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Posts tagged ‘John Scalzi’

Personal, Professional, Official? Standards of Professionalism in SFWA


A little over a week ago, I wrote a post responding to the dialogue written by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg and published in SFWA’s The Bulletin #202. In that post, I tried to point out the (serious) flaws in their reasoning, and to simultaneously question the wisdom of including such flawed content in an official trade publication.

Since that post went live, I have watched the Internet (or at least our genre corner of it) explode with fury: directed at Resnick/Malzberg, directed at Bulletin editor Jean Rabe, directed at SFWA, directed at SFWA’s leadership, directed at critics, directed at men, directed at women, directed at young people, directed at old people. Watching the cultural debate unfold across blog posts, comment threads, forum discussions, and tweets, it often seems that the only ones who have escaped unscathed are dogs, cats, and certain species of tropical fish. For a decent sense of the rhetoric flying around, I recommend Jim C. Hines’ link roundup post.

Today, two events occurred which build upon and extend the previous week’s controversy:

First, Vox Day (a SFWA member and losing candidate for the SFWA presidency, a.k.a. Theodore Beale) publicly posted a racist screed attacking N.K. Jemisin in which he repeatedly refers to her as a “half-savage” and states that a “society of NK Jemisins…” (read: people of color) “…is [in]capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males”. I won’t link to Vox Day’s blog here, but Google will quickly lead you to it.

Day’s post (on his personal blog) would be just another instance of him spewing racist and misogynistic vitriol on the internet were it not for his abuse of SFWA platforms in its dissemination. In particular, Day made use of the @SFWAauthors twitter profile (which retweets promotional tweets of SFWA members) to increase the reach of his post. Considering the content of that post, this is in flagrant contravention of SFWA’s terms of service for the @SFWAauthors Twitter handle:

Not every blog post is appropriate for @sfwaauthors. If a post is not about writing, or about fiction or publishing, do not mark it for inclusion in the @sfwaauthors twitter feed. Repeated violations of this policy will be grounds for removal from the feed. SFWA reserves the right to determine what posts are appropriate.

Marking blog posts for inclusion that include threats or personal attacks or obvious trolling will also be grounds for removal.

(quote via Amal El-Mohtar, emphasis mine)

SFWA members and non-members alike have responded to Day’s detritus by criticizing his reprehensible and hate-filled views, and calling for his expulsion from the organization. Amal El-Mohtar in particular has written an eloquent and logical indictment of Day’s actions, making a case for his expulsion from the organization based on SFWA’s current by-laws.

Today’s second event relevant to the discussion is SFWA’s publication of a three-step plan (apparently mis-titled as a four-step plan) to address concerns about the SFWA Bulletin. The plan is brief (having only three steps), but it lays out a reasonable and professional approach to examining options, formulating plans, and implementing them in a reasonable time frame.

SFWA’s plan is a step in the right direction, and raises the question of how it should be done. And here is where today’s two events – and the past week’s controversy over the Bulletin – converge on the issue and definition of professionalism, and SFWA’s role in promoting professionalism amongst its members.

Vox Day, Resnick/Malzberg, Sexism, Racism, and Relevance

The current controversy surrounding SFWA has two facets: the first is criticism of individuals for their condescending attitudes, offensive words, and reprehensible actions. When it comes to Resnick/Malzberg’s condescending and offensive “dialogue” I agree with much of that criticism (as I said unequivocally here). When it comes to Vox Day’s vile hate speech (which I have not discussed before), I would like to state my position clearly: such discourse is disingenuous, argued in bad faith, and offensive in the extreme. It is designed to do little more than stir greater controversy. Our genre and our species deserves better.

While I agree with criticism of the individuals and the views they espouse, I don’t think either Day or Resnick/Malzberg are likely to change their words or values based on such criticism: Resnick/Malzberg implied as much in their much-maligned most recent Dialogue, and I take them at their word. Which is why (as I said earlier), I think it is pointless to argue with them. In a similar fashion, I think it unlikely that Vox Day (given his longstanding penchant for racist and misogynist writing) will ever re-examine his positions.

Yet the second facet of this controversy arises from the relationship of such individuals to SFWA as a professional organization. And here, the cases of Resnick/Malzberg and Vox Day are very different.

In the case of Vox Day, his actions today were in clear violation of the terms under which SFWA members can benefit from the @SFWAauthors Twitter handle. The organization responded promptly and correctly, deleting the (presumably automatically generated) retweets. Whether this violation is sufficient to expel him from the organization (as Amal El-Mohtar advocates here) is unclear to me, but I would not shed a tear if the Board were to expel him. This is a question of SFWA’s bylaws, and their application by SFWA’s Board.

But Vox Day and his racist views are personal views, separate from the SFWA Bulletin. We can and should condemn them vocally. But Day is not a representative of SFWA, and to outside observers it would be difficult to construe his hate-filled words as being endorsed by the organization. Most of us can spot a crank when we see one, and the organization was quick to rectify the retweet of his blog post. More troubling are the cultural implications of Day getting about 10% of the vote for the SFWA presidency. But those implications are a separate issue, with long-term consequences for the genre and for broader society. We will continue to debate them for years to come, and hopefully we will do so in a polite and professional fashion.

Resnick/Malzberg – and the attitudes they displayed in their Dialogue – are a more immediate concern, and a more complicated case. Unlike Vox Day, they were published in SFWA’s official publication. The organization (read: the members) paid for their words. This lends their words greater weight than the essays of Vox Day. The implied official sanction of Resnick/Malzberg’s attitudes raises questions about SFWA’s commitment to diversity, its openness to new voices, and its respect for all writers and readers.

The Danger of Assumptions

Resnick/Malzberg and the SFWA Bulletin controversy highlight a disconnect between the standards of professionalism many of us assumed applied to The Bulletin, and the standards which were actually applied by the Bulletin’s editor (and tacitly approved by SFWA president John Scalzi, as he states here). In this dimension of the debate, it is not the single, specific offensive article that matters but rather an escalating pattern of publishing “unprofessional” material.

These issues are important. They were important when I wrote my earlier post and they remain important now. Considering the hate mail people have been receiving for speaking out (see here and here), and Vox Day’s escalation of hate speech, these issues may be even more important today. And yet, within all of the righteous fury, personal animus, and hyperbolic vitriol, I fear we risk losing sight of some important questions:

  • What does it mean to be a “professional” trade publication?
  • Who makes that decision?
  • And what implications should that have decision have on the content of The Bulletin?

I’ve been thinking about these issues for the past week or so and discussing them with uniformly civil, respectful people in the comments here, on Twitter, and on various discussion boards. For your consideration and debate, this post will answer them according to how I think. I may be wrong, and I may be foolish, but only by focusing on those questions are we likely to affect any kind of systemic change (whatever such change may be).

Let me address those questions in reverse order:

Implications of “Professionalism”

The Bulletin is an edited magazine, produced by SFWA and distributed to SFWA members and non-members alike. It is a trade publication, meaning that its mission is to discuss the business of writing. Because SFWA is an organization for science fiction and fantasy writers, The Bulletin focuses its attention on the business of writing science fiction and fantasy in particular.

As an organization, SFWA puts great store by the term “professional”. Consider its painstaking definition of what constitutes a “professional” market, and by extension the qualifications necessary to be an Active member. Since its members are specifically “professional” science fiction and fantasy authors, by logical inference one could expect its trade publication to adhere to certain standards of professionalism.

Such standards – whatever they may be and however they get defined – fundamentally shape the magazine’s content. They affect which articles are bought for publication and which illustrations are purchased for the magazine’s cover. They influence the interior design and the ordering of articles within each issue. And they inform how content is revised prior to publication.

Whatever standards (lax or not, appropriate or not) had been applied to The Bulletin are the proximal cause of the current controversy, and all concomitant unpleasantness.

The Arbiters of Professionalism

So who decides what those standards should be? Considering that it is SFWA – a member-funded, volunteer-run organization – who publishes The Bulletin, it stands to reason that SFWA members should ultimately decide those standards. But how should that work in practice? It is laughably impractical to subject every editorial choice to a vote amongst SFWA’s almost 2000 members.

SFWA needs (and I believe has) mechanisms to define and arbitrate such standards, particularly through the executive authority of its elected Board. I am not well versed in SFWA’s bylaws, but my understanding is that SFWA members elect its Board and its Board manages the execution of the organization’s mission. Publishing The Bulletin falls within that mandate, and by extension so does the setting of standards to which The Bulletin should adhere.

Does that mean that a Board vote need be taken to approve every editorial choice? No, because that too would be ridiculously impractical. Instead, the Board delegates such editorial choices to The Bulletin’s editor – in this case Jean Rabe (who has since resigned). For such delegation to be effective, the standards of professionalism determined by the Board should be articulated and agreed with the editor. In the case of The Bulletin’s most recent issue, and judging by John Scalzi’s statement, it would seem that such shared understanding was not achieved.

As SFWA moves forward, I believe that the Board should specifically take considered steps to ensure that The Bulletin’s editor and the Board are actually aligned on whatever definition of “professional standards” the Board (or Task Force) settles on. That’s just responsible management, and I am pleased that the Task Force’s initial plan seems to recognize this need. In the event that SFWA members disagree with the Board’s managerial decisions? Addressing such concerns is what SFWA’s election process is for.

So what should “professional” mean in this case?

Which brings us to the question of what “professional” means. This is something I have been thinking about quite a bit in the past several days, particularly observing the hurt, offense, and sense of betrayal that this controversy has spawned on all sides of the debate. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that any discussion aspiring to “professionalism” should focus on the work, and not on extraneous considerations which distract from that work.

Consider: when was the last time we saw such controversy erupt over an article in Plumbing and Mechanical (a plumbing trade journal)? Why don’t we see such vitriol and controversy in most professional trade publications? I think the reason is because they keep personal issues and opinions out of the publication. The gender attitudes, racial prejudices, political opinions, religious beliefs, fabric preferences, etc. of someone writing about spot-welding techniques, contractor advertising strategies, or the history of copper tubing are utterly irrelevant to the work.

Why should it be any different for someone writing about plot structuring techniques, book publicity strategies, or the history of the SF/F genre?

When I go to industry conferences outside of the SF/F community – when I hang out at media research cocktail parties and speak to other professionals – you know what rarely comes up? Politics. Religion. Gender values. Racial prejudice. Why? Because that’s not what we are there to discuss. We are there to discuss the work.

I have no more right to force my views on others than they do to force their views on me. I may disagree with those views (and boy do I ever disagree with Resnick/Malzberg and Vox Day!), and I may voice that disagreement, but that’s as far as it goes. The best way – therefore – to keep the conversation at a professional level is to avoid personal issues that have no bearing on the subject at hand.

Does this mean that we should “ban” gender, racial, or political discussions from our professional discourse? I would hope not! Questions of diversity, inclusion, and openness are vitally important to the genre’s long-term health. But there is a fundamental contextual difference between discussing personal gender attitudes as a subject in itself (e.g. “Person X is a misogynist!”, or “Person Y is a liberal fascist!”, or “SFWA endores sexism!”, or “SFWA is ruled by liberal fascists!”) and discussing gender as evidenced in the work (e.g. “Covers depict women in X fashion, and that has implications of Y”, or “Author X subverts traditional gender power dynamics in their work by doing Z”, or even “Historically, women editors did Q, as compared to male editors who did Z”). Note the distinctions in punctuation, subjects, objects, comparatives, and conclusions. I would hope professional SF/F writers can grok the difference in approach, tone, and context.

Many people have noted the difference in reaction to Resnick/Malzberg’s original dialogue (in issue #200), CJ Henderson’s “Barbie” article (in issue #201), and Resnick/Malzberg’s most recent piece (in issue #202, here). The original articles were problematic: They used language in a fashion out-dated by today’s standards or employed condescending metaphors unwisely. Their language made me and many other critics wince. Many people voiced their complaints about this rhetoric then, but the reaction was relatively muted. Not so after issue #202. Why the difference in reaction? Several reasons, one of which may be that the earlier pieces were (for all of their myriad problems, most of which I consider to be significant) more professional in their content by the standard I propose above than Resnick/Malzberg’s most recent screed.

I think that as a genre we can do better. We already do better in many places. If we look at the discussion around gender bias in reviewing, if we look at the debate around this year’s all-male Clarke Award shortlist, if we look at Jim Hines’ writing about cover art, if we look at Kameron Hurley’s essay about women warriors, it is clear that as a genre we can do it right.

As professional writers, we should all have the rhetorical chops to focus our writing on the work itself. After all, isn’t that what we all have in common? A passion for science fiction and fantasy? Focusing on the work is the very soul of professionalism, and I do not believe that should be too much to ask of SFWA’s trade publication. Ensuring that the publication adheres to such standards should be the responsibility of its editor, and by extension the SFWA Board.

This particular issue of professionalism is far less exciting than the vocal outcry against perceived sexism, perceived thought control, or outright racism. It’s not as likely (I think/hope) to get emotions riled. But if we don’t explore and address this more prosaic question (and do so – dare I say it – in a professional fashion), then we’ll just end up having this furious debate yet again.

Instead, I think we should all be focused on telling better stories, selling more books, entertaining more readers. And that focus should be reflected in our professional trade publications. If we do that, the offensive attitudes of individuals like Vox Day and Resnick/Malberg will be consigned to the dustbin of professional irrelevancy.

(Of course, this may just be one aspiring SFWA member’s futile attempt to close the barn doors after the horses have fled…but I felt it needed doing anyway.)

PLEASE NOTE: If you are a SFWA member and have an opinion on the expulsion of Theodore Beale/Vox Day from SFWA, you should bring it to the attention of SFWA’s Board and your regional director.

Surprise! Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension and Plot Twists


Beyond the pages of fiction, I hate surprises. Their timing is invariably inconvenient, and more often than not I could do without the surprise itself (Surprise! Flat tire!). But in fiction, I love surprises. I love plot twists, betrayals, and the resonant resolution of building tension. Fictional surprises are on my mind just now because of a question in last week’s I Should Be Writing podcast, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Plausibility as the Foundation of Surprise

Regardless of the story, irrespective of the genre, and notwithstanding the nature of the surprise, nothing kills a surprise faster than implausibility. We all know that moment in bad fiction when we exclaim “Oh, c’mon!” and throw up our hands. It is always a moment of the writer’s laziness, when characters and their choices become subordinate to the needs of unfolding action. In good fiction, those relationships should be reversed: it is characters and the choices that they make which drives action.

Consider one of the greatest “surprises” in fantasy: Gollum’s attack on Frodo above the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King. This one moment is such a significant surprise that it gave rise to an entire trope in fantasy, that of eucatastrophe: a deus ex machina event that reverses certain failure and saves the day. Now, as a critical or structural descriptor, I hate eucatastrophe. I think it’s a false device, which mischaracterizes what is actually happening in the story. But Gollum’s attack nevertheless remains a pivotal, climactic, surprising, and satisfying moment.

The resonance of that moment stems from the plausibility of the characters’ actions. That Frodo would refuse to destroy the ring is the first “surprise” – after all, he is the noble hero and his refusal is the explicit failure of his quest (see my earlier comments on that score here). But Frodo’s failure is not, actually, a surprise. Tolkien has been establishing its plausibility for three whole books by that point. Noble Frodo’s entire arc culminates in that one moment, when he betrays his own values.

Similarly, Gollum’s attack – when he “inadvertently” saves the day – is perfectly plausible given what Tolkien has shown us of his nature. We believe that Gollum would do it, and that makes the “surprise” possible. If Gollum had tried to reason with Frodo, it would have been patently out of character and therefore thoroughly implausible.

When I look for ways to model “surprises” in my own writing, I tend to look at the mystery genre. The classic “whodunit” structure relies upon establishing a logical, plausible chain of clues which lead us to the “surprising” culprit. In some cases, the reader discovers clues alongside the sleuth and the mystery becomes a game of wits. The surprise remains plausible because we are given all of the tools to solve the mystery ourselves.

In other cases, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this type of divination is impossible because the author hides essential facts. But just because they are hidden from the reader does not, automatically, make them implausible. Instead, it puts pressure on the hero (in this case Sherlock Holmes) to convince us that he was aware of them all along. It is Holmes’ charisma and plausibility as a character that prevents his revelations from turning into flat statements of “Oh, by the way, here are essential facts that you had no way of knowing.”

Consider Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It remains a polarizing book to this day, precisely because its surprising solution (which relies on an unreliable narrator) flouts the “accepted” conventions of the mystery genre. And yet, the surprise and the mystery itself remain satisfying (at least for me) because they remain perfectly plausible within the world established by the story. While the surprise forces a re-evaluation of the preceding text, one cannot say “I don’t buy it”.

If a surprise is implausible, if the groundwork has not been laid to make it “natural”, then it will fail. Failure does not mean that the audience isn’t surprised: it means that the audience throws up its hands, and rejects the narrative outright. This is a much more damning criticism, and one that consigns the story to ultimate irrelevance.

Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension

Surprises and plausibility are indelibly linked to tension. A balance must be struck between establishing the plausibility of an incipient surprise, and telegraphing its arrival. Managing that tension is key to maintaining the reader’s engagement with the story. We want the reader on the edge of their seat. So how to get that? I believe the trick lies in information flow.

There is a difference between what the reader knows, and what a character knows. Slasher films love this tension-building device, and for good reason: if we are engaged with a character and we know that there’s a knife-wielding lunatic hiding in their closet, our natural instinct is to warn them (I admit to yelling at the TV during episodes of Criminal Minds). The tension in these scenes works because while we know what is coming, we share at least some of the character’s ignorance: we don’t know when the knife will fall. This selective knowledge keeps us antsy, and makes us jump when the knife finally flashes.

Outside of the over-exaggerated tension of the slasher flick, however, the same dynamic is at play. Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Books of the Fallen features a dizzying array of political betrayals. But by telling the story from multiple perspectives, Erikson is able to show the reader the unfolding betrayals long before they are enacted. We know – in a loose, general sense – what is coming and what our heroes are ignorant of, and so when the moment arrives it produces a satisfying release of tension.

This same effect can be even more subtle, through the manipulation of reader emotions. In Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Veldt” we don’t need to know, exactly, what will happen to feel tense or be surprised. Instead, Bradbury builds a gradual sense of foreboding, a conviction that the other shoe will drop. What that means, what it entails, and when it will happen is not apparent. The onus of plausibility is spread across characters, events, environment, and most importantly the reader’s emotion. If the resolution of that tension did not satisfy the foreshadowed foreboding, then it would ultimately be an unsatisfying story: we would feel cheated.

The subtler manipulation of reader expectations relies on careful psychology, and an understanding of the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is controversial precisely because its surprise subverts those expectations. John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts similarly relies on the reader’s familiarity with science fiction television tropes. Without the reader’s pre-existing familiarity, it becomes much harder for the reader to be one step ahead of the heroes…and as a result, the reader’s satisfaction will be diminished.

Fictional Surprises and a Rare (for me) Sports Metaphor

In essence, what this means is that readers don’t want real surprises. The true surprise, the one that we never see coming, lacks the foundation that makes it plausible. It is the flyball out of left field that hits us in the head and gives us a concussion.

By contrast, a good fictional surprise builds off of the foundations established in the preceding text. It builds off of the character, their personality, the trajectory of their narrative arc, and the structure of the overall story. If a true surprise is the concussive flyball, then a good surprise is the flyball out which the astute reader sees coming, that makes them race for the fences and leap to catch it just before it becomes a home run. It isn’t the inciting moment (the bat hitting the ball) that makes the surprise satisfying, nor is it the outfielder’s surprising leap. The surprise, and the satisfaction that derives from it, is the inevitable slap of the baseball hitting the outfielder’s leather mitt.

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