The SFWA Bulletin, Censorship, Anonymity, and Representation
First things first: my name is Chris Gerwel, and I am not anonymous. The past several months have seen mounting controversy around The SFWA Bulletin, a quarterly trade publication published by SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), a trade group representing writers of science fiction and fantasy. This controversy centers around the field’s ongoing examination of its relationship to gender, both in the field’s works (literary and visual) and in its published rhetoric.
I won’t go into the history of the controversy, which you can review for yourself here. Instead, I’m going to briefly suspend my blogging vacation to respond to Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s most recent salvo in the latest SFWA Bulletin. You can find their complete article at the bottom of this post from Radish Reviews (preceded by some good discussion of the article as well).
I have a huge problem with Resnick/Malzberg’s attitude. I consider it regressive, out-dated, and condescending. I am married to a “lady editor”, am friends with many more, and have great friendships with many “lady writers”. But I don’t think of them as “lady [anything]“. They are editors. They are writers. They are people. When I consider their work, I do exactly that: consider their work. Nothing else matters. Not their genders, not their sexualities, not their political views, and certainly not their appearances. When, in a professional context, we consider the work of plumbers, rocket scientists, and lawyers, it is the quality and characteristics of their work which are subject to our commentary. That focus on the work itself is precisely what “professional context” implies.
What Resnick and Malzberg have forgotten is that words matter. Images matter. They are what the world sees of our work, whether in our fiction or in our behavior. The criticism that has been leveled at the SFWA Bulletin’s gratuitous “warrior woman” cover (issue #200) is not that it is bad art, but rather that its old-fashioned and highly sexualized portrayal of its subject sends a regressive and out-dated message about the genre. Resnick and Malzberg’s dialogues are being criticized for the exact same failing: that to those in the field, and to those looking at the field from outside, their words communicate an attitude towards women that is condescending, dismissive, and not representative of the field.
In their most recent article, they make two spurious claims that are inaccurate, illogical, ignorant and ultimately irrelevant:
First, their critics are not anonymous as Resnick/Malzberg claim. That is a neat little rhetorical device to sideline detractors and to gain legitimacy through victimization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass the test of truth. Criticism of Resnick/Malzberg is happening online: in blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on (various) forums. Their critics are not anonymous in these venues: Our names are known and typically displayed alongside each Tweet, comment, or post. However, Resnick/Malzberg wouldn’t know that simply because they are not participating in the modern field’s discussions. Their laments about “anonymous complainers” are the logical equivalent of someone calling the civil rights movement anonymous simply because they had never ventured into Harlem. Their claim is factually incorrect, and does little more than call attention to Resnick/Malzberg’s willful ignorance of today’s field.
Second, no one is calling for their thoughts to be censored. Their bombastic claims of “censorship” and “liberal fascism” are demagoguery of the basest sort, and as someone who has personally seen the consequences of real censorship and whose family has suffered at the hands of actual fascism, I find their ignorant rhetoric extremely offensive. Kameron Hurley discusses this from a slightly different perspective very eloquently here, as well.
Nobody (that I have seen) is saying that Resnick/Malzberg cannot have or publish their views in whatever venue will take them. I’m reasonably certain that every one of their detractors would agree with Ben Franklin in saying “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If Cantankerous Cane-thumpers Weekly is willing to give Resnick and Malzberg a platform, then I’m happy for them.
What people are saying, however, is that SFWA — an organization whose mission is to “inform[s], support[s], promote[s], defend[s] and advocate[s] for [authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres]” — should not give such regressive views a platform. That is not a call for censorship. That is a call for principle, and for the responsible fulfillment of SFWA’s fiduciary duty to ably represent and promote the interests of its membership.
Like it or not, the SFWA Bulletin is an official trade publication published by an organization representing science fiction and fantasy writers. It is one of that organization’s public voices. The words and images it contains matter. They send a message to current members, they send a message to potential members, and they send a message to future generations of writers about the values and priorities of our field.
I could criticize Resnick and Malzberg for their antediluvian attitudes until I was blue in the face. But it wouldn’t do any good. They will hold to their views, and I will hold to mine, and never the twain shall meet. But Resnick and Malzberg – and their values – are irrelevant for today’s field. The relevant question is whether such attitudes (whether espoused by Mike Resnick, Barry Malzberg, CJ Henderson, or anyone else) will benefit from the imprimatur of the field’s most significant organization.
This is a question of editorial policy, and it is one that should instead be directed at Jean Rabe (The SFWA Bulletin’s editor) and at SFWA’s Board. And it is in this that I see a light of hope: All of the SFWA board members I know are good, thoughtful, considerate, logical people. They have done and will continue to do excellent, often thankless, work on behalf of SFWA’s members and the field in general. And unlike Resnick/Malzberg, they are all active in that field’s modern forums of discussion and debate. The critics are not anonymous to them, and our concerns are being heard and listened to. In particular, I applaud Rachel Swirsky’s reasonable, considerate, respectful statements on Twitter today. I have every confidence that the SFWA Board will address these concerns in a thoughtful, considered manner.
This controversy may be considered yet another storm in a teacup, and no doubt it is. But to those of us who are either inside the teacup or hoping to board, it remains a tempest. To be clear, I am not yet a SFWA member. Some might say that fact invalidates my opinion. I disagree. I have long hoped to be a member, and I eagerly look forward to the day when I am eligible. I look forward to joining an organization that will inform me, support me, promote me, defend me, and advocate on my behalf. I hope to join an organization that will represent the kind of genre that I want to contribute to, one which has abandoned a pernicious history of discrimination and condescension.
Yes, the organization is facing a storm in a teacup. But this storm shall pass, and I have every confidence that SFWA’s Board will help the organization navigate the waves. It will take time, because such is the nature of organizations. But I genuinely believe that SFWA will get to a far better place, and it is because of that belief that my hope of joining has not wavered.
This fact notwithstanding, in the meantime, we should continue to condemn Resnick/Malzberg’s views, and we should continue to loudly proclaim:
Science Fiction and fantasy are enriched by all of our participants, regardless of gender, race, creed, sexuality, politics, eye color, hair length, or any other characteristic. Every writer and every editor deserves our respect and gratitude. Condescension and dismissal add nothing of value to the conversation, and merely show their adherents to have become irrelevant.
My name is Chris Gerwel, and I stand by these views.