October 14th, 2007

It was just over twenty years ago, as a newly-published author, that I joined the Science Fiction Writers of America. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Aside from a vague hope of discovering the Secret Pro Parties, I wasn’t thinking: What can SFWA do for me? Even less was I thinking, then: What can I do for SFWA?

Instead, I thought that I was honored and privileged to become part of the community of science fiction authors. My community.

Things change. When SFWA was founded, the SF field was smaller, the community of authors was smaller. It could reasonably be expected that the members would have read each others’ work, or at least be familiar with their names, even if they had never met each other in person. In many ways, it was a close-knit community, though most of its members were widely separated by geography, meeting only occasionally at conventions. Writing, after all, is a notoriously solitary profession; isolating. SFWA was a way of bringing SF writers together, connecting them with each other, reinforcing commonality. SFWA provided a channel of communication, a forum where members could address each other directly.

It was not, in those faraway days, that the early SFWAns always agreed on all issues. It was not that there were no quarrels. Far from it. The forum of communication was often a medium of contentiousness. But what sometimes gets overlooked is that the quarrels were among ourselves. When we were divided, it was usually over our common interests. It was the organization bringing us together that enabled our disagreements.

Things change. The genre grew. The number of SF authors grew. And someone invented the internet.

Science fiction authors, as might be expected, were early adapters of computers and the net. Just about the time that I joined SFWA, members of the organization were staking out a place on the GEnie BBS. I read about it in the SFWA FORUM and immediately joined up. So did much of SFWA.

The internet entirely altered the nature of communication within the organization, made it more immediate, more intimate. The change was centripetal. It brought the community together, first in scattered groups, and then on GE, where, for a few years, much of the SF community, authors and readers both, was gathered together in the same virtual place. People meeting for the first time at conventions already had long-established relationships formed online, something that had never before been possible. For some of us, this increase in community meant more contentiousness, but again, if we were divided over some issues, it was only possible because we had been brought together so much more closely.

But things change. The internet changed. Someone ill-advisedly invented the WWW, allowing graphics, sound, video, and other abominations. People fled the text-oriented communities for such temptations, and this change was centrifugal. The SF community has fragmented.

Something has been lost: the sense of community that includes all of us as SF authors. The problem is not in the formation of sub-groups; there have always been natural divisions of interest between, say, the Analog Mafiosi and the FFWs. The problem comes when we no longer believe that these divisions are still part of a whole, when the sub-groups become exclusive of the rest of us. The fragmentation by venues only exacerbates this trend. People who frequent one virtual hang-out feel distanced from those who post online elsewhere. Some of these people seem to feel, more and more, that their sub-community is sufficient, and they have no need to connect to a larger and more diverse SF community. They feel no need to join SFWA, the organization representing the entire SF community. “Why do I need SFWA? What good will SFWA do for me?”

As organizations go, SFWA may not be a perfect one. But SFWA is only its members. SFWA tilts in the direction that its members lean. And there is no other organization, no other group, that represents all of us, the community of SF authors.

It is a commonality of interests that forms a community, that holds it together. We all have the same thing in common: our genre. We are all part of the SF community, the people who read in our genre, who write in it, who think in accord with its tropes, who dream its dreams. And as authors, we have common interests as well – in common with other authors, but interests particular to our genre: the same publishers, the same editors, the same agents, often the same contracts. We may not all be in agreement on these issues, but again, we disagree because we have these things in common; they divide us only because we are united by them.

I wish that we could begin to think more of what unites us, and less of what divides us. I wish we could think more of what we all have in common. I wish we could think more of our genre in all its manifestations, and not only the narrow subgenre in which some of us read and work. I wish we could think inclusively, not exclusively; centripetally, not centrifugally. I wish we could embrace our diversity instead of letting it turn us away from each other.

I wish that new authors joining the field would want to become part of the entire community. I wish they would ask not, “What good will it do for me?” but “What good can I do for the genre that we all have in common.”

18 Responses to “Community”

  1. Alma Alexanderon 14 Oct 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Thank you for this.

  2. Beth Bernobichon 14 Oct 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you for saying it so much better and clearer than I ever could. Again, thank you.

  3. Constance Ashon 14 Oct 2007 at 2:50 pm

    Someone ill-advisedly invented the WWW, allowing graphics, sound, video, and other abominations. People fled the text-oriented communities for such temptations, and this change was centrifugal. The SF community has fragmented.

    The cause of the fragmentation was not the WWW. It was the abandoment of the owners of genie, plus the forces within the community that always were there. And more so than ever, just as the community and the organization have always reflected the larger world. Our nation has hardly ever been more divided than it is now, not even in the leadup to the Civil War.

    The community still exists.

    In more places than ever in the history of written sf/f as a ‘separate’ or parallel universe.

    It’s so huge and diverse in opinion, points of view and ambitions, in satisfactions and needs — not to mention the contentions, that it cannot be squeezed of everyone into one place.

    There are many communities, not just one, just as there always were.

    Love, C.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 14 Oct 2007 at 3:43 pm

    While Genie certainly was starved by its owners, there were people leaving the online community there for the web well before its demise. “Come see me on my web page!” they would carol centrifugally.

    Now it’s “Come see me on my blog!”

    Never: let’s stay in one place, together.

    Now, I do not argue that all the various SFnal sub-communities be squeezed into one place and all other places abandoned. I wish for people in these sub-communities to recognize their part in the larger SF community, to take their place in it.

  5. David de Beeron 14 Oct 2007 at 5:53 pm

    most people still want to, I believe.
    But it depends, also, on whether the mass amoeba that is SF makes prospective members feel as if they will be welcomed and valued.

    For myself, I am more comfortable in making connections with individuals and smaller groups. When I approach the gestalt I feel uncomfortable and lost, out of place, tolerated at most, but still reminded that this is another world for other people.

    Probably just me, and this is an eloquent post of yours, but right now the perception I have of the SFWA is a pre-occupation with itself and its existing members and not the advancement of SF.
    I just don’t know, either way, what decision I would make if I had to. For now, am happier with the smaller connections I have.

  6. Lois Tiltonon 14 Oct 2007 at 6:20 pm

    It’s this sort of perception that worries me.

    The concerns of SFWA are necessarily the concerns of its members, but this isn’t a static situation. As new members join, their concerns become the concerns of SFWA, the concerns of the whole. If new people don’t join, don’t add their concerns to the organization’s interests, it will eventually atrophy and die of irrelevance.

    As for the smaller groups, my own perception is of intolerance, exclusivity, insularity. I see this in large conventions, in the large herds, the “posses”, crowding together in the halls. They seem to feel themselves complete, with little need to look outside their own group, to exchange ideas outside the pre-approved range of the group.

    In diversity there is strength. An idea doesn’t grow strong when everyone in a group automatically agrees as a process of validating the other members. An idea grows when it is challenged, when there is dispute. Yes, even at the cost of acrimony.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 14 Oct 2007 at 11:06 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment about the closed-offedness of the newer SF groups, Lois. As a relative newbie to the field, one of the things I’ve found so amazing about the SF community is its openness to new members. If I decide tomorrow that I really want to get into, say, military SF, I can just hop onto the blogs of its prominent authors and start commenting. I can leap right into group discussions about military SF all over the web, and nobody’s going to check my card at the door. The only necessary qualification for joining is enthusiasm.

    I think what you’re lamenting is the specialization and fragmentation that’s happened to all facets of society in the past ten years. In 1975, you couldn’t create a group for Puerto Rican steampunk anime, because none of the people interested in that particular niche could find each other. Now they can. It’s the same thing that’s happened in music and art and film, not to mention sports and business and recreation and news and, well, everything. Can you think of any element of society that hasn’t been affected by this?

  8. Lois Tiltonon 15 Oct 2007 at 7:47 am

    It’s certainly a subjective assessment, made from my own observations. The mileage of others may vary; this may not be something you have been so unfortunate to have seen, as I have.

    When you speak of specialization, of people with common interests finding each other, this is the sort of community-building I am happy to see. It is the sort of community that the internet is so very good at facilitating.

    What I am not so happy to see is when such sub-communities turn their backs on the larger communities of which they are a part, when they decide to break off and away from the larger community, when they reject differences and diversity of opinion.

    I see a growing intolerance of disagreement. We do not always have to have the same opinion as others; community does not mean unanimity. Some people seem to feel that it does; there is no room in their communities for dissent; the other tribe must always be the enemy, and individuals must choose sides, with us or against us.

  9. David de Beeron 15 Oct 2007 at 10:29 am

    ah, yes, I am going to agree in large part with Lois’ last comment. This is one of the aspects that gets tiring as you look on and you get the impression, not of an openness to dialogue or the freedom to discuss ideas and issues, but that had better damn well pick a battle line now!!

    Then again, maybe it’s not so much prevalent as just an extremely loud minority.
    Overall, there are still large groups of writers, forums, blogs, etc, where new voices and additions are welcomed even when disagreeing.
    David runs a very open and welcoming blog, for example. John Scalzi’s Whatever forum has taken on a life of its own, and I think that’s good, letting people connect without the need for Scalzi to unify them.
    But in places like the SFWA lj community? ehm, no.

  10. Deirdre Saoirse Moenon 16 Oct 2007 at 3:38 am

    I think we forgot we were family. And yeah, we have a few dysfunctional (or semi-functional) relatives, but doesn’t every family?

    I’ve been an Associate member of SFWA for four years. There are moments when it’s still a rush.

  11. Lois Tiltonon 16 Oct 2007 at 9:42 am

    And families always have quarrels.

  12. Constance Ashon 16 Oct 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Some families are so dysfunctional that you have to leave them behind to save yourself.

    Love, C.

  13. Laurieon 17 Oct 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Lois wrote:

    What I am not so happy to see is when such sub-communities turn their backs on the larger communities of which they are a part, when they decide to break off and away from the larger community, when they reject differences and diversity of opinion.

    I think this happens everywhere that creative people congregate, be it online or off.

    My first encounter with this phenomenon was in college. I was a member of the symphony, and when our conductor retired, the new woman they brought in was atrocious. She played favorites with the pretty boys, giving them chairs higher than their ability deserved. She made the harpist cry for being incompetent. Eventually, the group splintered and one faction formed a pops orchestra, while the other faction rallied around the new conductor. I, being the naive little filly I was back then, tried to play with both and got severely pummeled for my sins. In fact, the fall out was so bad that I had to drop music as my major.

    I’ve seen this scenario play out again and again in online writers’ groups, theater troupes, dance schools, and pretty much everywhere that high-strung, opinionated people congregate. Hell, it even happened in my science club when the math teacher and physics teacher had a difference of opinion on how to grade work and assign projects.

    It pretty much sucks, but, well, it is what it is. These days, when I see a quarrel brewing, I generally excuse myself and politely stay gone until the storm has passed.

  14. Lois Tiltonon 17 Oct 2007 at 10:14 pm

    I have seen it in a number of situations, also, and it’s always unfortunate. People who ought to be working together start working against each other – against their common interest.

  15. Muneravenon 18 Oct 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Lois wrote:

    What I am not so happy to see is when such sub-communities turn their backs on the larger communities of which they are a part, when they decide to break off and away from the larger community, when they reject differences and diversity of opinion.

    Doris Lessing has a skinny little book called “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside” that addresses this exact social phenomenon. It’s a fascinating book and vastly overlooked. I highly recommend it.

    I am an outsider looking in at SFWA, a writer who has only started writing in this genre in the last couple years and has not published in this genre yet. My impression of SFWA as an organization (not individual members) has been almost entirely negative. This was not what I expected, as I came in to the fringes of this community with nothing but good expectations, with really no thoughts about what such an organization could one day do for me personally, just thinking it would be a cool organization. But sitting on the sidelines, I can’t help but note the very public slapfights and mudslinging that goes on.

    I mean, it is like living next door to a family that has screaming, brawling public fights. There may be some lovely family moments going on inside that house, but the screaming on the front lawn isn’t making a great impression on the rest of the neighborhood.

    As for the family metaphor, being a SFF writer and reader doesn’t necessarily make me part of a family, since I can do these things alone. In other words, the larger SFF community seems less to me like a family I was born into than like a family I might MARRY into. By choice. And if one is dating a person and goes home to meet The Family and discovers that said prospective family-in-law is a dysfunctional mess, well, a smart person steps back and thinks about the upcoming nuptials and what that might mean. LOL. So, IMHO, for many of us newbies, we are madly in love with our gorgeous genre of SFF but the in-laws, such as SFWA, are looking a tad psycho.

    And I, for one, am thinking maybe I can marry the fantasy genre but move to another country and just, yanno, send SFWA Christmas cards.

    Just my take. I’m an oversensitive introvert, though, so others might well feel very differently. :-)

  16. Lois Tiltonon 18 Oct 2007 at 4:18 pm

    What an appropriate time to recommend a work by Lessing!

    I prefer the term “community” – a group with a common interest. Our genre is the thing we have in common. We ought, I believe, to embrace this commonality, not the differences among us.

    The metaphor would be that of a number of individuals living in proximity to each other, who form a village or town so that they can work together to build streets, wells, a fire department. What the villagers have in common is their location; the village is the organizational structure within which they act in common.

    That happens to be, in our case, SFWA. I think SFWA is not really better or worse than most other such organizations, except perhaps it is a tad bit more vocal about it. Or, to use your analogy, as if someone were broadcasting the private disputes within the house on a loudspeaker to the world outside. There are better ways to resolve our differences.

    But to me, it’s not SFWA that’s the issue, but the community that SFWA is supposed to represent. If this organization were dissolved and a new one established, I fear that the same sort of factionalism would develop within it, unless people learn to take the community itself more seriously than their differences.

  17. Kyackon 27 Oct 2007 at 10:39 pm

    With respect, SWFA only represents science fiction and fantasy writers who meet certain criteria.

    It doesn’t represent the entire sci fi and fantasy writing community, nor the vast fandom, nor any of the other aspects of science fiction and fantasy in other art forms (art, TV, movies, etc.).

    It is an exclusive subset — and I mean “exclusive” not in a tony sense, but in the sense that it aims to exclude. It seems to pride itself on how well it keeps others out. As to benefits it offers those fortunate enough to be favored with membership — what, truly, are those benefits? Parties?

    What else do they do to advance alternative fiction?

    I would like to know. It’s not readily apparent what exactly the organization is good for — besides embarrassing the entire community with their ridiculous in-fighting and their use of the term “skiffy.”

    I laud your noble reasons for joining, but when I qualify, I won’t hasten to join. On a matter of principle — because I believe that any organization that is meant to represent those who dream about the future ought to do more to bring into the present the better parts of those imagined futures. Sadly, SWFA does not even try.

  18. Lois Tiltonon 27 Oct 2007 at 10:58 pm

    What some people regard as exclusion, others consider as a goal.

    Communities naturally have subsets and intersections with other sets. I regard my activity within SFWA as a tie that connects me with the larger SF community, and with other subsets within the SF community, such as the artists, the editors. It is also a tie that connects me with other communities of writers.

    To me, the organization represents a spirit of including and drawing-together.

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