Let the pit fighting begin anew.
The above, or course, is in response to my participation in the annual SFWA business meeting during this past weekend’s Nebula Awards activities. Much of what went on during the meeting was the traditional, tedious bureaucratic rigmarole, but one issue came up that I foresee being quite contentious in the weeks and months ahead: Just what kinds of works qualify professional science fiction/fantasy writers for membership in our august little organization?
The issue here concerns the rise of the graphic novel as a major publishing form, and the continued popularity of comics as a medium. In recent years several creators (not a tremendous number, but still...) with significant publications to their credit in the graphic novel milieu have applied for membership only to be turned away. Or rather, offered Affiliate membership, which means they’d be allowed to pay dues like everybody else, but not have voting rights. This is a popular membership category for publishers and new writers who’ve only partially qualified for Active membership, but for someone who could conceivably have a more successful career than the bulk of current Active members, well, it has somewhat less appeal for obvious reasons.
Russell Davis, the SFWA president-elect, made a well-reasoned point that in order to remain viable and vibrant, the organization needed to bring in new members and grow. New members means more dues money (i.e. improved financial ability to actually do something productive) and additional warm bodies to take on volunteer positions and potentially contribute to running the organization. Despite the well-documented troubles of the comics industry, it’s more high-profile than genre publishing and the premier showcase of that field--the San Diego Comic Con--dwarfs SF’s showcase Worldcon (big and spiffy though it may be). There’s a significant overlap between comics and genre (and from here on out I’ll use “genre” as a specific reference to SF and fantasy publishing. Tough cookies to horror, mystery and everyone else) and Davis outlined an inclusive membership philosophy that I liken to a “big tent” approach. It was a logical presentation of his position and far more eloquent than my fumble-footed comments a few minutes later.
Naturally, opposition to opening the doors to comics creators coalesced with sudden and instantaneous vigor. This is the same organization that battled for more than a decade whether or not to include “Fantasy” in its official name (Science-fiction & Fantasy Writers of America we now be for those unaware of such nuances).
The objections ran the whole gamut (paraphrased here because I’m a notoriously awful note-taker. But the gist of the matter remains): “There’s too many of them--this will be like a mouse swallowing an elephant”; “Their contracts and issues are different than ours”; “If you take away the pictures, the words don’t tell the whole story”; “We have nothing to offer them”; “We need to grow and add more members first, then we can think about opening the organization to comics”; “Manga recycles the same plot over and over again--that’s not writing, and shouldn’t qualify” (ah, there are so many things I could say here, but I will exercise Herculean restraint); and, my particular favorite melon-scratcher, “There are so many self-published comics out there, we’ll be swamped with too many new members with credentials equivalent to The Pleistocene Redemption.”
Well, no. No to all of the above--none of those are reasons to exclude comics creators/graphic novelists. They’re excuses. It’s not as if the only way to admit graphic novelists is to throw standards out the window. Self-published and vanity press prose don’t count toward Active SFWA membership, so why on Earth would self-published or vanity comics count? That’s just silly. If membership credentials were expanded to admit comics creators, then of course the criteria of minimum pay rate, minimum publications and such would be addressed. Does one issue of Detective Comics or The Fantastic Four count as a short story? Does it count as a half credit because the artist shared half the storytelling duties? This would be worked out.
And it’d not be like “A mouse swallowing an elephant.” There may be more full-time professionals working in comics than genre, but I’ll wager there are significantly more professionally working genre writers overall than comics writers, if only because for many genre authors writing is a second career outside of academic, scientific or (ahem) journalistic pursuits. And I might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but “We need to grow first before we grow” comes off as reasoning that’s more than a little circular to me.
The sad thing is that this debate, which is only in the infancy stages of ramping up, can potentially damage SFWA in lasting ways. Already the group’s had a long, slow slide toward irrelevance. The Nebula may hold some degree of prestige among writers still, but it’s long since ceded the wow factor to the Hugo Award. Publishers weren’t represented well in Austin at all, and while this is due in part to not being in close proximity to the east coast publishing apparatus, it still says something that isn’t all that good. So the prospects of SFWA alienating a potential membership component--and their high-profile fan base--strikes me as insanely short-sighted to a profound degree. Case in point: Neil Gaiman (who is not a SFWA member) won a rightly-deserved World Fantasy Award in 1991 for his work on DC Comics’ The Sandman. The rules were immediately revised in the aftermath to bar comics and graphic novels from eligibility, a move that still rankles nearly two decades later and blatantly smacks of elitism. SFWA is poised to make the same move on a much larger scale--not only would we be banning a class of literature, we’d be telling their writers “You’re not worthy of joining our increasingly insular and inbred club.”
When I ran AggieCon back in 1991, I invited Marv Wolfman as comics guest of honor. Afterwards, he confessed to me that he was quite nervous about accepting the invitation, despite the fact that his wife had many personal ties with the convention and area. He’d never been to a “science fiction convention” before, and was deeply and truly worried that the genre writers would look down upon and ostracize him for being “only” a comic book writer. He was delighted to learn that many were fans and a significant number aspired to write for comics some day. Bridges--very small ones, I admit--were built that weekend. But those misconceptions Wolfman carried into the con are the very ones this coming debate has the potential to reinforce.
Vice President-elect Elizabeth Moon had the clear vision and good sense to point out that the debate has the potential to not only alienate non-member comics writers, but also current Active SFWA members who also happen to write comics. Gaiman and Peter David are the two highest-profile crossover talents that come to mind, but the list is a very long one indeed, including current, former and non-SFWAns alike, including such names as Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock and Larry Niven. After the business meeting came to the end and I departed, Joe Haldeman shook his head and said to me, “I didn’t want to say anything in there, but I write my share of comics, too.” The fact that Haldeman’s body of work qualifies him for Active membership many times over without taking his comics work into consideration is irrelevant. There’s just something wrong at a base level when the message going out is that of “Your creative efforts are lessened by the medium you choose to work in.”
Literature changes. Publishing changes. Readership taste changes. Any entity that doesn’t evolve and adapt is doomed to extinction sooner or later. For a population of writers so often consumed and obsessed with the idea of the “genre ghetto” to cast disparaging looks toward comics writers--themselves subject to ghettoization to spectacular degrees throughout the 20th century--is as cruel an irony as any I’ve had the misfortune to encounter. Let it end here.
ADDENDUM: I just want to clarify here that all discussion during the business meeting was wholly civil and cordial. No in-fighting broke out. I predict that in-fighting will eventually break out over this issue, just as sure as "Requal" will someday rear its ugly head again. But for now the issue remains in the polite discussion stages. And for the record, the proposal by President Davis ended up being tabled on a motion from Lawrence Person, which passed by an approximate 14-7 vote (I voted nay). It is my belief that "further study" was inherent in Davis' initial proposal, but in any event, this is one issue that isn't going away any time soon.