Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

Genre Drama

I’m not titling this as news from the publishing hinterlands since it is only one piece of drama. I generally try to avoid drama and gossip and stick to the issues, but some of the stuff going on with the membership of SFWA is rather… remarkable. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America is an association of 1800 members who meet these criteria for membership.

The SFWA Bulletin

Four times a year, the SFWA publishes The Bulletin, which includes the following:

  • Business articles by leading pros
  • Comprehensive Market Reports by Cynthia Ward
  • SFWA News
  • Member News
  • Nebula Award Recommendations
  • Award-Winning Fiction
  • Features by such writers as Jody Lynn Nye, Ed McKeown, CJ Henderson and Catherine Asaro
  • Monthly words and wisdom from our columnists – Barry Malzberg, Mike Resnick, Nancy Holder, William Dietz, Bud Webster and Steve Carper

The cover of the #200 Bulletin featured a “warrior woman” dressed in the metal equivalent of a bikini in the mountains in the snow. Apparently it is “typical of hundreds of genre novel covers.” Many of the “younger SFWA members” criticized the cover, which led to the build up of a drama snowball. (For my two cents here, just because something is prevalent doesn’t make it right.)  Here’s the description of it by Resnick and Malzberg:

Take a look at the cover to a recent edition of The SWFA Bulletin, issue number 200. There’s a warrior woman on it. Not a hell of a lot different from a few hundred warrior women who have graced the covers of our field’s books and magazines ever since C. L. Moore (a woman) created Jirel of Joiry. I think the warrior woman is wearing boots, but [though] it’s pretty dark and shaded in that area, I know she [sic] displaying less flesh than just about any bikini you can see on a beach in the country today.

UPDATE #1: Here is a link to the cover, courtesy of Kameron Hurley. I have also learned that it is a “classic” pic of Red Sonja, a character originally created by Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan the Barbarian. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on some of this, but putting this picture on the cover without some historical context is a poor decision.

UPDATE #2: I can’t believe that Red Sonja was chosen on purpose. There isn’t a worse choice for an issue about women in SF publishing. Her family was murdered, and she was brutally raped. She can only have sex with a man if he subdues her in fair combat first. There are soooo many 1930′s issue with this, same as with Wonder Woman. Red Sonja is a trope for any woman who is raped and wants revenge. This is not a positive image when wanting to have a positive discussion about women.

The #202 Bulletin is the most recent point of controversy and was published while BEA (Book Expo America) was taking place in New York last week. It includes an article from Jim C. Hines about cover art and treating women as people, as well as the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues, arguing against censorship and suppression. (Let’s talk about Hines first, then we’ll come back to the other guys.)

Jim C. Hines

Jig and Smudge by Richi Hart

Jim C. Hines (one of my fav authors for the sake of full disclosure) has written many posts about the portrayal of women in genre fiction. Here are a few of my favorites:

Striking a Pose (Women and Fantasy Covers)

Posing Like a Man

Cover Art – So Where’s the Problem?

While he does it with humor, Hines still makes many serious points about the prevalence of this artwork and some social/industry commentary.

Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues

Mike Resnick and Barry H. Malzberg have collaborated over the last several years to write over 50 advice columns for The Bulletin.  By way of an unprofessional introduction, these guys are old dudes who have been writing science fiction for over fifty years apiece.  Some of their old Dialogues have been published online here.

E. Catherine Tobler has outlined the history of the drama here.

Jim C. Hines has collected many links to members who are critical of the views of Resnick and Malzberg.  I have not read them all, but reading through a few of them can give you a fair idea of the kerfuffle.

In particular, Foz Meadow’s post Old Men Yelling at Clouds is one of my favorites, and it has many excerpts from the Dialogues for scrutiny by the general public.  Here’s a couple of choice gems, although I recommend reading the full post:

These days it’s difficult to go to a movie – or even turn on the cable TV – without seeing a bunch of naked bodies and a bunch of blood.  So it’s understandable that I thought the days of censorship were long gone.

Again, prevalence does not make it acceptable, and responding to sexist remarks is not censorship.

…it was our editor, Jean Rabe (a woman) whose decision it was to run it.  It was also Ms Rabe’s request that you and I do a couple of Dialogues (issues #199 and #200) on the history of women in the field. We addressed lady writers in the earlier issue, and lady editors and publishers in the later one.  And we seem to have offended some members every bit as much as the cover art did.


By having the temerity to mention that Bea Mahaffey, who edited Other Worlds in the very early 1950s, was beautiful. (Which, according to every man and woman who knew her then, is absolutely true.) After all, we’re talking about an editor, not a pin-up model, so how dare we mention her looks? What business does that have here?

OMG, that’s so unprofessional on so many levels.

SFWA President

John Scalzi, current SFWA President, posted this letter in the private SFWA forums, but also made it public for the rest of us because he realized that the external perception of an organization is important.

It is my belief that SFWA has, under my tenure as president and through the actions of the board as a whole, become an organization with a more diverse membership, and also more useful and helpful to that diverse membership. However, it is also my belief that public perception of the organization matters, not only to the membership that pays its dues, but to those who could become members (and thus strengthen the organization) and to the public who sees the membership comment about the organization in social media. All the positive work the organization does for writers and members means little when things like this blow up.

My Thoughts on All This Drama

On an organizational level, I can only say to exiting president Scalzi and entering president Steven Gould, good luck. Trying to bring the culture of SFWA into the 21st century is a herculean task. Frankly, the more I learn about this organization, the less I am concerned about ever wanting to be a member. I couldn’t care less that sales of self-published fiction do not count as qualifying venues.

This drama is a symptom of the same mindset also prevalent in legacy publishing. “We’ve been thinkin’, sayin’, and doin’ things this way for the last fifty years, which means it all okay.” Nooooo, it’s not okay. Writers should be respected as partners in the process, and writers should treat one another as professionals and equals. Writing is a job, albeit a way cool and awesome job, but even when writers and industry experts are “keepin’ it real,” they should remain totally fuckin’ professional.

My writing merits have nothing to do with my gender and everything to do with my skills, talents, and dedication.  And your do too.

9 comments on “Genre Drama

  1. beautycalyptique
    June 3, 2013

    *stands up* *claps hands*

    • tracycembor
      June 4, 2013

      I can’t help it if I feel ways about things, especially when they are absurd. /shrugs

      • beautycalyptique
        June 4, 2013

        and hence my standing ovations :)

  2. katemsparkes
    June 3, 2013

    Jim C. Hines is my new hero. His poses are just… well, I nearly snorted tea out of my nose on a Monday morning, and I think I’ve decided not to use people on my book covers.

    I still have to go back and look over the other links, I just wanted to thank you for that.

    • tracycembor
      June 4, 2013

      Yeah, he’s a pretty cool dude, and he raised a lot of money for charity last year doing more poses like those. Glad you enjoyed. :D

  3. Pingback: Jim C. Hines » Roundup of Some “Anonymous Protesters” (#SFWA Bulletin Links)

  4. Przemek Kucia
    June 3, 2013

    To be true I don’t really get the point of those Jim C. Hines articles… I mean fantasy covers are the same for fighting with a sword or guns as porn is for love making. It is not (and never was) a mystery. So what, cover artist should “try” and make fine cover with guy or girl in full guard? Yeah I see how porn in total darkness (from the operator perspective) and night clothing of whoever choice sells – because this would be realistic. Or Kung Fu films with two shots of well measured punches for final fight o.O. Or a game where you die from one shot fired from where you even can’t see xD

    Maybe I did not understood something, but this whole drama you just described seem to me like a merge of two separate topics: one being that sex just sells and second that women are not treated as well as men in the industry.

    • tracycembor
      June 4, 2013

      It is a big problem in genre fiction that books get covers that are like other books that have sold. If all of the books have the same kinds of covers, then it is false logic to say that those kinds of covers sell. No, those covers sell because readers buy books in spite of the covers. Many books have no association with their covers, and authors have no control over what the large publisher marketing departments decide to do.

      Romance fiction got much more popular when e-readers came out. Why? Because people did not want to read books that featured people in passionate embraces on the cover. Readers enjoyed the content, but not the covers.

      A book cover is like advertising. Sure, sex can sell, but if there isn’t anything like that on the inside, you are going to feel cheated and not read future books by the author. Sacrificing future revenue for short-term sales is not a recipe for long-term success.

      The same horrible logic about book covers was applied to the Bulletin cover. I can’t believe that Red Sonja was chosen on purpose. There isn’t a worse choice for an issue about women in SF publishing. Her family was murdered, and she was brutally raped. She can only have sex with a man if he subdues her in fair combat first. There are soooo many 1930’s issue with this, same as with Wonder Woman. Red Sonja is a trope for any woman who is raped and wants revenge.

      This is not a positive image when wanting to have a positive discussing about women. Many people are unable to see this. And that’s how I see book covers relating to two old guys talking about “lady writers” and “lady editors.” People are wearing blinders and are not willing to take them off.

      Remember, just because something is prevalent does not make it okay.

      • Przemek Kucia
        June 4, 2013

        So the problem is threefold if I understand your point correctly: First, that cover artists use templates for genre fiction books instead of being actual cover artists (and this problem seems to me rather gender free).

        Second, that guys running big association of fantasy writers should know better in “dealing with” issue which requests from people engaged in discussion a keen sense of logic and being prejudgment-free. And since they don’t know better in such simple case as choosing cover that fits to that kind of issue it spoils the sense of entire discussion. I mean in sense that how you can reason to someone about dividing if he/she failed on counting lesson.

        And third, one which I described earlier, that women are not treated on equal terms as men in the industry.

        About the first one… Well, as you mentioned market is responding to this issue. Also changes in the whole structure of making publishing business should help when authors will regain control over their books. About the second one – shit… Those guys should know better, and if I were their PR consultant I would harass them to solemnly apologize for the mistake and make another issue with all done properly.

        Now about the last one: Looking back on the change that derived from last few decades in that matter one should be optimistic about the future. There is one law in social sciences, it unofficial but as reliable as Murphy’s laws :D People tend to say it is worse than in the past, but in fact it is getting better. But, that being said, there will be one last glass ceiling – unconscious sexism, one which is biologically natural (like the same kind of xenophobia). Even if everyone in room would sincerely agree that women and men should be treated equal there still could be this factor of involuntary difficulty in associating some positive characteristic as “stability”, for instance, with women for some people (no matter men or women). So yeah, I think our kids or grandchildren will live in a world of professional equality of genders (at least in some professions), but until next evolution change it will always be questionable issue.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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