Lois Tilton 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 â€“ 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.”