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.”
“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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