I am a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which is the professional association for SF writers. This is my second year of membership (I think). Roughly every three months or so, SFWA erupts in controversy over racist or sexist comments. Most recently, it erupted in controversy over a petition that was distributed by some members to protest ‘censorship’ of SFWA’s in-house publication, The Bulletin.
I don’t think anyone actually cares that much about this, but we’re all on the internet and we’re all writers and we all have blogs and twitters and Facebooks and we all need something to talk about. It’s the 24-hour news cycle, but now we’re all perpetuating it. Whatever, that’s the world we live in. And it’s also pretty fun.
Whenever any SFWA controversy (or any other controversy of any sort) blows up, you can pretty much map where anybody stands in it by looking at who they’re friends with. I’m friends with one crowd, so I’m of one opinion about things, but I imagine that if I was friends with Dave Truesdale and Mike Resnick, then I’d feel differently.
So I just want to use this space to note that I actually have derived some concrete benefits from being part of SFWA. For two years running, I’ve been on the program at the Baltimore Book Festival, which is something that happened through the SFWA mailing list. I went to the Nebula Award Weekend in San Jose, which was amongst the funnest times I’ve ever had at a convention. And I went to the SFWA reception in New York earlier this year. And I’ve met tons of fun people through SFWA, like Cat Rambo, Sarah Pinsker, and the Baltimore Science Fiction Society crew and lots of other folks whose names I’m forgetting.
Furthermore, all of this SFWA stuff is often framed as something of a generational conflict, but I don’t think that’s quite fair. The SFWA tent at the Baltimore Book Festival is organized primarily by Catherine Asaro, who’s been in the field for more than 20 years, and she’s been very good about getting younger writers involved, in addition to being very friendly and very charitable whenever I’ve met her.
In general, I’ve not found SFWA to be an awful organization, and I don’t find it odious to be associated with it. Of course, I also don’t find it odious to be published in Orson Scott Card’s magazine, so, you know, my lines in the sand aren’t the same as other people’s.
On my way back from New York. It was my first visit in five years, and the first one where I felt like I was in control of where I was and what I was doing. It was great to see some old friends and to just take in the city. I definitely see what all the hype is about.
I ended the visit by going to the Science Fiction (and Fantasy) Writers of America’s annual reception. I’d been told it was a good event for meeting people in the business. I don’t particularly need to meet people at this point, since I’m not looking for an agent or pitching a book. However, the best time to meet people is when you don’t meet them! I think some of the most successful people in the science fiction world are the ones who spent years meeting people as fans and just generally being pleasant and interesting, so that when they finally had something to pitch, all they had to do was reach out to their friends.
Wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had fun and didn’t have too much trouble talking to people. It helped that I had my friend Becca along with me to make me look like a person who is capable of having friends and maintaining normal relationships with human beings.
When I talk to new people, I really only have two moves. If they’re by themselves, I make eye contact and say, “Hi, I’m Rahul.” And if they’re in a group, then I step up to its edge, make eye contact with someone and say something like, “Can I break in?” and then introduce myself.
No one will ever say that you cannot break in. However, sometimes they tell you with their eyes! But that’s no problem, and it doesn’t really offend me. There are plenty of times when people have tried to talk to me and I have not wanted to talk to them. In those cases, I break contact after a few moments and float onwards. Perhaps there is some way to figure out in advance whether people are receptive to someone breaking in or not, but I have not yet found it. My techniques might not be the best, but what can you do other than attempt to learn by doing? If I waited until I’d figured out a non-awkward way of talking to strangers, then I would die alone and friendless.
As for the actual talking, I used to have a whole suite of early-conversation questions, but I am starting to question whether that’s really the thing to do. Most of them had to do with occupation, and there are some weird status connotations involved in asking someone where they work. Also, people oftentimes don’t want to talk about their work. I also have regular small-talk questions about the location: where people live, where they’re from, how they like it here, etc. And those work too, but they’re not exciting. Also, in general, there is a point at which I just don’t want to have another conversation about whether or not it’s dangerous in any particular neighborhood of Baltimore.
At the beginning of the semester, I had a blinding epiphany that I could just talk about whatever stuff I’ve been thinking about. So now I just do that. For instance, recently I’ve been thinking about the movie Pretty Woman. It’s one of my favorite movies. But it’s also insane, and I can’t believe that it exists.
Richard Gere is a businessman who’s tired of all the women who like him because he’s handsome and charming, so he decides to go out and hire a streetwalker and pay her to do exactly what he wants. There’s obviously some very twisted psychology at work here, but the movie just doesn’t care. Like, in the end of the movie they begin a real romantic relationship, but what is that relationship gonna be like? Like, this movie began with Gere literally buying her. What is going to happen when they have their first fight? It’s gonna be like, “This isn’t what I paid for! Go back to being simultaneously sexy and mothering!”
I feel like this is the kind of movie that could only be made in 1990. If Pretty Woman came out today, it would be much darker.
One thing that I love about the SFF world is that there are constant fights over the racism and sexism that’ve been imputed to some authors. The anatomy of these fights is weird, because there are some writers you just can’t even get up a good fight about. Like, calling Orson Scott Card a homophobe isn’t going to get you anywhere, fight-wise.
In order to have a good fight, you need people on both sides. And the people on both sides need to be on the internet and willing to engage.
Except this time! Right now the SF world is engaged in the slowest-moving internet flamewar ever, because half of it is being prosecuted on the internet and half of it is being prosecuted in a bimonthly zine. Every other month, the SFWA Bulletin (which is the publication of our professional association: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) is mailed out to all the members. No online copy of it exists.
And for ages, two eminent SF authors, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, have had a column in it.
They’ve probably been saying off-color things for years, but since no one ever reads the Bulletin (I still haven’t read a single article in it, despite knowing there’s all kinds of juicy controversy in there), it’s managed to stay off peoples’ radar.
However, one day someone read it and found something he/she didn’t like (it was a legitimately offensive thing, I just forget what it was). And ever since that, people’ve been scanning every bulletin to see what craziness will be in it.
So now, every two months, the SFF internet world blows up with angry comments. And then it dies away! Because no one is on the internet to feed the fire! We’re all just being like, “Yep, these writings suck! Boo!”
And then we have to stop talking, because we all agree.
And then two month later, the paper comes out again and there’s another broadside (I think this month it’s about how liberals are fascists who want to shut people up and take away their freedom).
I honestly have very little to say about this or any other controversy. I think racism and sexism and homophobia are terrible, but you know what I find to be even more terrible: People not liking me.
As I noted in my post about Orson Scott Card’s magazine, I don’t want to alienate possible fans who have different opinions than me. Everything I have to say that’s really important is in my work, and if I want people to know my mind, then my job is to make sure as many people as possible are willing to be touched by my work.
Also, I know that some people who read this blog have political opinions that we could fight about, if I wanted to do that, but I don’t. And, honestly, I don’t feel that visceral sense of hurt that fuels these kinds of fight. When I read something conservative in my Facebook feed, I’m just like, “Hmm, that’s interesting to know about that person.” And then I move on. Although I disagree, it doesn’t bother me.
However, I will say that these internet fights have contributed one real, concrete thing to me. Four years ago, we had the internet war to end them all! It was called RaceFail ’09, and the reason it was so protracted and horrible was because it pitted white women against colored people. And the winners got…well…nothing. No one got anything.
But in the midst of all that (which I followed with glee), I did read one comment on one post that touched me really deeply. I went back and tried to find the comment, but I couldn’t. It’s somewhere on this post, though, I think: http://deepad.livejournal.com/29656.html
(The post itself didn’t resonate strongly with me, because that’s not my experience. I am an American, and so there’s far less disjunction, for me, between white American narratives and my own life experience).
Anyway, the comment was from some Indian-American guy who was like, “I don’t know if it’s really a big deal for me to write about Indian people, since I don’t have a huge number of Indian cultural markers. I mean, I can write a story about a guy named Vikram who doesn’t speak Hindi and sometimes makes Indian food at home but is otherwise mostly just like the white people around him.”
And I was like, “Yes. You should write about Vikram. Vikram deserves to have a place in the world! Vikram deserves to have stories written about him.”
And ever since then, I’ve tried to write about Indian-American people. Not the Indian-American people that I read about or see on TV: the ones whose parents won’t let them date and who memorize the dictionary so they can win the National Spelling Bee at age 18. I write about people like me, and people I see and know.
It’s taken years of this, but I feel like in the last year or so, I’ve finally started to work out a bit of what it means to be a mostly-assimilated Indian-American. It’s not at the core of my writing, but it’s definitely there, and it is a little bit more true and honest and good than when I was mostly writing white protagonists.
So there. Controversy is good for something, sometimes.