What’s wrong with the SFWA

Many of you may be aware of the recent kerfuffle in the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) re: gender issues. If you’re not familiar, here’s an article that will give you the gist:

Old Men Yelling at Clouds: SFWA Sexism

I am an SFWA member, and until this blew up on the internet, I was blissfully unaware of the issue. Why? Because I’ve been tossing my SFWA Bulletins into a pile, unread. The organization simply isn’t very relevant. It’s the most regressive and behind-the-times of all the writing organizations. I am also a member of the RWA, so I’m in a position to compare the two organizations. The RWA is superior in every way. Not just a little bit, but by orders of magnitude.

When I compare what each organization has done for my writing career, here’s what I come up with:

SFWA: Nothing

RWA: I owe them pretty much my whole career.

The problem is that the SFWA doesn’t admit unpublished writers. Strange as it may seem, unpublished writers are the lifeblood of the RWA. Why? Because published writers don’t have the spare time needed to run the organization. They have tight deadlines and often are working an additional job or raising kids. The RWA and its individual chapters are run almost entirely by unpublished or lightly published writers. These are the people who organize meetings, put on conferences, run the contests, and set up the classes.

The RWA offers a free online class every month. I take all of them. This month we’re learning about computer-based tools for writing (e.g. backup systems, Scrivener, tools for temporarily shutting off your internet so you’re not distracted). Last month we learned how to develop a marketing plan. In previous months, we covered craft topics like internal conflict and dialogue. The SFWA has never offered me an online class, free or otherwise. They offer no local workshops or lectures, whereas my local RWA chapter has brought in speakers such as representatives from Amazon and intellectual property lawyers. And the SFWA has no equivalent to the highly prestigious Golden Heart contest for unpublished novelists. SFF has the WOTF contest for short story writers (which is not affiliated with the SFWA), but nothing for novelists. It’s no wonder SFF isn’t doing so well as a genre when new writers have so few ways of getting their work in front of agents and editors.

Another problem with the SFWA not admitting unpublished writers is that since publishers are offering fewer and fewer contracts to new SFF writers, the organization skews old. Many of the young new writers are self-published, or still querying, and are either way ineligible to join. Thus you end up with problems like this mess with the Bulletin. The more the organization excludes the new voices of the genre, the less representative of the genre it becomes, and the less relevant.

The SFWA is behind technologically. They still communicate via forums, when everybody else has switched to email loops. I would like to follow SFWA discussions, but I don’t have time to pore over forums, looking for the new posts. We’re past the Usenet days, but the SFWA seems to be still stuck there. The RWA is in my email inbox every day, informing me of industry happenings as they occur. The SFWA sends me an email maybe once every few months, usually to inform me of some business meeting happening thousands of miles away.

The sexism kerfuffle in the Bulletin is a symptom of a larger problem, namely that the SFWA has made itself too exclusive by denying membership to unpublished and self-published SFF authors. By freezing out so many voices, especially the younger voices, the SFWA is making itself irrelevant. That doesn’t just hurt the SFWA; it hurts the whole genre.

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17 Responses to What’s wrong with the SFWA

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    Love this. You put so much thought into analyzing things and you have a way of distilling issues down to what matters. I get this argument. You’ve single-handedly made me care about SFWA and long for a better organization. And I’m not even a member! Though I guess I could be now, since I’m published, but I’m not seeing any benefit to becoming a member. RWA, I’m a member there and love the classes and networking opportunities. It was an RWA chapter contest that got my ms beyond the slush pile on an editor’s desk, so I feel you on being grateful to them. RWA membership is money well spent. Whether you’re published or not.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Thanks for your comments! I have this feeling about people, that what truly shows a person’s character is how they treat you when you’re down. If people treat me well when I’m in a position of power, great. But how do they treat me when I have no power at all? That’s what really matters.

      I think the same is true of organizations. I had an employer once that was in a position to treat me very badly if they chose to. I was in a vulnerable situation. That employer chose instead to treat me with kindness and respect–in short, to help me out of that vulnerable situation. And they’ve had my steadfast loyalty ever since.

      The RWA treated me very well when I was a powerless unpublished author. And because of that, they have my loyalty forever.

      What did the SFWA do for me when I was a powerless unpublished author? Nothing. And I am not going to forget that.

  2. pattyjansen says:

    I’ve just put a post on my blog on why I decided to renew my SFWA membership, which pretty much echoes these observations. Only I don’t write romance and am not in America, so RWA is even less relevant to me than SFWA. We’re stuck with this organisation that’s not with the times. I was able to join based on short story sales, even though I largely self-publish novels.
    That said, I have seen some change over the past few months. There are more modern voices in the forum, even though said forum has a couple of really bad trolls that just won’t get the message.
    I disagree with you on communication. I get about 100 emails a day and I read hardly of them. I get very tired of places insisting communication by email. You get so much of it that it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. People do not use email very much for non-private communication.

    • Amy Raby says:

      I read your blog entry. Good comments. I feel the same way. The SFWA needs to change, but I don’t want it to disappear. We NEED a viable writers’ organization for SFF.

      • pattyjansen says:

        The comparison between SFWA and RWA has often been made in the last few days, but the fact remains that both are entirely different organisations, and there should be place for both kinds to be effective. There is lots of good discussion happening now. Ironically also, a fair few new members coming in, essentially for the reason you described above: we want there to be a SFF dedicated professional organisation.

    • Amy Raby says:

      I’m glad the comparison is being made (between the SFWA and RWA). I think the SFWA has a lot that they can learn from the RWA, which I consider to be a far more successful writers’ organization. I don’t see any reason they need to be different, except that they support different genres. The best ideas from one organization should be borrowed by other writers’ organizations.

      I also meant to say something about the SFWA and short stories. It does feel like the SFWA is dominated by short story writers. I think that’s probably because it’s easier to get in via short story sales than a novel sale (not that it’s EASY to get in via short story sales, by any means, just EASIER). That may skew the organization toward supporting short story writers, which I don’t think benefits SFF as a genre. Novelists should not be neglected. Novels are where most of the readers are.

  3. Excellent article. I think you went right to point.

  4. I see some of your points, Amy, and even though I’m not an SFWA member, though I could be, I’ve heard complaints over the years about them being a bit behind the times, ironic though that is for an organization that upholds the grandeur of futuristic fiction.

    However, I believe the current scandal has been blown way out of proportion. To be blunt, people are reacting to a few individuals as if they stand for the whole organization when there are plenty of people active and affiliated with SFWA who do not share such views. Further, the publication, The Bulletin, which started the whole thing is only one small aspect of the organization. Should, as Meadow’s insists, there be young voices in the industry and SFWA, yes of course, and there are some notable and tech savvy SFF authors out there who are SFWA members such as Brandon Sanderson. But I don’t think that the current kerfuffle warrants such an explosion. Plus, let’s not forget that chainmail bikinis are a major trope in SFF even today whether you like them or not.

    Here’s an article by Peter Brett, a member of SFWA and someone who writes Red Sonja (the character depicted in the chainmail bikini that started all this) for Dynamite, who offers some insights to the discussion. One thing he points out is that the SFWA has a lot to offer, but you wouldn’t know it if you just went by The Bulletin. I lean more toward Brett’s views over Meadow’s because Brett’s tone is far more professional and even-handed and because Brett, as a member of SFWA, has the potential for more educated opinions.


    • Amy Raby says:

      I liked Peter Brett’s comments; he had a lot of valid things to say. Although I think I interpret them differently than you. I read the article as sharply critical of the SFWA’s being stuck in the past and not being very relevant to younger authors trying to find their way in a rapidly changing publishing environment.

      re: the Red Sonja cover, this scandal didn’t explode because of that. That cover came out months ago and there wasn’t a big brouhaha. The problem was that when some people complained about it, which is their right, a couple of columnists in the bulletin called them “liberal fascists” (literally! that term was actually used!) and doubled down on the sexism. It’s one thing to say, hey, we have some different opinions on that cover, and another to call your critics fascists. That is why it blew up the way it did.

      I hope this dust-up results in some improvements to the SFWA. I’d love for this organization to be more relevant. SFF writers desperately need a more supportive organization. I get a lot of support from the RWA, but there are a lot of SFF writers who don’t write romance, and they need industry support too.

      • I agree that Brett took some issue with the SFWA not being up to date with current authors and trends, such as when he suggested that they would do well to acknowledge authors like Patrick Rothfuss or utilize Joshua Bilmes’s insights into publishing. Sorry, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought otherwise. I was trying to be brief and not write too lengthy a comment. 🙂

        I do hope that the SFWA uses this to improve itself and to be more cautious about the editorials it publishes in The Bulletin.

        I suppose you could most simply say my frustration with the whole situation comes from the generalities that lump in those who do not deserve them and the vitriol and hatred that rises to the surface. Unfortunately, this is a frustration I run into far too often with lots of issues. I was shaking my head at both the editorial and those who responded with such cutting and honestly insulting remarks. (Not you, Amy. 🙂 ) That’s why I liked Brett’s article so much. He maintained his professionalism, his logos, and he was very reasoned. For all that, to me, he felt like a breath of fresh air.

  5. Ricki Dorn says:

    Please clarify few things for me. First off all, does the SFWA you are bashng refer to South Florida Writers Association or to another organization? If this is the group you mean, you are so far off the track. I have been a SFWA member for 10 years or more and we have many unpublished writers. Furthermore, i am the immediate past president and am now about to be published. We encourage writers of all genres, would be writers, young writers, published and unpublished, and veterans of all parts of the industry. I would love to know to whom your SFWA is
    referring and if it is our group, please be corrected on the counts of published vs unpub, behind the times (not), professionalism– well at least these. I was thinking that your SFWA is someone else but how many SFWA organizations would South Florida have?Also, appease my curiosity; who is RWA? We are aware of FWA, Florida Writers Association, but I’ve never heard of RWA. I appreciate your reading, printing, and answering this. Best regards to fellow writers. Ricki Dorn

  6. Ricki Dorn says:

    ok, RWA is Romance Writers Association; just reread the earlier posts. were you or was someone else denied membership in SFWA bc of beig unpub or bc of beig a romance writer? either one of these would greatly surprise me. does not seem possible. when were these refusals? hope you will reply to this and my previous post. thanks. ricki dorn

  7. Ricki Dorn says:

    ah, i have it now. your SFWA is Science Fiction Writers Association, right? wow, what a shocker that there is more than one SFWA. we were so comfortable calling ourselves SFWA as an affectionate nickname. ok, in that case, since i am unfamiliar with the sci fi writers, one or both of our groups should probably find another abbrev. i guess we could say south florida writers or florida writers and perhaps you all could say sci-fi writers or something. i was concerned bc our vibrant, friendly, welcoming group appeared to be getting bad press from your posts, although i don’t know that any other members of my sfwa have seen amy raby’s newsletter or blog. it will be interesting to let them know. now that we are no longer at potential odds, would any of the RWA or Science Fiction Writers Associatio people care to visit one of our meetings? we convene on the first sat. of the month for a catered brunch, guest speaker, and networking at the pinecrest library in the south miami segment of miami. where are you all located? not necessarily south florida or even florida, i suppose. are you a national group? oh well, i learned something today. hope i didn’t incur the wrath of any of you romance / sci-fi writers. best regards, ricki dorn, SFWA. :+)

  8. adriandiglio says:

    Reblogged this on ADRIAN V. DIGLIO and commented:
    I once had a goal to join SFWA, but this has provided me the insight I needed to make a more informed decision, and I now can state that I won’t be joining the SFWA until they raise their level of service to that of the RWA. Below is a “Reblog” (just like a ReTweet) of Amy Raby’s post about ‘What’s wrong with the SFWA’.

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