of a US-centric one, it could more easily address other biases too.”

and:

“Luckily, being South African, I never saw any point to joining the SFWA.”

And that’s the thing. I probably qualified for SFWA membership years ago (it only takes the sale of three stories, really), but I’ve never felt, perhaps, that I had a place in what is, after all, the science fiction writers of America. Now, I am published in the United States. In fact, in the sort of global world we live in, I’d argue that it’s impossible to distinguish necessarily – in work terms – between an American and a non-American writer. Of course, some writers publish predominantly in one country and not the other. Many British writers are more successful in the UK, but I can hardly point to a single author never having business dealings with someone in the United States. The United States is the primary market for anyone – short story writer, editor, novelist – working in the field today.

Ironically, for a time the SFWA web site was relying on our own Charles Tan (from the Philippines) to provide much of its original content.

Now, it may sound like semantics, but there’s a wider issue here, I think. For me as an outside observer, the SFWA has improved a lot in recent years. After some frankly bizarre incidents and people associated with it (remember a president addressing people with “greetings, gentlebeings”? Or a former president currently taking to the Internet to explain the inherent differences between men and women which make sexism ok?) I felt the SFWA took grip of itself with John Scalzi as president, and moreover, after having people run things who no one has ever heard of, it’s nice when the organisation has an actual working writer at the helm (first Scalzi, and with Steven Gould is just coming into the job).

What the SFWA doesn’t have, however, is any sort of commitment to diversity or any seeming awareness of the global nature of publishing today. I mean commitment to diversity as a stated goal of an organisation, and I mean a global awareness in the sense that today’s working writers come from many places, only one of which is the United States itself, and that the issues facing authors are increasingly those from multinational corporations and publishing houses that are not bound by one narrow geographical area.

What it is, I think, is that I don’t just want to be eligible to join the SFWA. I want to be made welcome by the SFWA. If that makes sense. (and I don’t mean me myself, exactly. I’ve never been comfortable with membership in any organisation, though I’ve always been half-tempted to join the Israeli Transformers Appreciation Society (pop: 3 members)). I mean the people that, in a way, this blog represents. Some of our contributors are members of SFWA, others aspire to, others probably want nothing to do with it.

What is, after all, the purpose of an organisation like this? Is it to host occasional parties or hand out awards? Is it to fund emergency medical help for American writers living under a system of no social healthcare? Is it to offer business advice? At the moment, it seems half or more of the organisation’s budget goes on publishing a rather odd print journal (and we can see how that has turned out).

Imagine a different SFWA. One that has commitment to diversity in its masthead. One open to and welcoming international writers, doing things like the very World SF Travel Fund we have been running here. One that says, you know, American writers? They’re only a part of the world of genre fiction today. Imagine the budget going not on an obscure print magazine but an up-to-date web site, an organisation that frowns on editors putting together anthologies with a narrow focus that excludes international writers (who are, frankly, some of the most exciting voices working today in the field).

That same SFWA member in the forums also said:

This doesn’t look a lot like the organization I was invited to join back in the early 70′s.

To which I can only say, Thank God for that! We don’t live in the 1970s any more. The year is 2013, there’s a global communication network surrounding the world, publishing is owned by two major corporations neither of which is US-based, and if science fiction is the literature of change, then it must embrace that change.

And this goes beyond a couple of old farts making fools of themselves in a magazine no one reads. It is an institutional bias that proves almost impossible to remove.

So… consider this one more conversational point in the current debate. It’s not a call to arms, it’s not a call to quit, or join, the SFWA, it’s certainly not a call to “help change things from within” or, for that matter, from without. Hopefully, it’s a different take, from the bias of this blog, on how the Science Fiction Writers of America is perceived by some of us who are not under that national qualification.

And to go back to this blog, briefly, it has been tremendously gratifying to see it evolve, get some minor recognition, maybe even help change a few things, here and there – but it is also frustrating to be making the same argument, over and over, for the past four years – not just in blog posts but in person, in conversation, or in other public forums – and most of the time to people who nod politely without quite hearing you. To those of us fighting to be heard, and fighting for recognition, it’s an up-hill battle all the way, and I wish it wasn’t – not for myself but for all those writers this blog is here to champion.

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June 3, 2013 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

6 Comments

  1. It’s telling that the companies that a lot of SFWAns consider the ultimate evil—that is to say, thieving Google, villain Microsoft, and that cursed Amazon—all have commitments to diversity that go beyond “equal opportunity employer”. They have programs designed to increase diversity through the interview process, and to support diversity through internal networking groups, some of which are funded out of the company bank.

    If the mustache-twirlers can do better than SFWA, that gives me no hope that the org will ever do more for diversity than possibly give it token recognition and maybe not even that.

    Comment by Arachne Jericho | June 3, 2013

  2. To a large extent, the SFWA mirrors the stubborn parochialism and neoteny of the US SFF dominant group. Additionally, they’re astonishingly old-fashioned (in a bad way, including logistics) for an organization that officially represents a self-labeled “visionary” genre.

    Comment by Athena Andreadis (@AthenaHelivoy) | June 3, 2013

  3. P. S. It’s also characteristic (and discouraging) that 1) the men who caused all this got paid pro rates while the women who are cleaning up the mess are doing so as unpaid volunteers and 2) the very few men who (kinda) apologized for saying jaw-dropping things are inundated with flowers and kisses while the women who spoke up are receiving obscene threats.

    Comment by Athena Andreadis (@AthenaHelivoy) | June 3, 2013

  4. If the SFWA is to have a future, it must accept its name is increasingly an anachronism. The Kindle respects no borders.

    Comment by jamesworrad | June 4, 2013

  5. Great article. I’m with the South African lady.

    I’m published in the United States but I don’t consider it my main market. It’s half the English speaking world but I would rather write what comes naturally to me and aim it at the more open-minded other half of planet’s English speakers. If my books are to sell in the US I must tailor them accordingly. Most people in the rest of the world know that a faucet is also a tap, if a character is wearing a jersey or a jumper they’ll also know it’s a sweater because they’ve studied English as a language rather than in the UK or US version. I just can’t be doing with using one word for everything so that the people in a single country, many of whom seem to be unaware of a world beyond their local town, can understand it. Add to this that many people buying and reading books in English are in countries with emerging markets and rising economies and I have to say I’d rather look to them.

    In short, I think the worm is turning. If the SFWA doesn’t turn it’s eyes outwards some other organisation will and they will come to speak for the genre. Personally, I see it as an organisation representing the writers of one country not world wide.

    Just a thought or two.

    Comment by M T McGuire | June 5, 2013

  6. Curiously, a number of other non-American writers (mostly female) have been talking about this for a while now, in email or at gatherings. The issue has mainly been lack of time to organise. But we could start a mailing list discussion or some such, possibly.
    Kari

    Comment by kar isperring | June 13, 2013


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