Bring Your Own Goddamned Context, Guys: On The Latest SFWA Scandal

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s another Science Fiction Writers of America kerfuffle this time around, and I think CC Finlay sums it up admirably.  Go read what he wrote.
But CC links to a pretty decent essay by David Gerrold – not that I agree with what he says, but I think he’s pretty even-handed and honest as a man can be who stands on the other side of this issue – who says this:

The indignation junkies immediately whooped up an outrage posse to complain that the bulletin was a sexist rag — Malzberg and Resnick’s response/explanation was judged and found wanting. They had to be flogged.
Okay, I exaggerate — but I know Malzberg and Resnick. I admire them. I’ve learned from them…

To which I immediately said:
Look, I don’t know Michael Resnick and Barry Malzberg – nor should I have to in order to parse their essays properly.  As writers, they above all people oughtta know that when someone’s reading you, you should not expect them to understand intent, but rather what you put on the goddamned page.
And I for one am sick of the idea that one can only interpret a given blog post via the rose-colored filter of knowing someone.  As anyone who knows me, I have stuck my foot in my mouth monstrously on more than a few occasions.  And when I have misrepresented myself so grievously, it is not the reader’s fault.  It is my fault for failing to provide my own context.
Am I happy to have friends who’ll defend me when I fuck up and come off as a misogynist asshole?  Absolutely.  Am I glad when they do?  Yup.
Do I use that personal knowledge as an excuse to come off like a jerk in print?
No, no, no.
I don’t give a crap what Barry and Mike are like in their personal lives.  Full truth is that I’ve been on a few panels with Mike Resnick, and he seems like a decent guy.   But would Mike Resnick expect me to know who he is in order to make sense of his latest novel on Africa?  If he wrote a chapter that, in its entirety, consisted of the words “Whoop whoop, the jungles are floppy,” would his friends rally around him, going, “No, no, Mike’s been to Africa, you see!  You gotta know what he means when he says floppy, which you can get by hanging around him at the bar!”
I suspect they’d say “fuck that.” You need to bring your own context with every story, amiright?
Well, that rule applies also to non-fiction.
What Resnick and Malzberg wrote was offensive to me – and worst of all, not particularly useful.  If it had been the “Barry and Mike toss around wimmen-in-bikini jokes while explaining how to break into the Chinese translation markets,” well, sure, maybe I mighta had something to offset the 1960s gags.  But there wasn’t.  And I don’t think it’s “censorship” to make an editorial decision, “Hey, this backslapping column that is routinely offending people while also providing no useful writing knowledge should be cut.”
Look, the SFWA Bulletin should be a place for everybody.  You wanna rail about politics?  You’re a writer, get a blog.  But I think a central place for SFWA’s membership should offend no one – not because I think that debates should not be had, but because I think there are appropriate places for debates.  You’re a dick if you start spouting your Ayn Rand bullshit at a kid’s birthday party.  You’re choady if you start spouting your pro-Obamacare beliefs in the middle of someone’s date.
There are plenty of on-topic debates for SFWA to have – hell, I’d love to see a raucous throwdown between traditional publishers and self-publishers.  But those are all related to the central subject of writing.  And I suppose the SFWA bulletin could be bawdy all the time and start prefacing every mention of Harlan Ellison with “Award-winning and breast-grabbing author Harlan Ellison,” or by referring to the military fiction authors in jest as “toothless gun yokels,” but there’s no sense in it.
If we can not offend our paying members in the central meeting place of our organization, then that is a good thing.
We’re all writers, man.  This is a hard enough goddamned gig without bringing in worthless crap that divides people.  If the bikini-clad woman on the cover gets chucked in the bin?  Fuck it, it’s a cover.  If that cover was a blank white expanse but the inside had Connie Willis telling me how to research on the Internet, a debate between Seanan McGuire and Jim Butcher on the best way to become a best-selling urban fantasy author, Chuck Wendig explaining how to raise your blog traffic and Mike Resnick explaining how to pitch an anthology, by God I’d be so happy with that fucking magazine I’d hug it in my goddamned sleep.
But no.  What we got was bikini covers and two guys taking up six pages to amuse the people who knew them already, and that’s not censorship to take that down, that’s a not particularly useful magazine.
And as for Barry and Mike, well, I don’t assume you’re bad people.  You said something a little dumb, doubled down, and are perplexed by this “negative feedback” you’re getting when you don’t come off as charming any more.  The problem is that this new generation – and we may be ingrates – does not care.  We have no gentle tide of your past charm to surf on.  All we have are the words on this page, right now, and what can you do for us, guys?
As always, the writer starts with a blank page, and a blank audience.  Stop blaming the page, and the audience, and write better.

1 Comment

  1. Yet Another Laura H.
    Feb 15, 2014

    It’s a very thought-provoking entry, making one hell of a point, but, much like your entry on sympathizing with the XX-chromosome crowd about feeling judged on appearance really made me want to talk about judging on appearances in general, this entry just makes me want to write a novel, Trout-Fishing in America style, with entire chapter consisting of the sentence, “Whoop, whoop, the jungles are floppy.”

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