The Ten Percent

Note: Since I had 10 weeks to think about SFWA’s potential decision re Mr. Beale, I wrote two reaction posts. The one I posted last week is, thankfully, the “if he’s expelled” version, and I followed it up by renewing my SFWA membership. Below is what I would’ve posted if he had not been expelled, and I would’ve preceded it with a membership cancellation. As you can see, both posts use some of the same elements and arguments, though I think there’s an emotional difference that makes posting this one worthwhile. I also think it’s worthwhile to continue the larger conversation about the future of SFFdom — so I will cautiously open comments on this one, though let me remind everyone of my informal comment policy. Comments are moderated, so there might be a delay between you replying and me approving; sorry, but I’m a busy girl.

Warning for profanity.

Sign cautioning casino gamblers to set yourself a limit and DO NOT EXCEED IT
Random photo I took in Australia, just testing out my camera. Seemed apropos.

Steven Gould, SFWA’s new incoming president, is the first person who told me I was a good-enough writer to pursue a professional career. He was one of my mentors at Viable Paradise — a workshop I attended 10+ years ago in order to try and decide whether to turn the hobby I’d enjoyed since childhood into a real career. I went there with a partial novel, a little hope, and a lot of cynicism — because even as a newbie it was blatantly obvious to me that openly being who I am, writing the kind of stuff I wanted to write, meant facing a steeper uphill battle than most aspiring writers. Steven was one of the people who eased my cynicism, and encouraged my hope, such that I finally started submitting (and publishing). I will be forever grateful to him for that.

I’ve started with this so you will understand how hard it is for me to say the following: I have just cancelled my SFWA membership.

The sad fact is that Theodore Beale is right in one respect: this whole affair is really about the future of the SFF genre. He and I are ultimately irrelevant, just symbols of a bigger conflict — him gleefully so, while I have unfortunately been drafted into the role. Naturally I don’t agree with his particular gloss on the problem, which really just echoes all the stock white supremacist/misogynist/etc. rhetoric you could hear in Stormfront’s forums; he’s not really saying anything new. I’m not either. But in my view, what this boils down to is basically adaptation versus stagnation. Will SFF be an art form that evolves and grows with its audience, allowing it to survive the ages? Or will it go the way of Milesian tales and plantation tradition literature, becoming something studied in esoteric humanities courses but no longer relevant to modern life?

SFWA isn’t Ground Zero in this battle; that’s been raging for decades across movie and TV screens, game interfaces, and in the wallets of consumers worldwide. SFWA is a symbol too, however; a microcosm of this larger struggle — and frankly it’s the battleground that’s small enough for all of us to see and easily grasp. So this is why I feel driven to take this step: because if we as a genre are to choose adaptation over stagnation, we have no choice but to shed certain traits which are no longer compatible with our ability to survive. Put simply, we cannot embrace bigotry in any form and expect to appeal to the broad, diverse, international audience we’ll need to become the kind of literary form that lasts. And if SFWA is more concerned with protecting the paranoid, salacious interests of a few members over the best professional interests of all of its members, then I’d be shooting my own career in the face to support it.

But let me break this down to the personal level. Bigotry is inescapable in American society; I wish this weren’t true, but whether we admit it or not, it’s the foundation our country was built upon. I can deal with the usual cliché bigot — I did grow up in Alabama, after all. Mr. Beale is just a slightly more erudite version of the Klansmen’s kids I went to school with, and a significantly less genteel version of the Paula Deen-types I met everywhere else. But the KKK in Alabama was sued into bankruptcy, and Paula Deen lost her job, so I have come to reasonably expect that in public or professional spaces — in a civil society — blatant bigotry will be answered with blatantly severe consequences. Such consequences send a necessary message that bigotry will no longer be tolerated. By [censuring/temporarily suspending/retaining] rather than expelling Mr. Beale for promoting his hate speech via SFWA, SFWA has offered not a severe response, but a wishy-washy one. The message sent is that bigotry within SFWA won’t be tolerated for now. Much. But check back later.

I repeat: bigotry is incompatible with survival, for this genre. A tolerance for hate speech is incompatible with function, for an org that claims to welcome all pro writers regardless of their background. It’s definitely incompatible with my own ability to remain a member of said org.

Right now I cannot trust that any SFWA communication I receive in my mailbox or inbox will not contain grotesque insults to my intelligence or humanity, or the intelligence and humanity of others who do not fit the most privileged moulds. I cannot trust that a person who voices such insults, or who threatens me in however veiled a manner, will be regarded as unprofessional (to say the least) and therefore unwelcome in this “professional” organization. I can trust that I will be vilified by fellow SFWA members for complaining about such treatment, because it’s already happening. Frankly, that’s what’s happened every time a woman of color, or some other member of a marginalized group, has dared to discuss incidents like these. (It happens to white guys who complain too, but do I wonder how often they get death and rape threats for doing so.*) I can also trust that more incidents of blatant bigotry will happen on SFWA’s watch, along with more vilifications of those who protest, because SFWA’s tepid response to this incident will encourage more. It’s not surprising; 10% of SFWA’s membership thinks hate speech, attempts to intimidate, and incitements to violence are OK. (I do not have the luxury, or privilege, of assuming that the people who voted for Mr. Beale did so out of ignorance or anything benign. Reminder: death threats.) And now I can trust that SFWA will remain a haven for many other bigoted embarrasments to the genre, because it cannot even manage to rid itself of the loudest and crudest of them.

And then there’s the bullshit. There have been calls to expel me from SFWA because of my Continuum GoH speech, and/or out of some people’s misguided sense of evenhandedness — because I guess calling for an end to bigotry is the same thing as calling for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color? I can’t really follow the reasoning on that argument, sorry. I have been called a racist for mentioning race and an ageist for mentioning age and “incivil” for airing the dirty laundry of this genre’s history and present, as if pretending hate doesn’t exist is somehow polite. I’ve been told that I provoked Mr. Beale’s attack; that I was “asking for it.” I have quietly seethed while a SFWA officer informed me that they’d sat for several days on a letter I’d asked to have forwarded to the Board — a letter stating that I would cancel my membership if Mr. Beale was not expelled, and why; basically a shorter version of what I’m saying in this blog post — because s/he felt that I had sent it thoughtlessly, in anger. They then urged me to change the “inflammatory” content of the letter, for fear of alienating Board members. I told this person about the threats of violence against me, and that I was fully aware of the potential consequences. Alienating SFWA Board members is the absolute least of them.**

The word “professional” becomes meaningless, past a certain point.

Now let’s get back to that speech which so offended Mr. Beale and his friends.

I’ve been reading about reconciliation processes, these past few weeks — not just Australian Reconciliation but other countries’ attempts to reform themselves after historical evils. The first step of any reconciliation is to acknowledge that a problem exists. SFWA has had repeated opportunities to do so, and failed on almost every occasion. I understand why. We’re a community of geeks, which is a good thing… but geeks are notoriously conflict-averse. Thing is, seeking to avoid conflict is the wrong response in all these situations. Supporting the status quo is not a neutral choice — not in an institution which carries the history of racism, sexism, etc., that SFWA has. There is no neutrality when bigotry is the status quo. By showing any tolerance for bigotry, and by choosing to retain Mr. Beale in any capacity as an organization member, SFWA has made a clear and firm choice… to stagnate. So.

I’m sorry that this hurts Steven Gould, John Scalzi, Rachel Swirsky, and all the other people who I know are working their asses off to save SFWA. I sincerely wish them luck in their efforts. And I am fully aware that my quitting SFWA plays into Mr. Beale’s hands to some degree — though please note that I am not the one who chose how SFWA would respond to his actions. On a purely selfish level I’m sorry that I’ll be losing the value SFWA provides to its members — but right now I’m forced to conclude that 10% is still too much shit for my tastes. Maybe I’ll come back when that percentage is down to 5%, or 1%. Those of you who’ve read this far will need to decide for yourselves how much you can put up with.

* If you’re wondering, I’ve been getting death threats since about the time I started publishing at a pro level. Only gotten the rape threats recently, tho’; progress! Not.

** Since I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this, an FYI: I’ve since had some conversations with folks on SFWA’s Board about this, and have been assured that this person — who is not elected; also, this was with last term’s Board — will be Spoken To and that this sort of gatekeeping won’t happen again. I’m content with that. Also, just a note: you can send a letter to any Board member, and it will get to all of them — or send it to all of them yourself. I wasn’t clear on that at the time.

12 thoughts on “The Ten Percent”

  1. An excellent post. Thanks for sharing this! I’m really glad that SFWA made the decision to expel Beale. Moreover, I respect the entire committee that dealt with this matter because they (as an outsider to SFWA looking in via social media) did not make any hasty decisions. The process to condemn Beale might have been long, and arduous, as far as a lot of people are concerned, but I’m glad that it wasn’t so. I take away a positive from this: that should something like this ever be repeated again, and I hope that it doesn’t, then there’s a fair process at play that can be referred to. That the matter of a member’s expulsion is dealt with thoroughly and professionally, rather than subjected to any knee-jerk responses.

    Glad to see you still in the SFWA fold.

  2. I, for one, am glad this post turned out to be an exercise in dystopic alternate history. Except for the underlying problems that still exist.

  3. I am very glad that you are still with us. Your writing has brought some much needed craft and dignity to genre prose. To say nothing of it being a really good read. :-)

  4. While waiting to see what the SFWA BoD would do about the Beale problem, I realized that I’d been re-upping my m’ship annually for 20 years despite shaking my head =most= of those years over SFWA’s unprofessional, counter-productive, and distracting internal antics, feuds, quarrels, and nonsense. I maintained my m’ship for 20 years in the doomed belief that =any moment now=, SFWA’s longstanding internal culture would suddenly change and it would, voila!, cease being a social club for posturing, quarreling, personal attacks, grandstanding, feuding, social dysfunctions, and pointless attention-seeking, and become a professional writers’ organization.

    20 years! Yes, I am a slow learner.

    IMO, Beale is a too-typical symptom of SFWA’s longstanding internal problems. One of which problems is that the org perpetually attracts people like him, and allows (nay, enables and encourages) their personal problems and social disorders to take over the tone of the org and to focus most of the org’s attention on THEM for days, weeks, or months at a time. Beale was such an extreme example that he got himself expelled; but if you just wait a few minutes in SFWA, the next virulent attention-seeker is bound to come along and make SFWA all about –them- for a while. Or the next widescale SFWA feud will come along. Or the next pointless internal SFWA quarrel will come along. It never fails. This guy is just yet another example in a long line of SFWA dysfunctions, rather than someone whose expulsion will change the org’s unprofessional and perpetually troubled internal tone and culture.

    I know there are people who have worked very hard to professionalize SFWA in recent years. But internal organizational cultures are hard to change—and after TWENTY YEARS of paying dues in hopes that SFWA’s would change, I decided I had stayed too long and it was time for me to move on. As a full-time, self-supporting sf/f writer focused on my craft and profession, I was not a good fit with SFWA. Dropping my SFWA m’ship has proved to be a good decision for me (it reminds me of the peace and sanity that descended after an extremely noisy next-door neighbor I once had, prone to engaging in hysterical screaming matches every few days, finally moved out of the building where I lived), so I won’t be going back.

  5. Jennifer Roberson

    SFWA has always been about marginalizing, particularly women, the fantasy genre, romance, game developers, and others. I well remembers dozens of letters to the Forum complaining about women writers, so often that it gained its own acronym: FFW, Female Fantasy Writers; not to mention tantrums over whether we should add an F to the organization’s name: Science Fiction and FANTASY Writers of America. (Nope, fantasy authors were not granted their “F.”) I recall the requalification wars, particularly with regard to whether SFWA should admit game developers/writers. And of course letters about the horrors of romance authors who wished to join because their novels contained paranormal elements, which caused much high dudgeon among old-school male writers.

    SFWA *has* done good. But SFWA remains an organization that tolerates bullying and sexism, and, has tolerated, to some extent, racism, by turning a blind eye when members of color call for assistance.

    I have not been a member for many years. One day, I just didn’t bother to renew. Nothing about the latest series of arguments convinces me anything has changed, or that it would serve me to pay for the dubious privilege of being a member.

    As I once said in a letter to the Forum, many years ago, I thought dog show politics were bad. SFWA’s are worse.

  6. As an sf reader and scholar, I thank you so much for all the bone-aching and soul-crushing work you are doing for the field. Your words are always powerful and your work for inclusion–here racial and gender– so appreciated. This is much different than the inevitable feuds, infighting, and personality conflicts any organization deals with. I’m more worried about that gatekeeper you had to deal with than the Beale’s out there–and I hope they do the self-examination they need to do–in a racist and sexist culture, none of us are exempt from having to engage in that practice. Much joy and energy to keep on writing to you!

  7. Oh my gods.

    I had to Google what he said (I hadn’t been paying sufficient attention) after I saw your Tweet about this, but he is utterly insane. And racist, and misogynst, and all of the other stuff that I agree with you on.

    I’m a white American guy, and I happen to be a big fan of yours. I think you’re one of the best new writers in SF/F. And _dear gods_, I can’t help but feel like I need to personally apologize to you for not being sufficiently vocal in my support for you and against the 10% of racist, misogynist, nightmares that still exist in speculative fiction. I don’t know exactly what to do, except know that if you need backup let me know and I’m there.

  8. Thank you so much for your work! I am a huge fan.

    I also want to thank you for fighting against social injustice in the SF community. More than any other genre, SF holds a unique opportunity to explore and break social norms.

    We should not accept misogyny and racism in ANY community. Seriously, who but members of the KKK describe people as “savage”?. This is totally unacceptable behavior, and it’s sad that such people have a following.

    Please know that there are people who support you and are happy you have a voice in this fight! In fact, I’m going to buy another book of yours right now.

  9. As an make African American reader of science fiction I applaud you and thank you for fighting for what you believe.

  10. Ms. Jemisin,

    First off, nice to “talk” with another University of MD alum. :) I’m curious as to what you see as the benefits of belonging to the SFWA. From an outsider perspective, it seems (to echo Ms. Resnick) to be an unprofessional, dysfunctional organization.

    I had initially wanted to join SFWA, but the more I learned about it, the less appealing it sounded, and as a self-published newbie, I neither qualify nor see much professional benefit. I’d appreciate your insight, either here in the comments or as another blog post.

    BTW, I really like the sample Chapter 1 of “The Killing Moon,” and I’m going to have to get my hands on the rest of the book.

  11. Add me to the list of white guys who is very glad that this post was not the first one you posted. But I’m also glad you still posted it. It’s part of a conversation that definitely needs to be happening, and I’m glad it’s happening.

    It’s funny. In reading all about this issue was almost, almost, persuaded that SFWA shouldn’t be in the business of censuring members for their beliefs. Almost, I say, because the hate speech in question was so particularly and obviously egregious that it was clearly beyond the pale. Any such argument or case that would somehow protect the “free speech” of the nasty little aggressor in question just felt morally wrong. My moral/emotional and rational sides sometimes disagree with each other.

    I was wholly won over, both morally and rationally, by first, your own posts on the matter and, second, the articulation of SFWA as a professional organization. As I thought about, my day job is at a “professional organization” – i.e. an incorporated company. And we have standards of business conduct that include rules about harassment – an offense which is punishable by termination. Harassment of any kind – whether sexual harassment or racial or ethnic or religious harassment – has no place in the workplace. Why should it have any place in a professional organization like SFWA?

    (Certainly, if the nasty little aggressor in question had had a day-job at most US-based companies of any meaningful size and had expressed similar sentiments as he expressed on SFWA’s twitter feed aloud in the workplace, he’d have been fired. In some companies, he’d have been fired just for posting those thoughts in a public, but not-work-related, forum.)

    BTW: I recently finished reading – and thoroughly enjoyed – 100K Kingdoms. (I have a few minor quibbles and craft-related nits to pick, but overall it was an excellent book.) My to-read list is backlogged by several years, but I look forward to the remaining novels in the Inheritance trilogy, as well as the Dreamblood books. (I read the sample chapters from the Killing Moon here and thought it was fantastic; and as enjoyable as 100K Kingdoms was, I thought those sample chapters promised that Killing Moon was probably even better.)

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