SFWA Discipline

The motion to expel Theodore Beale (“Vox Day”) awaits SFWA’s new board, which takes office July 1.

Will they simply look at Beale’s tweets and posts, consider them in light of SFWA’s Bylaws, and give a quick thumbs-up or –down?

Likelier they’ll start by comparing the case with any other disciplinary precedents in SFWA history. Followers of professional sports know that inconsistent discipline often leads to lawsuits if a player believes the suspension he’s received for some violation is disproportionate to the penalty handed down for the same infraction in the past.

But is there much history to review? That answer is probably unknowable to outsiders. However, when Lawrence Watt-Evans left SFWA in 2006 after 24 years of membership he suggested there isn’t much, for he complained –

Other writers’ organizations kick out people when necessary, but SFWA, in forty-two years of existence, has never had the gumption to police itself. Members have lied and swindled and cheated, and yet SFWA has never expelled anyone, has never refused membership to anyone who had the necessary credentials.

The lone example of SFWA discipline that seems to be public knowledge is the very incident that triggered Watt-Evans’ complaint and his departure, SFWA’s decision to censure rather than expel David Moles.

In 2006, after Harlan Ellison groped Connie Willis onstage during the Hugo Awards ceremony, Moles became upset with colleagues he felt were defending Ellison in a private SFWA newsgroup. He made some of their comments public on his blog. (These appear to have been taken down, but related material Moles excerpted from public blogs and forums is still available at his old blog.) He wrote at the time, “I did not post those quotes lightly. This is not just another internet slapfight,” sounding like he considered his actions a variety of civil disobedience for which he expected and accepted certain consequences.

Some members attempted to get Moles expelled from SFWA. He was censured instead. He recalled the experience in a 2009 SF Signal interview – in a tone rather more glib than in 2006:

SoY: Rumor has it you were once formally censured by the SFWA. Care to elaborate?

DM: So, you may have heard about Harlan Ellison groping Connie Willis during the Hugo ceremony at the Anaheim Worldcon in 2006. (If not, google “Harlangate”.) A number of people who should have known better said some indefensible things in Harlan’s defense. I made a blog post excerpting and linking to some of these.

As it happens — I suppose it’s not accidental — the venue for many of these indefensible defenses was the SFF.net SFWA Lounge, a closed newsgroup accessible only to SFWA members and known for studied unpleasantness. Suffice to say that to a lot of SFWA veterans, my breaking the SFWA code of silence by reposting from a closed newsgroup was much worse — and much more worth talking about — than anything Harlan might have done, or anything the Anaheim incident (and reactions to it) might highlight about sexism and sexual harassment in science fiction.

That I wasn’t expelled from SFWA outright is thanks to then-SFWA president Robin Bailey, who fought the rest of the SFWA board to get my expulsion reduced to censure — a new process that had to be invented for the occasion.

Even today, censure is not provided for in the SFWA Bylaws, only expulsion, which makes one wonder how it worked.

However, I recall that the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society years ago voted to censure a member in lieu of expulsion, a procedure not explicitly provided for in its by-laws or standing rules. The members decided such an action could be authorized by a general vote.

SFWA obviously came up with a rationale of its own for imposing another type of discipline on Moles short of expulsion.

The Moles episode may have been on Beale’s mind judging by the way he introduced certain quotations from his own SFWA Forum posts on his personal blog. It was another way of baiting his colleagues. The Amal El-Mohtar motion, on the other hand, doesn’t dwell on such technicalities, it goes straight to the heart of the matter.

That is a motion endorsed by Moles, incidentally. He wrote on June 14:

I’m writing to ask you to take the strongest steps you think are allowable under our current bylaws to discipline Mr. Beale, whether that’s censure, expulsion, or some other punishment to be named later. At this point I’m not sure anything could be better for SFWA’s public image than to have someone like Mr. Beale outside it shouting loudly about how unwelcome he is in it.

[Thanks to Michael J. Walsh for the story.]

6 thoughts on “SFWA Discipline

  1. Back when I was in SFWA, I always thought the policy that SFWA FORUM contents were not to be copied or quoted was dumb. I believe the actual words used were “expressly forbidden”. So whenever I wrote a letter to the FORUM myself, I added a note stating that permission to copy or quote what I’d written was expressly granted.

    I had a chance to glance at some of those earliest FORUMs, from the late 1980′s, a few weeks ago when I was doing a major clean-out of my office. All the old arguments and grandstanding seemed pretty stale after all these years, but it reminded me that FORUM issues sometimes seemed like an unofficial Ugliest Letterhead contest. (The FORUM editor back then directly photocopied letters for publication.) The late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s letterhead was spectacular for its excess, taking up about a third of a page..

  2. He was not expelled under discipline, although the adjustment to his membership does seem to have been driven by some members’ hostility to Lem’s belittling comments about SF.

    Here is an example of what SF writers were seeing at the time, a Lem quote in a German magazine, translation from the original Polish (and rendered here in English, obviously):

    The whole phenomenon would not be worth further discussion were it not that sci-fi appears to have been elevated to a level of both kitsch and mystification that makes it a force to be reckoned with. By kitsch I mean a literary form that claims to be a mythology of technological civilization while in fact it is simply bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue.

    It was this version that influenced American opinion of Lem, although Darko Suvin made his own translations of key examples for an issue of Science Fiction Studies which proved that the Polish original was often milder and more nuanced.

    As to Lem’s SFWA status, at one time SFWA kept an explanation on its FAQ page, which is still accessible on the Wayback Machine. It reads:

    Paraphrasing past-president Jerry Pournelle, who was a member at the time (the mid-70s):

    While it is true that Lem was unpopular with some SFWAns for his opinions, there was apparently a miscommunication about the meaning of the term “honorary” membership. According to the SFWA by-laws then in force, honorary membership was intended not as an “honor” but as a means to extend benefits of SFWA membership to individuals who would otherwise be ineligible, such as SF writers who had not published in the U.S.

    (Another honorary member was J.R.R. Tolkien, whom SFWA assisted with regard to an unauthorized U.S. edition of Lord of the Rings. As soon as an authorized edition was published in the U.S., Tolkien joined as a duly paid-up “Active” member.)

    When it was noted that Lem’s work had been published in the U.S., making him ineligible for further honorary membership, he was offered full, voting, Active membership. An individual SFWAn offered to pay for this membership, in case the currency transaction was an obstacle. Lem declined both offers.

  3. On Facebook, SFWA President Steven Gould announced the organization has paid all contributors for material previously contracted for the Bulletin.

    “Membership spoke loud and clear, telling us that the Bulletin did not meet their professional expectations,” Gould said. “I want everyone to know that we are listening, and acting to address the issues raised.”

    Whether the inventory of Bulletin material will be published depends on the recommendations of the Bulletin task force, and feedback from the upcoming membership survey.

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