No, not my characters. For heaven’s sake, don’t even say that. There’s this chorus of “ew” in my head right now.
No. What I mean is more… convoluted than that. (Isn’t it always?)
I don’t know much about going to college in the US, never having done it here. I’ve heard of Student Union buildings but I don’t know if they’re actually unions in the style of labor unions. I know that you have student councils in Highschool, which was jaw dropping for this kid from Portugal.
So, my first brush with “group organization” – community organization, you could call it! – in the style of unions came in my second year in college.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but they went something like this – the fourth year (where the grades you got were essential for a few things) had two German professors. A female professor who (I ended up getting her in my third year, so trust me, I KNOW this) was a very tough grader, partly because she didn’t understand that students came to college with six to eight years of English but only two of German. She expected the same proficiency in both languages. Also, she took her clue for how proficient we should be from the highest scoring student. If you’re nodding at this idea you don’t understand Portugal. Each class would inevitably have at least one student who was the child of an immigrant to Germany (Immigrant children born abroad are given preference in entering college.) So ours, like other classes, had someone who was native-proficient in German (though she couldn’t pass any other class. Never mind that.) I never understood WHY this woman didn’t understand that, but never mind. Maybe she was simply a sadist and got off on making even the up-till-then best scoring students struggle just to pass.
The professor who taught second years quit, and they moved the fourth year professor down. This would force each professor to take double the load, but was doable.
Except… There’s always an except. The professor they moved, at least that year, was the easy-grader. Also, one of the fourth year students was connected to the administration, which, this being a public university, probably meant politically connected. (At least one. Might have been more than one.)
The end result is that they never moved the easy grader. For whatever reason (pay?) The hard grader refused to be moved as well. So the second year students, for whom German was REQUIRED (there’s less flexibility in Portuguese universities. You get ONE elective in your last year, up to there, you pick from groups of courses depending on your ultimate degree. And while you can pass dragging a class or two, there are classes you have to pass to advance. Being a core discipline for most of us, German was one of those.) had NO German professor.
Impossible you say. Ah! Yes, that would be nice, but no. We were told we had the option of signing up for and taking the semi-annual or annual exams and pass.
The fact that no one would be teaching us made no difference to them. We could take the exam, so it was fair.
(I have to say going to college in Portugal DID prepare me for a life as a professional writer. And the following experience, certainly did.)
I was young, okay, and very, very, very stupid. The two conditions often occur together and, as I’ve said before, one of them is curable. I thought “the only reason they can get away with this is that the public doesn’t know.” So far so good. And then I made a fatal misstep. I organized the second years to demonstrate.
This was stupid because there were – at most – sixty of us. Even if we protested in shifts around the clock, we didn’t make a very impressive display.
What I should have done – or at least what I’d do in the US – was start a letter writing campaign. AT the time, though, I just thought “demonstration” and “Strike.” But here’s the thing… the college couldn’t care less if we striked. They don’t have trustees or any board of accountability. All it meant was that some teachers got almost empty classes (we didn’t have every class together, since some of us were German-English, English-German (me), some Portuguese German (and vice versa) and for the truly weird ones, French/German (and vice versa)) and our grades would suffer.
After about three days, I realized we were in a situation where ALL we could do is cut off our noses to spite our faces. Or, as my grandmother told me at the time “They have both the knife and the cheese. what are you bargaining with?”
In other words, all the control of the situation was in the other party’s hands, and if we protested too much, all it would do was get us failed – should we indeed manage to make enough waves to be noticed.
So, we went back to classes and organized study groups to teach each other German, as best we could. And I spent the next summer working in Germany, to compensate for that year.
And it prepared me for life as a Science Fiction writer. Even if the publishers weren’t members, even if SFWA tried to do good things for every writer and deal with the important questions – what were they going to do? Picket? Two to a city… Write letters to the editor? And then what? In an industry in which you can get kicked out for being “difficult,” what would that get the few who became visible?
When I said that SFWA was always, at best, a directory that’s because that’s the best they could be given the way they are organized, their numbers and the fact that until very recently the publishers had both the knife and the cheese. AND they were the sole employer of most of the members. So provided something really egregious – the no-compete clause, say – was something all houses were doing, what was SFWA going to do? More important, what were the very human people running SFWA going to do? Destroy their one chance at working ever again? Riiiiiight. They all sleep with each other. They have to. There is (or there was until very recently) no other bed.
The only semi-effective writers’ organization is RWA. It is semi-effective because in addition to the pro-arm, they have a vast army of wanna bes. But even if we enlisted EVERY geek in every college campus across the US I doubt we’d have much more than a tenth the number of wanna-be romance writers.
Even RWA suffers from knife and cheese problems, leading the biggest publishers to get away with murder.
Partly, of course it is because these are organized on the principle of labor organizations, which flourish/ed only where the workforce has limited mobility (true of writers, since there are big six) but a large presence in one place (which we don’t have) a service that’s essential to the public (well, we kind of have that but not really. Only part of the public, and besides there’s old stuff they can read) and a not-easily repleaceable work force (which we also don’t have. At least the publishers think they can replace us on the minute.)
A writers’ organization would probably be better if it functioned more like a “fraternal order” and got other support for writers. You know, rainy day funds, medical funds, widow and orphans and health insurance. We have had several attempts at that, but never really got them off the ground. Partly because during the last ten years just keeping a writing career going has been a more-than-full-time-job, as more and more of the work got offloaded onto us: publicity; editing; sales. Getting fraternal support services going requires time and full dedication. Of course if we had something resembling retirees that would be a good job for them, but most writers retire when they pry our cold dead fingers off the keyboard. And most of us never have enough financial security to even step back from the mad schedule.
Anyway, all this to say that I understand why SFWA is INEFFECTIVE. That was not what set me off. What set me off is their attempt at seeming effective by stepping in the middle of a dispute that has nothing to do with them and which, if the side they’re supporting wins, would probably (probably because these details are not really obvious) would end up hurting their members and almost certainly CANNOT end up benefitting them (though it will benefit the distributor involved in the fight, mind.)
Just because publishers have the knife and the cheese it doesn’t mean SFWA has to borrow the knife and cut of the member’s feet with it.
If I were in office at a writers’ organization (horrible idea. Was tentatively sounded out on it ONCE, made it very clear not only no, but h*ll no. The six books under contract being only a part of the problem) I’d right now be looking at what is happening with Indie and looking closely – very closely – at any possibility of transitioning at least partway to a fraternal support movement.
Perhaps someone who is more sociable and plays better with others – I don’t know. Perhaps the spouse of a writer? – can look into starting a Fraternal Order of Pen Pushers. (Yes, I know it’s anachronistic, but do you REALLY want to belong to the Fraternal Order of Keyboard Strikers? Think about it!)
Me? I have books to write.
Update: I should add here, as David Burkhead has pointed out that SFWA has some of the functions of a fraternal organization, including legal fund, medical fund and such. The thing is, I’d forgotten them momentarily which tells you something when I have been a member for eleven or twelve years. I don’t think most of us turn to SFWA when in need because… well… the resources are limited This is because, as I said, writers’ purses are limited, and we don’t have that pull of retirees which devote themselves to fundraising for such things. The fact that we’re all as antisocial and fractious as cats might not help, either.
To be honest, neither MWA nor RWA, of which I’m also a member, is markedly better on that end, though RWA is a little more proactive than the rest (and also massive because they take on people TRYING to be published, into another category of membership.)
I still think particularly in the new era of publishing that’s the place for writers organizations to go, and not into misguided defense of the status quo and pseudo-labor-movement attitudes. By being uniquely talented (not by meaning we’re special, just that each of us has a unique type of talent. We’re not interchangeable), literate, mobile and disperse, we’re the least likely jurisdiction for a labor movement to help.