Posted October 30, 2010on:
A couple of days ago I got into a bit of an argument with Victoria Strauss on Twitter, on the subject of Writer’s organizations such as the SFWA and the MWA, for Science Fiction and Mystery writers, respectively. The initial motivation for the whole discussion was a tweet by her that the MWA had delisted Dorchester Publishing, presumably because they had opened a vanity publishing arm, although that was not stated. (Edit: apparently it was because they weren’t paying royalties to the authors. see comments)
What bothered me about this was that most of these organizations qualify their members based on their publisher being listed, which seems kind of bizarre to me, so I sidestepped as I usually do and asked her why they do that.
After many tweets and a lot of back and forth we ended up pretty much where we started. My position is simple: If you claim to write science fiction and want membership, then your application should be judged on the basis of either your science or your fiction, preferably both. My understanding of her position is that the organizations use the amount of the advance/royalties paid to the author as an objective measure.
For SFWA, qualifying pubs must pay at least $2,000 advance. (http://twitter.com/victoriastrauss/status/29010933697)
Once again–it has nothing to do w/ quality of yr writing. Focusing on pub, rather than author, avoids such subj. standards (http://twitter.com/victoriastrauss/status/29013535029)
Once again–“good” and “bad” are not involved. That’s the benefit of using a non-subjective standard like advance amount. (http://twitter.com/victoriastrauss/status/29014033541)
Has nothing to do w/what you write, or benefiting pubs. Has to do with the org’s minimum professional standards for membership. (http://twitter.com/victoriastrauss/status/29011227741)
I’m not sure what the amount of the advance is supposed to be an objective measure of, though, except perhaps the ability of the publisher to pay high royalties and advances. Why the org (in this case the SFWA) determines the worthiness of an author to join based on what his publisher pays him is beyond me.
Well, not entirely beyond me. I’m an author, after all, it’s my business to come up with plausible storylines. One that occured to me was this: Way back when, last century, when science fiction was ‘in its infancy’, so to speak, there was a concerted effort to distinguish it from other forms of fiction. This is where Bat Durston comes from, a western hero in a rocket ship, the kind of story that ‘you’ll never see in the pages of Galaxy(?) magazine’, or some such. Science fiction stories, in order to be acceptable as science fiction, had to meet a set of criteria which would distinguish them from mere adventure stories set in space. Which is fine, especially when you consider that science fiction has so much in common with these other adventure stories that without a high fence it would be very easy for them to melt into one another.
Now here we have a nice professional standard. ‘You want to be a SF writer, you gotta do this.’ How do we know you’re doing this? Easy, you got your story published by a publisher who only publishes this, sort of like a kosher deli. The publishers filter for the SFWA the same way the agents filter for the publisher. Story quality really doesn’t enter into it; we all know the big boys publish oceans of crap SF every year. I’m still not sure how the royalty angle fits in to all this, except that there is supposed to be some further connection between the ability to pay high royalties and the adherence to the SF code that escapes me. I suppose it is possible that the SF rabbis who vetted the publishers for their adherence to standards noted the standard advance amounts paid by the ones that passed the test. Sort of like determining who has a heart by checking for kidneys. And I can further suppose that the slew of new indie publishers out there either do not pass the tests for adherence to the SF code or haven’t been checked at all.
Could it be that what really bugs u isn’t that SFWA excludes u, but that its standards imply that yr publisher isn’t professional (http://twitter.com/victoriastrauss/status/29013174252) (emphasis mine)
So large advances imply that a publisher is ‘professional’. I suppose adherence to the SF code implies or requires some sort of corporate infrastructure in order to check the science, which further implies access to larger amounts of ready cash for advances. One wonders what would happen if an indie passed the test (“Hello, Google!”) but only offered a tiny advance. Would they be required to offer larger advances, like the big boys do, or would the SFWA lower their standards for what is required in order to be considered a “pro publisher”? Three guesses. On the other hand, when a show like Firefly wins the Hugo, you know that there’s something wrong with the SF code somewhere.
None of which really matters, although I think this is the argument Ms. Strauss was trying to make, because I am a fantasy writer. Were I to try to gain admittance to the SFWA, it would only be because there is no equivalent organization for fantasy writers. I prefer SF when it’s fantasy in SF clothing. I don’t claim to be writing SF, although my futuristic paranormal may raise a few brows. Why should a fantasy writer be held to the same standard as an SF writer? Should the SFWA have a separate branch for us mere fantasy authors, or not accept any fantasy authors at all? Is there, should there be, a standard for fantasy? I think it’s too late for that.
So where do the fantasy writers go?