Once Again, It's Personality Over Policy, Or: SFWA Politics

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So the SFWA politics are reflecting mainstream politics, which irritates me.
Here’s the background, for those of you who aren’t SFWA members: John Scalzi is running unopposed for President again, which is fine because he’s done a good job.  Mary Robinette Kowal, however, has stepped down from her position as VP, leaving two people to run: Rachel Swirsky and Lou Antonelli.
Lou posted a blog entry announcing his candidacy, and in his personal bio he said: “Louis and Patricia have two adopted Canine-American children, Millie and Sugar Antonelli.” Author Nisi Shawl (who literally wrote the book on writing about other cultures respectfully) took offense at this characterization, saying, “I, too, am a dog-lover, but I struggle for the words to tell you exactly how and why your flippant trivialization of the ethnic identity movement with this phrasing revolted me.”
Lou replied, perhaps unwisely, “I have no damn idea what your problem is. If I offended some esoteric aspect of political correctness, I don’t care… If this some way of saying your genes are more important than your citizenship, then it’s bullshit…. You obviously take yourself way too seriously.”
…at which point a heated discussion broke out on Twitter and in his comments (and in Jim Hines’ blog) about how a man who responded so angrily to a complaint from a SFWA member wasn’t fit to be Vice President.  (Most of the people I saw referencing it fell into the category of “Weren’t bothered by the Canine-American silliness at first blush, but the response was so full of swearing and tone-deaf dismissal that I don’t think this man has what it takes to represent a diverse organization.”)
These discussions brought all sorts of additional scrutiny to his biography – which claims that Lou would bring “diversity” to SFWA by being an older white Baptist.  (Which, to be fair, may be a minority among SFWA members, but still.)  And many decided not to vote for Lou based on the mini-scandal brought by his blog post.
All valid points.  You know, if a fairly prominent SFWA member comes to you with concerns about your tone, swearing at her is not a smart political move.  Do we want to elect a guy who can’t Google “Nisi Shawl” and then “Ethnic identity movement” before responding?
This is politics in a nutshell once again, with personality trumping policy. Because the real bombshell was buried in Lou’s goals for SFWA, were he elected:
“I would like to see an amendment to the criteria for a professional short story publication, going back to the three cents a word standard (which I believe was the pay rate over a decade ago).”
In other words, Lou’s main platform is “I would like to lower the minimum pay rate for authors to be considered professional.”  Which is a nice way of saying “I’d like authors to earn less money,” because the “pro rate” of five cents a word is what lower-tier magazines struggle to make in order to be called “professional.”  They make triumphant blog posts when they do make it.  SFWA sets the standard for payment.  The second you lower that rate, the marketplace will adjust to three cents a word.
How fucked up is that?  For the record, I had three professional short story sales in 2011 – more than most members, I’d wager.  And for those three sales, I made a sum total of about $600, two from online markets who were quite proud about finally hitting the “pro” rate.  Not exactly a princely sum, you see.
Under the Lou three-cents-a-word program, there’s a better-than-even chance I’d have made $440 instead.
So why would I vote for this guy?  His argument is that we’ll get more SFWA members with a lower rate – which is great for SFWA’s coffers, but actually actively terrible for me as a writer.  Five cents a word wasn’t really livable back in 1990, and after two decades of inflation we’re going to roll it back?
Seriously.  What the fuck?
To my mind, that’s the real scandal.  Not to dismiss Nisi’s complaints (though I should note she later accepted Lou’s apology, an apology I think was genuine), but what the blog-o-sphere should have reacted to was the cockamamie proposal on the table, one that would have made the economic realities of struggling authors patently worse.
Once again, we have the real world at work.  In a just place, Lou would have been dismissed out of hand for bad policy long before we even thought about writing him off for any political missteps.  But because policy is boring and insults exciting, we have the shitstorm raised by personal error, with the policy being raised only once the blog-o-sphere erupted in anger over something Lou did wrong.  (And I’m not immune – I didn’t notice the three-cents policy until Keffy pointed it out to me.)  I think Lou’s probably well-intentioned overall, not a bad man by any means, but that policy…. oof.
That vexes me.  I wish more people paid attention to platforms and got as angry about them as they did the scandals of personal misconduct – me included.  But we don’t.  Even in the small world of SFWA.
In other news, Rachel Swirsky is a wonderful human being and a very competent woman who has my wholehearted vote for SFWA vice president.  She had it before, doubly so now.


  1. Lou Antonelli
    Mar 8, 2012

    Hey Ferrett –
    Your arguments are reasoned and make a lot of sense! I threw my hat in the ring to offer voters a choice, and I stuck my neck out and threw out some ideas to foster discussion. I think I did that.
    One of the things you have to face when you come up with ideas is that you’ll get a response and may get shot down. I’m good with that, and I have learned a lot from the discourse. Your comments were part of that education process.
    I never though I had a chance of beating Rachel Swirsky. The SFWA is like any other club – in has its ingroups and prejudices and such. I’m an outsider.
    The fact that Nisi pushed a wrong button and I snapped at her highlights the fact that, as some people have said, I may not have the temperament to be an SFWA officer. In retrospect, that’s probably right, and it’s a valid observation. But Like I said, since I’ve never had a chance of winning, it really doesn’t matter.
    My use of the term diversity was probably a mistake, but it was shorter than saying “Hey, don’t forget there are white straight Christian males in this group!” From the discourse, you’d hardly know, and I have been mocked for it – mockery, by the way, that wouldn’t be tolerated if it was directed to a PoC gay lesbian woman. The fact that Nisi said, in effect, “you’re ignorant and I don’t have the time to tell you why” makes me feel like a moron, and I reacted defensively. Which is wrong and why I apologized. I’m genuinely sorry I offended her.
    I may be ignorant, of SFWA politics and political correctness in general, but if you knew my personal background and where I live now, you might appreciate my lack of understanding. As it is, I just feel like a wartime survivor for foisting my candidacy on the membership. Rachel will make a fine Vice President, and is much more representative of the membership than I am.
    You seem like a good guy and have a future in the genre. You also seem to care. I’m fat, dumb and happy here in Texas, and if anyone enjoys my fiction, that’s fine.
    Like I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I learned a few things about myself in this process, and that’s useful. I also learned a few things about the SFWA.
    I thought your post was thoughtful and reasoned, so I thought I’d take a few minutes and respond in kind.
    Lou Antonelli

  2. Tracy Shew
    Jun 4, 2012

    I am not an SFWA member, but as an aspiring writer I am watching the milieu with great interest . I am wondering if Lou Antonelli’s suggestion to change active membership criteria is in response to a need to broaden the organization, especially to include those who primarily seek non-traditional (i.e., electronic, online) publication.
    Perhaps instead of suggesting a “lowering of minimum wage” for professional writers, we could consider this a move towards opening the doors for representation of semi-professionals, like myself, who are otherwise ineligible for active membership.
    I’m certain that as more and more authors opt for online publication, we’ll see a recognition of the need for changes in SFWA membership criteria, in order to maintain the relevency and effectiveness of the organization in a publishing industry in rapid transition. The question the SFWA needs to ask is whether it should extend membership to more previously-ineligible authors who seek atraditional publication, and whether the corrent SFWA leadership is prepared to respond to that change.
    Just wondering if Mr. Antonelli’s suggestion was some kind of probe in that direction, against the granite of the SFWA’s standards. Thanks, T

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