Why the SFWA Shoutback Matters

I’ve held off writing this post for a while now. Because I’m so tired of it all. Why won’t this noisy minority of folk with offensive and irrelevant opinions just GO AWAY! Let the vast majority of SF&F readers and writers who are decently socialised human beings living in the 21st century get on with discussing the increasingly intricate and inventive ways in which speculative fiction explores and celebrates the human condition in all its diversity (racial, sexual, tentacle etc)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the noisy minority have scored big this week. I’ve just been sent a link to that dailydot.com story, revealing a mind-bogglingly offensive forum exchange among some SF writers and publishing professionals – from a friend active in crime fiction circles. Y’know, in case I hadn’t already seen it. I wish….

So this is one reason I’m writing this post. This stuff matters when onlookers unfamiliar with the current debate within our genre are noticing. When they read headlines like ‘Sexist, racist sci-fi writers forget their horrible rants are public.’ Because chances are, a great many won’t bother reading beyond that frankly ill-advised headline to discover the truth in an otherwise pretty good article. That the sexists and racists are squawking so loudly precisely because they’re being challenged and told their attitudes are unacceptable.

No, most onlookers will just glance at that, think, ‘ah yes, I see SF is still full of neck-bearded long-hairs* with Neanderthal attitudes to women and people of colour. I need not bother reading the article just to confirm I can continue ignoring that section in the bookstore.’

And in case any UK readers are tempted to think ‘Well, that’s over the US. We don’t need to worry’, do cast your mind back to the headlines and articles following the shortlist announcements for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Award. One disgruntled non-shortlisted author started hurling insults at those who had been listed and also at the judges. This got picked up by the national press. Since he also saw fit to insult a crime writer he’d shared a lit fest platform with, Twitter soon filled up with astonishment from other crime and mystery authors that this tantrum could be considered remotely professional behaviour.

My inbox filled up with email from folk I know who work in national newspapers, broadcasting and other journalism, whose response can be best summed up by one internationally and award-winning author I have the honour to know: ‘Why on earth do you waste your time on a genre full of such horrible people?’ So the time and effort I’ve put in over a decade and more, trying to convince these people that SF&F is a mature, nuanced literature worthy of respect had been effectively trashed by one entitled individual’s spiteful fit of pique. That infuriates me.

Then we had the newspaper article in 2013 ‘Arthur C Clarke award announces all-male shortlist. Mostly female judges overlook women in choice of contenders for UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize.’ Er, no we damn well didn’t, as Liz William’s follow-up article made clear. But that’s first article is the one that established the impression that’s lasted, that’s still being raised in conversations with me.

A common response when I say this is ‘Ah, well, we true keepers of the SF&F flame don’t need validation from the vulgar mainstream so that doesn’t matter.’ I can only assume folk with this attitude have never worked in retail. As a professional writer, it sure as hell matters to me, because it is onlookers unfamiliar with the genre who will make key decisions based on this stuff which will have a direct impact on my career. Not to mention a significant influence on my available choices as a reader.

I know this for a fact. I used to work in bookselling, working for Ottakar’s here in the UK. I was well up to speed with SF&Fantasy, also with Crime & Mystery and children’s books – because they were all genres I read and had a direct interest it. I didn’t read Horror. I never have. I simply don’t understand its appeal. But as a bookseller I had a professional duty to keep generally current with new authors and trends. I did that by checking reviews in the papers, and other mentions, via an invaluable paper newsletter called Books in the Media and other sources like the weekend papers and monthly genre magazines. This was in the mid-90s so the Internet wasn’t really A Thing. I was diligent because it was in my interests to present Horror reading customers with the books they would buy and thus ensure the shop’s sale targets were met and that would be reflected in our pay rises.

Then I became an author and started going to conventions – and discovered that I had significantly underestimated the number of women both reading and writing horror fiction. Because as an onlooker, the picture presented to me through the commercially-relevant media was badly skewed.

This is still going on. With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.

But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, the publisher will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, the most passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work, but that’s another discussion I’ve already written on several times.

You can see the same thing at work in the movies. How long have we been waiting for a female-led superhero movie? Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for decades. It’s taken the success of Black Widow as a character in (The) Avengers (Assemble) to convince decision makers to take that chance. Decision makers and money men whose choices are influenced by such things as the comic industry’s persistently sexually provocative and exploitative artwork, and trade events which see no problem in having no women creatives on panels at all. They don’t see the very hard work being done within the comics world by men and women alike to change all that.

Returning to books, this has little or nothing to do with the actual authors. Macho McHackenslay’s personal credentials as a fully-rounded, decent human being who shows genuine respect to folk different to himself are most likely excellent. Chances are he learned such attitudes at his great-uncle’s knee, the famed ray-guns and rocketships, square-jawed hero SF writer of the 1960s, Blokey McZoom, who marched for Civil Rights in the USA and wrote passionately in support of Roe vs Wade and all manner of other progressive causes.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m writing this is because I have seen people saying ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, we just need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off and it’ll all be fine.’ Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. If it did, these rows wouldn’t keep recurring.

Having read getting on for 200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge, I found a range of attitudes from socially conservative/sexist/veiled-racist to adventurous, progressive, informed and thought-provoking social commentary. There was absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas. Some of the worst offenders were younger men and women. Some of the best work was written by middle-aged and older white men, for whom age and experience had brought perspective and insight.

There’s a logical fallacy at work here. A spider has eight legs but having eight legs doesn’t make something a spider. It can be an octopus. The currently noisy and offensive crowd may be predominately old white men. That doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be old, white and/or male automatically holds outdated and offensive views. Please don’t make that mistake and add further venom to this already toxic mix.

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. Because when that’s what the onlooker sees, those are the boxes they’ll aim to tick and hey, there’s no need to write decent prose because neck-bearded, long-haired* Neanderthals won’t know it if they read it, right? Okay, I exaggerate slightly – but not much.

So this stuff matters. This is why we need to speak up and make our voices heard above the noisy, spiteful old reactionaries. So that onlookers realise that SF&F is a genre worth looking into, for interesting, thought-provoking writing as well as thrills and spills and tales of high adventure. So new readers and writers continue the genre’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

* I have two sons of 18 and 20 both with chin-strap beards and very long hair and have no prejudice against such personal grooming choices except when I am the one declogging the plughole in the shower

31 comments

  1. Seek out new life, new civilizations, and specific politically approved views and philosophies.

    I don’t doubt that you’ll win – but I also think that the field will become ideologically narrower as it splits into the equivalent of “Fox News” and “MSNBC” (or Guardian / Daily Mail). That’s what tends to happen with revolutions.

    The spectrum of views and philosophies will disappear – and future works will be subject to ideological litmus tests as one side (or the other).

  2. I’m gonna need a new bookcase soon!

    I’ve been following the push back to the narrow minded, self centred furore and I am inclined to get the books from the authors speaking out against the perceived status quo.

    The articles I’ve read show a good command of language and values which overlap with my own which my experience has taught me tends to lead to stories I enjoy. I’m finding authors that I’ve had little chance of previous exposure to.

    I would however like to find a way to learn about these authors without the side order of bigotry.

    I also have to wonder if the narrow minded people were so secure in their talent why they’d feel threatened by the wider range of authors and story types being produced. If their work is good enough it will still be popular in the wider market.

  3. Talk about the ‘still small voice of calm’. Thank you. As a female (white, middle aged) fantasy writer who lives with a male (white, middle aged) fantasy/sf writer, we both have dogs in this fight – and generally would really like people to stop making our beloved genres look like such a nest of friggin’ vipers. I started reading fantasy and SF *because* it dealt with things other genres weren’t – not all of them politically significant, but all of them interesting. And though there are those who want to be able to write and read stuff that won’t interfere with their stultified worldview, I do believe there are far more of us who actually like having our minds stretched. Exercise, after all, is essential to health.

  4. Juliet, I stopped reading at “neck-bearded long-hairs.” That’s exactly the sort of irrelevant nastiness that the people taking whacks at MRK are at leveling everyone who disagrees with them. Class-based? Perhaps. Age-discriminatory? Could work either way, I suppose. Divisive? Oh, yes. Please don’t do that.

    Eileen

    1. If you care to take a second look, Eileen, you’ll see that ‘neck-bearded etc’ is within quotation marks as illustrative of dismissive attitudes towards SF&F, not as my personal opinion.

      Just to make that clear, I did add an asterisk, to lead to the footnote where I point out that with two sons both with long hair and beards, I have no such personal prejudice – except when I am declogging the shower plughole.

      Or not, as you wish, naturally.

      1. Juliet, perhaps I’m overly sensitive. You use the term “neck-bearded long-hairs” as something a reasonable person might associate with Neanderthal attitudes about women and people of color, suggesting that men who do not conform to some close-shaven standard are unclean and ignorant. At the very least, it’s kind of a class-based insult. And yet, there are a lot of men who don’t shave because they have sensitive skin or, if they are black, because shaving causes their beard to irritate their skin when the stubble grows back. In addition, suggesting that people (presumably men) with long hair are ipso facto racists also rubs me the wrong way: it is demonstrably counterfactual.

        I don’t associate either of those attributes as indicative of either racism or sexism, so you caught my attention there. I am so tired of class-based insults and insults based on people’s physical characteristics and the clothes they wear. I’m tired of insults per se, especially after taking a look at the pathetic, bile-filled comments of Sean Fedora and others in that chat group.

        I don’t think you meant to be insulting to scruffy-bearded men, but you did seem to suggest that it was reasonable to associate them with bad behavior, and to imply that short-haired men who shave are not sexist. (That last has not been my experience, by the way.) The fact that you immediately asteriskically defended your sons is sweet and mom-like, but it does suggest that you knew you were cutting it pretty close there.(g)

        I’m not trying to start a fight — I think we’re both on the same side. But I really would like to read analyses of the situation that are free of irrelevant value judgements. ‘Cause that’s one of the differences between us and them.

        Cheers,
        Eileen

        1. The last thing I would ever say to someone is you’re being over-sensitive or thin-skinned… That’s a particular turn of phrase that gets to me like fingernails raking down a blackboard, as I’ve heard it far too often when someone tries to weasel out of the offence they’ve caused by not-so-subtle victim blaming.

          I use this wording here specifically as an example of an ill-considered, knee-jerk-bias reaction – and address the fundamental error in making any assumptions about what someone might think or do based on some detail of external appearance later in the piece, pointing out the logical fallacy of looking at offensive, bigoted old white men and assuming that all old white men MUST & CAN ONLY be bigots.

          I offer this by way of clarification of my intent, not contradiction of you. My intent has no way to compel the desired response from a reader, and evidently this wording struck a jarringly sour note with you, rather than any resonant chord. I’ll bear that in mind for future reference – I live and work with words so all feedback is useful.

          The key thing here is yes, we are both on the same side. And isn’t the Insect Army wonderful? Especially the artwork!

          And for those who don’t know what this means, do click through to John Scalzi’s Call to Arms on Whatever.

        2. ‘And yet, there are a lot of men who don’t shave because they have sensitive skin or, if they are black, because shaving causes their beard to irritate their skin when the stubble grows back’

          I’m sorry, I know this is off-topic, but I had no idea that black men were more prone to their beard irritating their skin and am mildly astonished to hear it. Do you know why this is?
          I take an interest because my boyfriend is aspirin-pale, but suffers terribly from itchy beard.

          ps. Hello, I’m just a stranger passing through while follow links on the whole SFWA kerfuffle.

          1. I have been told this before – and told it has to do with the curl/texture of the beard which requires different handling to a standard ‘European’ shave, just as hairdressing for African-origin hair is a whole different skill set. But I know no more than that. Sympathies to your boyfriend; quite a few men I know are bearded in preference to evil rashes, acne, itch.

  5. Excellent piece – and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of your novels though I do read a fair bit of SFF. Which is best to start with?

    Also, you could make some claim for Ursula le Guin (who has a black hero in Ged) and Robin Hobb, esp the latter, as “epic” fantasy.

    So know what you mean about declogging plugholes btw. No from necks, but chests.

    1. I would absolutely agree that Ursuala Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ is epic fantasy, and Robin Hobb most definitely is – I adore her books, and had the great pleasure of meeting her at last year’s World Fantasy Convention. And yes, her books are often promoted because with Robin increasingly being a gender neutral name, some people don’t realise she’s not a man…

    2. Oh yes, and well, you can browse my site for some idea of which of my books might take your fancy. Each series is complete in itself but since there is an ongoing, underlying chronology, the very first is The Thief’s Gamble, now handily available in ebook from Wizards Tower Books – click on the ‘buy here’ link beneath the cover on the left of the screen 🙂

  6. “Women don’t write epic fantasy.”

    Really? That’s what they said? I’m presuming there were no fantasy readers among the staff at that bookstore, because anyone who is knows different. But then, as you point out, you had not realized the variety of authors and offerings available among horror readers. The thing is, though, that even if the media is portraying a one-sided view of the industry, a savvy citizen is aware that they do this. A savvy librarian/teacher/bookseller recognizes the diversity of readers and interests and looks to see if those interests can be satisfied (in a financially pleasing way for the bookseller, of course). In my view, a lot of book placement/promotion choice comes down to the perception that there isn’t much money in appealing to minority readerships. I’d point at the success of monster porn to suggest this may not be a wholly accurate assumption, but it is a sad truth, born out even more so by an article I read just recently (New York Times I think it was) about Amazon and how it makes its money. The problem becomes bigger than the perception of prejudice among writers and the industry when minority representation, even if it is only perceived minority representation, is inversely proportional to sales figures. Yes, I agree that the fact that media usually only publish the interesting stuff that’ll sell – fights, inflammatory commentary – the industry also demands what sells to the broadest segment of the population. And I’ll also add that I think they’re wrong. The fact that they’re not catering to a market doesn’t mean it’s not there.

    On a side note, I read an extremely annoying commentary on social media from some idiot claiming that the Wonder Woman movie hadn’t been made because female super heroes didn’t appeal to men and there weren’t enough women to make it worthwhile. I thought, “A woman running around in a tight corset and heels doesn’t appeal to men? I’ma revoke your Man Card, sir.”

    I think I’ll go write some romance now.

    1. It definitely is a complex issue, isn’t it? So we really do need everyone to step up and be part of the solution – so that everybody wins.

      Love your observation on that Wonder Woman reasoning… that guy’s definitely doing the man thing wrong!

  7. I am 50 and one-half years old and white and middle class and my favorite SFF authors are Ursula K LeGuin and Octavia Butler. It’s been interesting reading all of this kerfuffle on Twitter this past week or so.

    I find myself one side of the debate but that side continually insults people like me in general.

    It’s been an unusual experience.

    1. …and as I can state with absolute confidence, such insults are a) wrong and b) so not helping

      I wish you continued, diverse and entertaining reading 🙂

  8. I have been trying to ignore the SFWA BS for a while. Frankly, I see more of a problem than just gender and race exclusion. Just exclusion period, in general, is endemic among the hard core traditional publishing SFF population. Maybe it doesn’t help that I live in the PNW, where getting behind a cause and then judging others for not being on the bandwagon can be called a regional pastime. I have had tons of run ins with super nice people in the community, but all that sticks out in my head (especially in light of all the stupid stuff going down lately) is the times I have had people look down their nose at me for no good reason, jump to conclusions about me, tell me my friends don’t count as “real writers” because they are “mid-list”.

    When I first started exploring the SFF community I was excited. This was my people! I had been a hermit SFF fan and writer since the 80s. The Internet opened up a whole new world for me. But the more I encountered, the more hurts I accumulated, the less my shy little heart could take it. I have retreated to crabby-hermit-in-a-half-shell now. I am not sure I will ever fully put myself out there again.

    I read anthologies of what was supposed to be “the best” and found it often pretentious, mainly boring, and sometimes disturbing. One such story in a 2007 anthology was written by an “old timer” and the introduction specifically went on about how back in the day he was the best of the best and oh look how nice it is he has written something new. And this piece of trash, called a short story, was nothing but some kind of sick and twisted revenge fantasy in which the woman was “asking for it”.

    Maybe the “bad guys” are few, and maybe people are trying to change things, but I have better things to do with my life than wait for a bunch of people to realize this isn’t high school anymore. And honestly, I see this new equality kick as just another way people can look down their noses and exclude. I have already been told that if I want to be serious about my craft I will write stories that accurately represent all the cultures of the world.

    I just want to write my little white girl fantasies. Seriously! I want people to read and enjoy my stories. I don’t want an award in multiculturalism. I don’t want my writing to be racist or gender biassed, and I am not asking people to refrain from pointing out when I do wrong things in my writing. But I also feel like there is a certain amount of reactionary blowback going on that is causing people to look with a microscope for things to hold in judgement. And I don’t want to be a part of that any more than I want to be a part of racism and misogyny.

    So where does that leave us regular folk who were raised by feminist mothers and aren’t so old that we have forgotten the real world lessons of right and wrong? I am just waiting for someone to tell me some actual good reason for me as a “Young” writer to aspire to membership in the SFWA. From the outside it seems to be more about prestige, recognition and getting keys to a treasure room. Only, to get the treasure I have to swallow some doctrines I don’t agree with, and behave unpleasantly toward people who don’t swallow them.

    Like I said–high school.

    1. And you are by no means alone in thinking so, as a good deal of current commentary makes clear. Not sure where that leaves us all, or where we go from here, but your voice(s) absolutely warrant listening to.

    2. I hear you, and yeah I’ve been getting the same impressions even not yet having published. I will be at some point (this WILL happen), but I can’t say I have any excitement about an invitation to the club – right now, I view it in much the same way I view the Honors clubs I got invites to. Nice to have on your CV, but you mostly wouldn’t want to socialize with the people in it.

  9. As a bookseller (and future member of SFWA 😉 ) and long time reader of SF/F, it enrages me that people think there are no or few female writers of High or Heroic Fantasy.

    A big part of the problem is that there is also only! so! much! shelf space. And some series I’d love to carry are no longer in print. Some titles are only available as hardcovers, or from ‘small’ presses for $$, and even though I work in a bookstore (Indie, lefty, feminist, yeah!), hardcover SF/F do not exactly fly off the shelves, regardless of who writes what (yeah, even GRRM) because money.

    I only have 8 shelves and have to be damned picky with what I carry. I am VERY HAPPY to report, however, that the female authors I do carry sell pretty well! Now this may be due to the kind of people who shop in the store, but I like to think it’s simply down to good writing. Who knows, maybe I’m delusional.

    But, as a woman of color, as a science fiction writer, as a future member of SFWA, I am incredibly disappointed that some of my favorite authors put on their asshats. And are apparently wearing them with pride. (perhaps I’m mistaken, but I won’t read any of their posts on SFF.net for fear of further disappointment and the need to Sell My Collections)

    I haven’t even joined SFWA (yet), but I already feel rejected, and it makes me wonder what new organization might pop up out of the woodwork to replace SFWA should it continue down this path.

    And on a side note, I miss Ottokars. One of my coworkers used to work in Waterstones before moving back to the US and she said the changeover was…unpleasant. Ottokars had the much better selection of SF/F, imo. The last time I was in the UK I was surprised and disheartened by the SF/F selection in Waterstones.

    1. Hi, I_Sell_Books,

      The obnoxious rants that have dominated the discourse the past week come from a dozen or so people who are still grumpy about losing the battle, a decade ago, over what kind of organization SFWA would be. The two most offensive people are not even current SFWA members. It’s extremely unfortunate that they have been able to make it look like they are the voice of SFWA. They are not.

      SFWA actually has a lot of people in it you already know or would be happy to meet, and it sponsors “Writer Beware,” which warns writers about publishers that would victimize them. Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi recently served two terms each as, respectively, secretary & VP (Mary) and president (John) of SFWA. They (and other recent and current SFWA officers) have been enormously effective at making SFWA a 21st century writers’ organization.

      Women and people of color have always been there as readers and writers of SF, but the power structure of the genre in the US has historically seen the field as a white male preserve. This has taken far too long to change, but it is changing. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that, as a woman of color, you won’t sometimes encounter the rude and the privilege-blind there: that is true everywhere in the US. But I think that, as a new writer, you might find it useful. It’s worth checking out — the people who have so breathtakingly obnoxious the past week or two do not represent the organization.

      Cheers,
      Eileen

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