Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oversight, Looking Under

Here's some free advice for today. Never get too close to people you look up to; they can only disappoint you. I say this because of the latest flap to engulf SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which brewed up out of weekend rumors and exploded onto the net yesterday. The context is a bit involved, going back to last year's controversy about cheesecake chain-mail chicks on the cover of a professional industry magazine and certain comments within, so I'd recommend reading this link for the details, and potentially also this takedown before you go any further.

So, yeah. That petition. Full of appeals to the First Amendment, of course--which is irrelevant in this circumstance, because the First Amendment only prevents the government from abridging free speech. SFWA, as a private organization, is not required to let anyone in particular use its bullhorn. Given that the signatories are of an age that predates the present-day educational system, you'd think they'd have learned that in Civics class. What really gets me is that writers, of all people, can work themselves into such a tizzy about the prospect of editorial oversight.

The point of editorial oversight is a simple one: to keep crazy stuff you didn't intend from getting into the pages. This is why newspapers have things called editorial boards. Just because the Bulletin, the magazine at the heart of this, is a publication funded by SFWA, it's not obligated to accept submissions by SFWA members. Under the new rules proposed for the Bulletin, its editor would engage in the "proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members." Because, as we all know, any editorial oversight whatsoever leads inexorably and immediately to politically correct Stalinism, and contributors will no longer be able to talk about how good lady editors looked in bikinis in the pages of an industry journal.

the horror

Especially for writers, this is rich. I'm still just getting started out in this game, but one of the first lessons I learned was this: you are never the best judge of what you write. I send all my stuff to beta readers as much as possible before I try to find it a home, for very important reasons. Part of that is the accessibility factor--when I write I'm carrying the world around in my head, and it's something I understand well enough that important things may not make it on the page because I don't think to put them there. Another, even more critical, part is the matter of perspective; someone looking at your work from a different angle may see something entirely different from what you intended to write.

I have direct experience with this myself, and it wasn't fun. Last year I was working on the draft of a story (which has yet to find a home, alas) where the antagonist relied on illicitly-obtained medication to endure in a specific environment. Now, when I'd been writing, what I was carrying around in my mind was the notion that this medication was a poor solution to a problem that could have easily been corrected by a simple medical treatment, but the antagonist refused to do this out of pride or fear. When I passed the story to a beta reader whose opinion I put great stock in, what I got back was an understandably ruffled comment about how the notion was insulting to people on medication, and how it was essentially saying "not only are drugs bad, but so are the people who use them."

My first, gut reaction was to get my back up and fulminate about how that wasn't what I meant at all. Fortunately that only lasted  a fraction of a second before the cool winds of Not Being a Dick blew in and I rewrote the thing, because fuck, that isn't what I wanted to say at all. I suspect this is the same way the original Bulletin flap started up, except Resnick and Malzberg had the window closed that day. Some people act like they think apologizing means weakness and that you're wrong, and that's something that they could never do. Hell, the entire reaction feels like it could be boiled down to "what's the matter with you, don't you understand we're PAYING YOU A COMPLIMENT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BITCHES?"

Once you get to that point, it's real easy to keep the train going. Braking? Less so.

I even have experience with the whole "need for editorial oversight" thing. Back in university I was editor-in-chief of the Absynthe newspaper for two years, and though we were directly funded by the student body, that didn't mean any frood with a student card could send us whatever they wanted and they had to publish it. In fact, I remember a bit of a flap that emerged as a result of insufficient editorial oversight, and while it eventually blew over it wasn't particularly fun to live through.

What oversight is _not_ is censorship, despite the petition's cover letter suggesting that SFWA is about to experience a "censorship explosion." By that logic, every rejection letter I've ever received is censorship, because the Bulletin is no more obligated to print my stuff than is Clarkesworld. What's more, it's ridiculous coming from science fiction writers, of all people. Not only do we live in the goddamn future, it is a future where it is easier to get one's message out than EVER BEFORE. Setting up a weblog is free and takes two minutes, and all of a sudden you have your place to publish "the article that the Bulletin refused to take!" for all the world to see.

I can't help but feel like this is the sort of thing that happens when authors gain Protection from Editors--they forget that the perspective they're writing from isn't the only valid one.

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