They All Sleep With Each Other

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.

37 thoughts on “They All Sleep With Each Other

      1. Actually, I was thinking of a fairly big name author (whom I shall not name because this was in a “private” group) who would get into arguments with others then, after a while, would drop it with something like “enough of this, I have books to write.”

        1. Oh. LOL. The problem is that I write this blog every day. It’s impossible to do that and not get into stuff I REALLY care about, which ends up meaning… well… disagreements.

  1. Dang, you mean SFWA ISN’T a professional organization? What the heck else good is it, then?

    Thought it explains a lot – I’ve been wondering about writers not getting health insurance. That’s a big thing the prof orgs do – the group has clout where the individuals don’t. But it would probably mean hiring a permanent staff person to deal with it.

  2. “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.”

    I think this is an excellent idea. How close to the business do you think a person would need to be to successfully pull such a thing off? You mention a spouse – what about one of your legions of fans? Would many writers trust someone who hadn’t “been there”? The authors I know personally or follow online mostly would, but I’ve no idea if they are a representative sample.

    1. I have a legion of fans?
      Quotes a comic book she remembers from childhood “Forward my legions! The Monkey King — that’s me” okay, that’s Dave Freer, but that’s close enough — “So orders it.”

      On the serious side, well, we trusted agents for decades, and most of us still do, and most of them “haven’t been there.” If anything writers are too trusting, not too mistrusting.

      1. Okay, I have not been able to get this out of my head since yesterday. Planning and logistics are kind of my thing, so I have at very least an interesting mental exercise here. Some questions that have popped up in my ruminations:

        * When you say a widows and orphans fund, do you mean simple life insurance, or something like an annuity for the surviving family?
        * What other services might a mutual aid society provide that writers need and have trouble finding (I have ideas here, but I’d rather hear your input)
        * What kind of limitations on entry would be appropriate? Obviously it would be wise to include the self-published and Internet-only writers, both for altruistic and financial reasons, but how far should that extend?

        I’ve come up with a lot of technical and legal questions as well, that I would have to take up with people in those fields (insurance law, intellectual property, finance, an actuary or two). I fear that I may be talking myself into attempting such a thing.

  3. Why does the SFWA exist? Are there any benefits to membership, now that you can google and don’t really need the directory?

    1. The SFWA exists for the same thing it has always existed, Ori: to take over the world.

      And to have pleasant Awards dinners where they can congratulate themselves.

      1. Now, now, RES. Be fair. The fundamental purpose of any organization is to permit its members to congratulate one another for qualifying for membership, and sneer at those who don’t qualify as inferiors. That trait is so deeply embedded in human nature that eliminating it would produce something we wouldn’t recognize, and probably couldn’t talk with.

        At least SFWA is (or has been up to now) relatively innocuous. Self-congratulation at meetings and the like is a recruitment strategy aimed at those to whom it looks like fun. What you gotta watch out for is clubs that produce elaborate justifications for predating on non-members (U. S. Senate, e.g.).


        1. “That trait is so deeply embedded in human nature that eliminating it would produce something we wouldn’t recognize, and probably couldn’t talk with.”

          And like the hydra, eliminating any one such organization just leads to schism and more organizations…

        2. this is exactly why I only got upset now. I was under the impression I could stay in and when I have time (I keep dreaming of this) I’d steer it towards more of the support role thing.

          I should say, though, if they’re just going to be decorative, they should have a secret handshake or a pin or something. Mensa used to have a yellow map pin worn on the lapel. I mean, something like that makes one feel important and special, even if it’s not secret and other people can fake it.

          1. Rec.arts.sf.composition came up with an appropriate pin. It depicts a cat being vacuumed… perhaps Dorothy Heydt could find hers and contribute it to the Cause.


            1. Perhaps a small Geek letter pin?

              [cue opening of Brotherhood of Man from How To $ucceed In Business:]
              Now, you may join the Elks, my friend,
              And I may join the Shriners;
              And other men may carry cards
              As members of the Diners.

              Still others wear a golden key
              Or small Greek letter pin;
              But I have learned there’s one great club
              That all of us are in.

              Sigh – an enduring love of Broadway Musicals and a serious jones for reading SF/F are only two of the reasons I spent my adolescence in what was then a sexually suspect category, but really, all anybody needed to do was look at the colour combinations in which I chose to dress and they would’ve KNOWN I was straight.

        3. Fair, Ric? I WAS being fair – neither endorsement nor criticism was intended. Like our esteamed [sic] hostess, I only object when the kids leave the clubhouse and try to do something “important.” [cue Our gang theme music]

  4. I joined HWA for a year about ten years ago, and the adds promised medical insurance under group rates. On getting the membership, I was told that in Colorado I could not belong to a plan that was centered out of state. I gather that the HWA plan was good for people in New York and California only. You mean there are actually writers in flyover country?

    1. well, the fact there are two or three writers per city if not per state is DEFINITELY part of the issue. And to be honest there IS a rainy day fund, but it’s never very flush or good for much, since it depends on writer money (now if we solicited money from people who have it, it might be different.) and… well… there are difficulties. BUT fewer than for treating sfwa as “organized labor.” (For one, how organized are writers? Ever?)

    2. You know, if someone in DC really wanted to shake up the insurance business in a *good* way instead of grandstanding and pandering, they could set up a system similar to the banking industry where a vendor could operate in-state under state law or across state lines under fed supervision. Competition FTW! Not likely to see such freedom in my lifetime, but a fellow can dream.

  5. “No, not my characters. For heaven’s sake, don’t even say that. There’s this chorus of ‘ew’ in my head right now.”

    I will never be able to look at Sarah’s Diner on the Bar in *quite* the same way ever again….


  6. The rules for monopolies (and oligarchies) remain constant: a few control the knife and the cheese (aka, the choke point) and are able to charge exorbitant fees for all wanting passage through the gate.

    Which is why ALL SF writers owe a debt to Bob Heinlein for breaking a trail out of the magazine ghetto and leading SF writers to the land of HB books and serious publishers, Sure, it was just a bigger, slightly less uncomfortable ghetto, but it proved it could be done.

  7. I haven’t really looked into it in detail since rejoining SFWA earlier this year, but there were some good things from it (don’t know what, if any, of these are current since, as I said, I haven’t looked it in any detail of late). One is the Emergency Medical Fund that provides writers interest free loans (with terms that amounted to “indefinite” if it came down to it) to writers suffering financial hardship because of medical problems. Another was a legal defense fund in similar terms (which I can’t find on SFWA’s web site so perhaps this one is gone). Then there’s Griefcom which may or may not have much “clout” any more but has been helpful to at least some authors in getting problems with publishers resolved.

    Aside from that you’ve got voting for the Nebs and a couple of “private” groups/forums for SFWA members to hang out and talk.

      1. David,
        Yes, I realized afterwards I’d been too broad. All these exist. They are just, as I’ve said before, stocked from “writer’s money.” It’s entirely possible I have the wrong idea and there are hundreds of thousands (or tens of thousands) of money waiting to be used, but from belong to various writers’ groups, I’ve found that when someone hits a snag costing more than a few hundred dollars they turn to their fellow authors in the list, and not to SFWA. So, it falls under “it’s a nice idea but…”
        And if you’re going to say in that case instead of complaining I should devote myself to fixing it, note that my complaint was NOT about that inadequacy, which I see as inevitable, unless we get someone REALLY connected in and send them off to request gifts for these funds, but about their sticking their big sharp nose where it had no business.
        And yes, eventually, maybe, someday, if I win the lottery (it would take that) I’d like to remedy those fund shortages and/or make more writers aware the funds are there.
        I’ve been worried for sometime now, because ours is an aging membership and let’s face it, a lot of our people go seriously ODD as they get older.
        Griefcon can usually manage stuff provided it’s not against the big guns. Again, problems of the one bed and all lying in it. This could change, of course.

        1. Wouldn’t dream of saying any such thing. Simply pointing out that at least they do exist and at least some effort toward some of these things is being, or has been, made.

          How effective and how useful is another matter, one of which I am not qualified to judge at this time.

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