The SFWA Shuffle: Is It About Respect?

When I was growing up, Walter Cronkite was like Jon Stewart times a thousand.  Walter was one of three newscasters – ABC, NBC, CBS was what you had – and he was by far the most trustworthy.  White-haired, placid Walter didn’t make a habit of going on rants like Jon Stewart, or Bill O’Reilly, or, well, any of the thousand cable jockeys.  He just mostly read the truth as he saw it.

There weren’t feedback forums in those days.  The best you could get was to wander on down to the bar and get into an argument with someone.  If you wrote a letter to the newspaper, the newspaper decided if they printed it – imagine having successful comment on a blog take three days to arrive, and having it be a big deal when it went through.

There was no community.  There was only Walter, holding forth, one man telling you the truth.  You believed in Walter, because you never had any reason not to.  And Walter only pronounced judgment a couple of times in his career – but when he said that we’d lost Vietnam, it was like God himself told us that things were over.  The tears of Walter Cronkite were a terrible thing to see, like the tears of America itself, inspired only by the death of a President.

You trusted the Godhead.

Now?  Nobody gets off light.  If you’re in broadcast, you’re not only one of a thousand folks on the screen, but your words are torn to shreds by a million Twitter-feeds and blogs and Facebook posts and comment forums the second they’re off your lips.  Trust is for suckers, the Rush Limbaugh junkies who lap up what he says uncritically – and note that his audience is mostly older folks seeking a Walter Cronkite methadone.  No, conservatives and liberals alike know to question, to poke, to prod, and to seek verification – even if it’s only verification from like-minded individuals.

One misstep, and the fallout is very public.  Rage used to happen silently, impotently, in phone calls to the station and flurries of letters, and the stations themselves got to determine how loud the dissenting voices were.  Now anyone can tune in to the constant stream of fury, and you’re not Walter Cronkite.  You’re literally only as good as your last broadcast.  Reputation counts for very little; even the longest-term of friends can be yanked off their pedestal by one misstep.

And I wonder.

There’s a SFWA petition going around because of the way that Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick were “censored,” and what’s interesting is that aside from notable conservative Brad Torgerson – who also seems to idolize much of the past – I don’t think there’s a person on that petition who’s under sixty.

I wonder how much of that reaction is the Grandmasters Of Yore feeling threatened by this new culture that’s swimming up to engulf them.

See, they’re supposed to be Walter Cronkite now.  The elder statesmen.  When they speak, their words should fall on fertile ground.  And when they saw Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg being savaged by these people who were nobody – nobody! – until Mike and Barry got taken off-stage, I wonder how terrifying that is for them, to see someone’s grand legacy simply not count.  The idea that these men’s decades of service, their reputation, would not shield them from the onslaught, well… the only reaction is that this must be censorship.  Nobody would call for the heads of respected statesmen.

And I wonder whether there would have been a petition if, instead of People Who We Know Are Brilliant Writers, the column had been written by Phil and Jackie Nobody, just two old folks recollecting the way an editor looked in a bikini.  I wonder if all these Grand Statesmen would have required a petition for that column’s removal, seeing that as the Thin End of The Wedge – or whether they would have cheered to see such ignorant rabble escorted from the room.

I suspect Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison wouldn’t have given a crap about Phil and Jackie Nobody.

See, to this generation, Who Gets To Speak is about who has the smartest thing to say today.  We’ve all linked to a blog post from someone we’ve never heard of who nonetheless articulated things beautifully, and we’ve all condemned a long-term hero who shoved his foot in his mouth.  Reputation counts for something – but in this new world, it will not shield you, and the reputation is not so much an acquired position so much as it is the accumulated head-nods of people agreeing with your wise positions.

But to that generation – and a generation is often a state of mind, not an age – they believe in Walter Cronkite.  One suspects they aspire to Walter Cronkite-hood, and are pleased to have gotten there.  Who wouldn’t?  Being The Voice is a wonderful thing.  And to them, I wonder if the reaction of “censorship” isn’t so much that “people are being fired for saying silly things,” but “people like us are getting fired for saying silly things.”

Walter Cronkite didn’t say silly things.  Whatever he said was made golden by the fact that Walter Cronkite said it.

And I wonder whether these otherwise quite-wise and compassionate people weren’t signing a petition against SFWA so much as they were protesting this newer and rawer and more brutal way of life.

9 Comments

  1. Brad R. Torgersen
    Feb 11, 2014

    Every single one of the young turks who has decided to throw the old pharts out of the Correctness Circle, will one day also be old, and find themselves being similarly thrown out.

    And I will be there, at the edge of the firelight, saying, “Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?”

    I said it elsewhere: SFWA either needs to be a business union, or a political activism org. It cannot be both. It does both poorly. It pisses people off when it does both. It needs to either go one way, or the other, and not look back.

    In the end, SFWA is not necessary to be a successful entertainer. It’s been (until now) a badge of entry, sure. Achievement unlocked! But how many young indie writers no longer care? How many business-minded SFWAns are tired of the political bullshit, and eager to just . . . walk away?

    • TheFerrett
      Feb 11, 2014

      Every single one of the young turks who has decided to throw the old pharts out of the Correctness Circle, will one day also be old, and find themselves being similarly thrown out.

      You (and others) say that as though this is some hellish wasteland we will be shunned to, and not a part of the process. If people continued to say foolish things on any level, eventually people would stop listening to them. I’m pretty sure if a SFWA Grandmaster took to fundamentalist Christianity and spent his days telling everyone else how they were going to hell by writing naughty fiction, that person would quietly stop getting invited to parties. Or if someone became a Hollow-Earther and wrote three columns in a row in SFWA discussing the joys of Hollow Earth, I’m pretty sure that column would get dropped.

      That process isn’t horrific; it’s the march of time. It’s always happened. It’s just accelerated. And if we disagree with where things are headed, I don’t claim this is the March To The Glorious Future; I merely claim it’s what is actually happening, and maybe it’s time to face up to that.

      I said it elsewhere: SFWA either needs to be a business union, or a political activism org.

      And I’ll say it here: I don’t recall another business union I’ve heard of purposely posting things that irritate large portions of its paying dues membership. I don’t recall any of the restaurant unions I was in having union-authorized discussions of the attractiveness of past chefs. There are certain things that, in business, don’t get discussed because it’s unprofessional. Your refusal to acknowledge this, and to cast it in terms of censorship, is telling; we want a business structure. You want a platform.

  2. Brad R. Torgersen
    Feb 11, 2014

    I keep seeing that used: “When I was part of (insert company or union outside SFWA) they would never have let this happen!” Well, maybe. SFWA is rather different from, say, a company that manufactures and sells turnip tumblers. It’s an org for people who produce intellectual product. Ideas are our stock in trade. But now there are people in the org saying that some ideas are okay and other ideas are “unprofessional” or worse. I see this is an arbitrary numbers game. Get enough like-minded voters on you side, to bitch and moan, and you can get almost anyone thrown out of the org and/or dropped from the org’s publication.

    In the very near future it won’t matter to me anymore because I am letting my SFWA membership lapse. My publishing in Analog, my Baen contract, these are not things SFWA did for me. I can tell you Mike Resnick did help me a great deal by sharing his wisdom and guidance, so that I could make informed decisions about how to navigate a range of questions. And yet Mike Resnick was drummed out and villified for daring to tell an anecdote about what the wife of a CFG member told him about Bea Mahaffey.

    To me an org is only as valuable as its ability to assist and protect me in my chosen profession. Right now SFWA seems to be impotent on both counts, and in fact, given how the 2012 awards season went down, and how certain SFWAns treated me behind my back, I felt like people in good standing in “my” org went out of their way to try to stunt or damage me. Why should I support that? Especially when these are the same people taking Mike Resnick to the wood shed?

    • TheFerrett
      Feb 11, 2014

      I keep seeing that used: “When I was part of (insert company or union outside SFWA) they would never have let this happen!” Well, maybe. SFWA is rather different from, say, a company that manufactures and sells turnip tumblers. It’s an org for people who produce intellectual product.

      And that matters… how? Scientists also produce intellectual product, as do advertising agencies, and yet somehow their professional journals manage to avoid this sort of conflict where people feel they have to take sides.

      Why? Perhaps because they don’t see “trafficking in ideas” as something so special that it excuses them from not insulting their fellow members.

      Mike Resnick was drummed out and villified for daring to tell an anecdote about what the wife of a CFG member told him about Bea Mahaffey.

      Mike Resnick was not “drummed out” of the organization. He was fired from a column at a magazine. He’s still welcome to be a part of the organization, if he chooses to be. He may not.

      Now, I’m sorry if people were backbiting you – I know nothing about that. But SFWA has never really been a strong force for getting people contracts and contacts – perhaps because it is based on the old boy’s club. I’ve certainly never found it more than a badge of honor.

      What I do know is that if you’re arguing, “Well, because we’re WRITERS, maybe we should have special dispensation to act in nonprofessional ways!” and then complain about the organization being backbitey and gossipy, you can’t really have it both ways. I’d prefer we were held to a higher standard across the board, and part of that is ensuring that such conflicts don’t fester in the official magazine.

      Take it to the blogs, kids.

  3. Dear Crom. Are we still re-litigating SFWA Bulletin #200?

    Look, I’ve been trying to stay out of this one. I’m not a SFWA member, I don’t write science fiction — heck, I don’t even read as much of it as I used to. So I’ve been trying to stay with, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” But, dear Crom, if we have to keep re-litigating this, fine, here’s my take on SFWA Bulletin #200 and the resulting fallout.

    One interesting side effect of the fact that a lot of classic SF authors have been dying of old age is that we’re getting to see more and more of their personal papers, including more and more of the drafts they submitted to the publishers. And the more of these we see, the more obvious it becomes to me that, frankly, a lot of these classic science fiction authors’ own prose was at least partially unreadable, in some cases entirely unreadable. The more of these so-called final drafts I see, the more it looks to me like the fact that nearly every popular science fiction author between about 1950 and 1980 was a hack churning out mildly interesting but poorly crafted prose, that was rendered readable by more-talented uncredited female collaborators who were only working as editors because the magazines and the print houses would only publish a couple of female authors. These old guys reminiscing about how they got famous in science fiction are, entirely or in large part, people who got famous because their nearly-all female editors made them famous.

    Now, I get that the relationship between writers and editors has always been fraught; that there are only a few writers gracious enough to admit that after the editor gets done with it, it’s a better book or story. But, still, to find out that the only things that these classic science fiction authors remember about their uncredited female collaborators, that the only thing they find interesting to say about them after all these years, is which ones their wives were jealous of their looks, which ones looked sexy in swimwear? Frankly, even if the women currently working in the industry weren’t feeling oppressed by this, even if they didn’t have a legitimate complaint that these guys are making it sound like the only job women have in science fiction is looking sexy, the sheer blunt sexist dismissal of colleagues to whom they own their whole careers is something I find really, really, really repulsive.

    Anybody standing up for them, and demanding that they be allowed to do more of it at SWFA’s expense, is, in my opinion, defending the indefensible.

  4. Ken Schneyer
    Feb 12, 2014

    I can tell you Mike Resnick did help me a great deal by sharing his wisdom and guidance, so that I could make informed decisions about how to navigate a range of questions.

    Loyalty to one’s friends is a laudable thing. Mike Resnick and Barry Malzburg never did anything for me, whereas Amal El-Mohtar and Nora Jemisin have. *shrug* You support your friends, I’ll support mine.

    But more to the point, I never enjoyed the Resnick/Malzburg column when it was a regular feature in the Bulletin. I always started reading it, because I always hoped it would actually teach me something about the history of SF. But I was never able to finish it, because I got fed up with the in-jokes, convoluted digressions, smarmy tone, juvenile humor, and repeated references to things I had no clue of. I’m no kid, I’m 54, and I’ve been reading SF for decades; if I had problems seeing the relevance, usefulness or entertainment value in those columns, what must the younger folks have thought?

    So, my judgment against it isn’t, ultimately, political. The last foot-in-the-mouth was just the last straw in a product whose value was already precarious. It was high time that column was replaced with something of better quality. Reasonable minds can disagree about this, of course. But I can’t seriously call that censorship.

  5. htom
    Feb 12, 2014

    “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” was the cry when Walter Cronkite was reading (and writing) the news as the primary anchor on CBS. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were the primary anchors on NBC, and Harry Reasoner eventually had the solo chair on ABC (people don’t seem to remember Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds there.) I didn’t trust any of them, as I was in and out of the broadcasting industry in those decades and knew how the news departments worked.

    If you believe that what you hear on the news is “the truth” … you’re the guy (or gal) in the poker game who doesn’t know who the sucker is. Remembering those days, maybe you are too young to have heard it: v Pravde net izvestiy, v Izvestiyakh net pravdy” (In the Truth there is no news, and in the News there is no truth.)

    Story telling is about conflict. An association of story tellers that resolves to avoid conflict, to not offend any part of its membership will soon find its membership transformed into a choir, not by some magical transformation spell, because those who don’t want to sing along will have left. A choir composed only of coloratura contraltos would eventually become boring; contrast is a necessity. The organization would do better to be sure to offend every part of their membership at least once in every issue, or if that’s too difficult, at least a minimum of twice a year.

    You’re offended? Good, that’s proof of life. Now, get off my lawn!

  6. Jay
    Mar 2, 2014

    “I suspect Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison wouldn’t have given a crap about Phil and Jackie Nobody.”

    Would that be the same Harlan Ellison who marched on Selma?

    I think the totality of Silverberg’s and Ellison’s work indicates how wrong you are, how many assumptions you make from ignorance or to justify your purges.

    • TheFerrett
      Mar 2, 2014

      Would that be the same Harlan Ellison who marched on Selma?

      It’d be a different Harlan, actually – the Harlan Ellison who’s had almost fifty years of growth and change as a person. The Harlan who’s calcified to the point of demanding everything his way. And even that Harlan, way back when, seemed a little impressed by himself for taking place in a Big Demonstration.

      And incidentally, don’t take this as “Ferrett doesn’t know Harlan Ellison.” I have literally three shelves downstairs devoted to Harlan’s works. When I sold my first pro story, I send the manuscript to Unca Harlan by way of thanks for inspiring me. I’ve read all of Harlan’s work I could get my hands on. I actually collect Harlan Ellison anecdotes from fellow writers, because they’re always entertaining. And if you do that, then you come to realize that Harlan has a long and studied habit of writing off people he thinks are beneath his notice. I’m willing to bet I’ve read more of Ellison than you have, actually.

      So yeah, I’m pretty sure Ellison wouldn’t have rallied for some no-name’s column getting cut from SFWA for being kind of tedious and controversial.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. SFWA – Almost as infuriating as Maischberger | Cora Buhlert - […] many Mormon members would feel if the SFWA were to carry an article insulting their religion, while Ferrett Steinmetz…
  2. How to Suppress Writing Women » Almost Diamonds - […] added next to none of her own. She also retweeted people linking to non-hyperbolic, if implacable, posts like this…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *