Monday, April 28, 2008

Cutting off the face to spite one's nose

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.


Rick Klaw said...


An excellent rant which not surprisingly I agree with. Did not anyone there notice that your Nebula toastmaster routinely writes comics and even had a new one out a week before the award ceremonies? Or that the winner of the Nebula for Best Novel writes comics as well?

Both Del Rey and Tor have made forays into comics. Dark Horse, originally exclusively a comics publisher, now has entire line devoted to prose books.

Science fiction and comic books have been linked since almost the beginnings of both fields. Julius Schwartz was one of the founders of the Worldcon and the first sf literary agent. But he was also a prominent comic book editor whose vision helped to ignite the Silver Age. And who introduced Schwartz to the world of comics? Alfred Bester, who was writing Green Lantern at the time and would win the first Hugo Award.

It would seem a natural to me to include comic book writers.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Exactly, Rick. I can only imagine the resistance has to do with 1) being unfamiliar with comics and 2) the threat of becoming irrelevant. I got the impression that some present were honestly concerned with hundreds of self-published comics folks swarming in and voting themselves into leadership positions. Which ain't gonna happen by any stretch. Someone also opined that we shouldn't have anything to do with comics writers because the CBLDF looks out for their interests. Meanwhile, I'm thinking "Why the hell aren't we formally allied with the CBLDF?"

The two sides are digging in. It makes no sense, but I fear it's going to get ugly.

Rick Klaw said...

Are there really more comic book writers than sf writers? I find that hard to believe. And besides wouldn't only individuals who write sf/f comics be eligible?

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I suspect there might be more comic writers who support themselves full-time by writing comics than there are the prose equivalent. Either way, the total numbers involved ain't high.

More irony about the whole SFWA/comics thing pointed out, er, pointedly by Glenn Hauman:

Amy Sisson said...

Agreed. You know, with pretty much everything you just said.

I'm also not sure that this point was adequately expressed in that meeting: the mouse swallowing an elephant comment rather assumes that comic book writers would be breaking down our doors in vast quantities to join if we let them. Um, no. Most of them won't care at all. But if some want to join, we'll be the better for it.

Their concerns are different than ours? I'm thinking they want a decent wage for their work, fair contracts, a degree of control over their work.... No one has convinced me yet that their concerns are so different.

I was really distressed by the mention of a 40K word graphic novel that was turned down (reluctantly on the part of the person who told us this) because it self-identified as a graphic novel. I say that 40K words of prose published in one volume are a novel by SFWA's existing definition of novel for Nebula purposes.

Discouraging, this is.

(Apologies is this posts more than once. I'm having trouble getting the letters right on the "prove you're not a bot" field.)

Rick Klaw said...

Pretty ironic that Moorcock's official site would choose to reprint my article about his comic book career from Michael Moorcock's Multiverse #6.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, bravo! (And I'm just a fan/reader.) I honestly don't know what the state of SF/F literature is like. Though I tend to read SF/F books, my consumption is markedly down in recent years (though that is also a function of my life as well).

However, I do know that graphic novels (GNs) are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. In the past 5-7 years, there's been a huge upswing, both in terms of volume and quality (Sandman et al. notwithstanding). One need only visit a local Borders or Barnes & Noble to see the ever-expanding GN section with new books popping up every few weeks.

Do you think the increasing growth of the GN/comic industry is influencing things here? Is there some amount of envy or fear (beyond mere influx) at work?

I know the comic book growth comes after a sharp decline and is more-or-less relative thereto, but the GN upsurge is more difficult to argue, particularly with the more recent slate of GN-based movies (A History of Violence, V for Vendetta, Sin City, 300, Wanted).

Sean Hansen said...

" Are there really more comic book writers than sf writers? I find that hard to believe. And besides wouldn't only individuals who write sf/f comics be eligible?"

As much as I'm not a fan of the cookie cutter work for hire superhero books, they do qualify as science fiction since... it doesn't happen in the real world. People do not get powers from radiation and save the world, they just die from said radiation or get lucky and live handicapped.

Keep in mind that Flowers for Algeran, a book many may not consider science fiction, won a Nebula. But even if you don't think of super hero comics as sci-fi, a good portion of comics are still science fiction or fantasy(Sandman is pure fantasy, Preacher is dark fantasy with god playing a part of a villain, and Transmetropolitan is political science fiction). If you add in Historical revision fiction(like PKD's Man in the High Castle) barbarian fantasy, or dystopian fiction(1984,A Brave New World, etc.) then you get even more.

I can point to more works by serious contributors in the world of science fiction comics coming out per month(even if you consider them as chapters) than you can point to of first and second tier personalities in the genre prose.

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Jayme, while the conversation did get heated, I think you are misrepresenting the outcome a little. The motion that passed was, "that we clarify in our membership materials that graphic novelists are eligible for the affiliate category and that we plan to revisit their status as active members within one year." It passed 25 to 2.

The motion that was tabled was a discussion about what the wording on a member survey should say which passed 14 to 7.

While the more vocal members were opposed at the outset, I think positions softened by the end.

(SFWA business meetings are open to the public, I invite anyone who would like to join us to do so. I'll post the time and place on my blog.)

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Ah. Thanks for the clarification, Mary. In my defense, I did say at the outset my note-taking sucks, and I think this proves it. The two separate resolutions obviously blurred together in my recollection of the meeting.

I'm not sure if I agree the attitude toward admitting comics writers softened much by the end of the meeting. The room still seemed as split at the end as it was at the beginning. More consideration and investigation is needed, yes, but I think both motions mostly served to put off serious confrontation to a later date.

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Oh, I'll grant that it's not a huge softening, but some of the more vocal people said afterwards that points had been raised which they hadn't considered before. I'm sure it will be a spirited discussion over the next year, but change rarely comes without some discomfort.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Well, as long as you're around to fact check those of us shooting off our mouths, I'm certain it'll be an interesting debate.

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Heh. I have the benefit of having the minutes on my computer. We'll be posting them in the discussion group as soon as I get them translated into real sentences.

I guess I should also fess up that when the discussion started my mood swung into despair, so you aren't offbase about the general tone at the outset. By the end, I'd come round to cautiously optimistic.