Can We Please Not Rewrite History, Folks? (More on the SFWA Petition, and Links.)

Yesterday I ranted about how badly-written a certain petition is.  (It just offends me as a logician and a writer, yanno?)  I thought I would leave it at that, because books to write, and there are lots of other people saying very intelligent things so I don’t have to (see below).

But there’s one thing I see coming up over and over that nobody else seems to be addressing, and it’s driving me crazy.

I’m seeing continual efforts in some corners to frame the issues of the past year as people overreacting to the “lady writer”/”lady editor” columns in the Bulletin and to (poor! victimized!) Resnick and Malzberg daring to call women beautiful. Those columns were, in my humble opinion, inappropriate for the publication, but the people calling them out as such were respectful and relatively muted. (As were the criticisms of the (also inappropriate) Bulletin cover and the (also inappropriate) Barbie column that happened in parallel.)  There were eyerolls.  There were sighs.  The criticism I saw was polite and rather mild.

The thing that blew up the Internet was when Resnick and Malzberg decided to respond to those (respectful, muted) criticisms of their columns by scorching the fucking Earth. By calling their detractors “liberal fascists,” comparing their critics to Stalin and Mao, and making references to censorship and thought control. That was in the May 31 issue of the Bulletin, two issues and six months after the initial “lady writers” column.

That was not reasoned debate. That was a nuclear escalation of abusive, dehumanizing rhetoric against anyone who dared to disagree with them. And they did it in the publication of the professional organization that purported to represent a lot of those same people.

There’s a huge, huge difference between that and reasoned, relevant disagreement.  There’s a chasm the size of the Mariana Trench between that and the respectful airing of differing political views.

Personally, I’m sorry it took something so extreme to bring change to the publication—like this link points out, the Bulletin is a trade publication and thus should strive for professionality and relevance to the needs of the members (why is this even a question?). But I strongly object to the reframing of history some people are endeavoring to make here. It’s disingenuous and it’s minimizing. It’s casting the people who called for change as (shocking! unreasonable!) overreactors to a bunch of friendly old guys who (gasp!) dared to fondly use the word “lady,” and that is not at all what happened.

Look, I’ve even provided this handy timeline for you to reference.  Stop making shit up.  Stop rewriting events to cast the people who disagree with you as the bad guys and the people you support as picked-on innocents who were just writing some innocuous column about women writers, doncha know.  It’s not true.  And as a rhetorical tactic, it’s disgusting.

If your points are worth making, you should be able to make them without falsifying history.

(Speaking personally: the initial “lady writers” and “lady editors” columns made me roll my eyes, not think Resnick/Malzberg/the editorial direction of the Bulletin needed to be reamed in the public square. It was the later column that brought that reaction. And I think the same was true of many other critics.)

Now for Links

There are lots of people writing really insightful, intelligent things.  Have some links:

Silvia Moreno-Garcia compares the SFWA Bulletin to the trade publications of other professional organizations.  “I’m not worried about censorship. I’m worried we are a joke.” (This makes me want to join RWA, even though I’ve never successfully written romance in my life.)  Rachael Acks, whom I linked to yesterday, made a very similar point, and I continue to think it’s a good one.

A parody petition by Jim C. Hines, exhorting the president of RWA for more mantitty.  “If you continue this Politically Correct censorship of mantitties, aren’t you creating a slippery slope that leads to DEATH PANELS?” (This made me LAUGH OUT LOUD. Several times. Applause, Jim!)

SFWA released as statement regarding the petition. “While this petition has not been formally presented to SFWA, I have seen versions and they express concerns for something that does not and will not exist […]” (In other words, someone who is not a member of SFWA circulated an inflammatory petition spearheading a charge against something that . . . was never real. Yup, that sounds about right.)

Gary Farber’s Facebook page has some discussion I’ve found fascinating, including by a lot of pros.

I also recommend reading the comments at Natalie Luhrs’ post, which I also recommended yesterday, and which remains the most comprehensive rundown of the entire situation.

(Parts of this blog post were originally written for the discussion over at Absolute Write and posted there.)

20 thoughts on “Can We Please Not Rewrite History, Folks? (More on the SFWA Petition, and Links.)

  1. Pingback: SFWA – Almost as infuriating as Maischberger | Cora Buhlert

  2. Will

    You’re making a curious argument here. Some pretty scathing things were said before Malzberg and Resnick responded. It’s a bit like suggesting World War II didn’t start until D-Day. The full past is relevant.

    I do agree with you that the petition was badly worded. I wish the first draft had been Wolfe’s or Kress’s.

    However, since logic is one of the issues here, I wish more people could grasp that the issue of free speech is always separate from the example. The ACLU defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, and only a fool would argue that the ACLU are Nazi sympathizers. The free speech defenders of the Hollywood 10 included people who had no communist sympathies at all. We support the rights of people we oppose because we support those rights. As Niemoller pointed out, if you don’t defend those you disapprove of, it will be too late when the tactics you tolerated are turned on you.

  3. Will

    I just googled “malzberg “lady editor”” and the first hit was Foz Meadows who was hardly being “respectful and relatively muted”.

  4. Will

    In fact, your own timeline seems to contradict you. You say, “The use of the word “lady” to distinguish “female writers/editors” from “writers/editors” bothers some folks” and link to a couple of examples that aren’t “polite and rather mild” and are very much about the use of “lady”. You may want to refresh your memory.

  5. slhuang Post author


    1) You may notice that Foz Meadows’ piece is dated June 2. It was *exactly* a response to the May 31 column, not to the previous bulletins. I never claimed that the post-May 31 reactions were respectful or muted; in fact, the fact that May 31 is when the sea change happened is *exactly my point.*

    2) Yes, some people objected to the word “lady” back when the old issues came out. Perhaps we would differ on whether we found their individual objections polite and mild — I think so, you don’t — but the fact remains that when I was compiling this timeline a few Twitter comments were the *only* things I could find as evidence of the initial complaints with regards to the “lady writer” / “lady editor” columns in the Bulletins prior to May 31. I repeat: those links were the only ones I could find, and they’re also the only ones I remember seeing myself. It is entirely possible that complaints were louder in places I did not see — the SFWA Forums, for example — but I find it hard to believe that there would be so gross a discrepancy that we could call the response to the prior two issues anything close to what happened post-May 31. And even if you disagree with me that the individual Twitter comments I included were not inflammatory — and it is certainly your right to do so — the fact remains that when the SFF community is looked at as a whole, the people even *making* any comments at that time were a very tiny percentage.

    3) You don’t know me, but I am an intense advocate for free speech. I would take the exact same side you would on many cases the ACLU and the EFF have fought, I am sure. You don’t have to convince me of the value of free speech being separate from the example! But just as I would not permit, say, the Klan to post articles on my personal blog ;), I think SFWA has the freedom to direct their publications the way they choose. This is about SFWA serving its members, in my view, nothing else. If the membership objects, they can do so (as happened last year), and if the objections come from enough of the membership, it behooves SFWA to change what it’s doing or lose members, as it’s attempting to do now. In concept, a petition like Truesdale’s is the same thing — members complaining — and it is their perfect right to do so, just as it was the right of people last year to complain about what they objected to. However, I’m sure you will agree that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and when a document is as poorly written as this one it is liable to be derided and mocked, its point lost and its proponents tarred with an unfortunate brush. (I’ve seen the reasoning of some of the signatories, and once they articulated their concerns, I thought their points quite reasonable, even the ones I disagreed with. Unfortunately, none of those points made it into this sad excuse for a petition.)

    I note that if at any point members of SFWA are unsatisfied — and this goes for either “side,” as it were — they are free to say what they like in their own spaces, to quit SFWA, and/or to start their own professional organization. That’s how free speech works, as I am sure you’ll agree. SFWA’s responsibility as a professional organization is to serve what it sees as the needs of its members, according to the interpretation of the duly elected board. If that means applying standards to its trade publication that the membership is demanding, I do not see that as a free speech issue in the least.

  6. Will

    I shared Foz Meadow’s post, then noticed the date. But in my defense, it’s very much about “lady” editors. I agree that things exploded where you say they started. For me, there are two main issues:

    1. Bad cover on #200? Oh, yes. Would I like better covers on the Bulletin? I think I’ve wanted them since I first joined SFWA.

    2. Should old people be told how to express their memories of the past? No. The language that is being objected to reflects its time, and while it may be heard as sexist now, no one suggested the editor in question was respected less than any male editor. We do not make the present better by revising the past.

    The ACLU has pointed out the problem with the “make their case elsewhere” argument. When Norman Finkelstein was legally censored by Clark University, an ACLU lawyer wrote, “…the cancellation of his speech violates the basic principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom which are so fundamental to an institute of higher learning. The existence of an opportunity to speak at another time or in another location does not remedy the wrong of censorship.”

    Well, I’ll bow out now. I mean this entirely sincerely: thanks for the civil reply. It’s especially appreciated in contentious times.

  7. Kelly

    “Should old people be told how to express their memories of the past? No. The language that is being objected to reflects its time, and while it may be heard as sexist now, no one suggested the editor in question was respected less than any male editor. We do not make the present better by revising the past.”

    That’s a curious defense, Will, since it suggests no one born before X date can avoid being racist or sexist or whatnot. This has certainly not been my experience. Has it been yours?

    I’d hesitate to remove the agency of anyone, whatever their age, in this fashion.

    I also disagree with you that the second draft of the petition is much better than the earlier draft, but that’s a different discussion.

  8. Will

    Did I say the second draft was significantly better? I thought I said I wished Wolfe or Kress had written the thing.

    As for the language of older generations, fine. Shoot the ones who can’t keep up, rewrite what they say to fit what you think the proper expression should be today. Whorfism has been generally discredited, but the people who believe they can change reality by policing language will never waver, because that belief was never based on anything solid.

    As for the link, are you really implying that anyone who signed a petition in favor of free speech is homophobic? Many scifi writers in the ’50s supported gay rights, so why that should change 60 years later, I haven’t a clue. Or in the reality you wish to rewrite, is that different now? I’ve had openly gay friends since I970. Part of the reason I stopped supporting the Democrats in the ’90s was because Clinton caved on gays serving in the military.

    Really, free speech is about free speech. You may think censoring for your cause is different than censoring for a cause you abhor, but censoring stays censoring. The argument that the signers support anything other than free speech makes as much sense as saying that if you oppose the death penalty, you support the worst crimes anyone has been executed for.

  9. slhuang Post author

    Rein it in, please. I’m not interested in moderating a heated discussion here.

    Back on the topic of the umbrage taken at the “lady writer” / “lady editor” columns versus the later one, I was having a discussion elsewhere online today where it was generally agreed that the later Resnick/Malzberg column cast, for many, the earlier “lady” comments into quite a different light. People who thought they were a non-issue previously saw a much deeper subtext of sexism in the “lady” columns after the context provided by the May 31 “liberal fascists” diatribe. (I’m one of them, for the record.) So it’s no surprise that post-May 31 commentary discusses the “lady” columns as well, but those columns never would have been reexamined so closely were it not for the May 31 scorched-earth attack by Resnick and Malzberg. That column remains the event that escalated the controversy, and in my opinion, the outcry following it was a proportionate response.

  10. Will

    Group dynamics are fascinating: people become more polarized. So before a war, there will be people who oppose it, and yet when the war begins, some of them will rationalize the anger of the people who kick Dachshunds and beat up Sikhs. The neurobiology of conformity’s interesting: the brain seems to rewrite itself, so what to an outsider looks like lying is only change. This may be as good a place as any to start if you’re interested:

    This may explain why people accept the rudeness of their allies (in the dictionary sense of the word) and bristle at the slightest suggestion of indignation from the people their group as identifies as a heretic.

  11. slhuang Post author

    I can only speak for myself, but I don’t accept the inappropriate rudeness of my otherwise-allies. Ageism, for example, has no place in this debate. Where we might differ is that I believe there is a time when rudeness is appropriate. But that is something each individual will have to judge for him or herself, I’m afraid.

    (By the by, IMHO the SFWA Bulletin is *never* a place where rudeness is appropriate, by any “side.”)

    Regarding group dynamics — Although I find psychology a fascinating subject in general, I’d rather not discuss it here, for the sole reason that we’re not being abstract: the people debating this are real people that we know and are interacting with, and I’m not okay with saying that anyone on either side is engaging in conformity or groupthink. Neither the people who spoke out last year nor the people who signed the recent petition. On this blog I’m going to assume — and I ask that commenters do the same — that anybody in this discussion is an individual owning his or her words. I don’t think it’s productive to the discussion at this point in time to assume otherwise.

  12. Will

    Your blog, your rules, but I would’ve thought that the issue of rewriting memory is very relevant to a post about rewriting history, and I’d like to add that the science suggests people who suffer from mistaken beliefs still suffer. I believe anyone who suffers deserves sympathy, whether they’ve accurately diagnosed the cause of their suffering or not. No big. It’s time for me to bow out. Good luck with your thriller!

  13. Kelly

    “As for the link, are you really implying that anyone who signed a petition in favor of free speech is homophobic?”

    You argue very oddly, Will. One might almost believe you are arguing in bad faith — claiming we want to shoot people who disagree with us, for instance, or that *we* are the ones who are rewriting history, or that *we* are the ones who think those of a certain age are incapable of clear or moral thought, when it is in fact you who have been taking these positions.

    Projection might be emotionally satisfying, but it does not help your case.

  14. Pingback: More SFWA, sorry | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  15. Will

    Kelly, there is undoubtedly no point in saying more, but I’m curious: If you don’t think there is a link between homophobia and free speech, why did you link to the video? It’s a fine video, mind you, but since I seem to have misunderstood your intent, how did you think it was relevant?

  16. Nina

    “(This makes me want to join RWA, even though I’ve never successfully written romance in my life.)”

    I’m not sure if you know this but you can totally join RWA without being or even planning to be a romance author (look under associate membership):

    As far as I can tell, those people really know the business of writing and selling books.

  17. Pingback: Galactic Suburbia 94! | Randomly Yours, Alex

  18. Pingback: A Timeline of the 2013 SFWA Controversies | SL Huang

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