The Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers’ Association (SWFA) is having a kerfluffle over – what a surprise! – institutional sexism. I missed the first part of the story, but apparently SF Bulletin columnists Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick made references to a well-known “lady editor” in the 1950s, Bea Mahaffey.
Here’s Malzberg’s quote:
She was competent, unpretentious, and beauty pageant gorgeous … as photographs make quite clear.
And a bit more from Resnick:
She was the only pro I knew in Cincinnati when we moved here from the Chicago area more than a third of a century ago. She was incredibly generous with her time and reminiscences, and I spent a lot of time with her, on the phone and in person, duting the first few months when I was learning my way around town.
Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950s knows she was a knockout as a young woman.
Ah, for the good old days, when women were generous with their time, and knockouts, and most of all, unpretentious, instead of always busting your chops like they do now.
To put this icing on the cake, the issue with this article had a “woman warrior” cover in a chain mail bikini. Not, I might add, “ironically.”
The chain-mail bikini is such a cliche that it is a standing joke among fantasy writers
Several younger writers in SFWA, of both genders, took offense at Resnick’s characterization and the cover. In a subsequent issue (#202) Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg explained or excused the comments. In this column, Resnick states that he called Mahaffey “beautiful.” Resnick does something that irks me; he quickly hides behind the skirts of a woman, in this case a 92-year-old woman fan in Cleveland who told him a story about how when beautiful Bea joined an all-male fan group in that town, their wives immediately joined once they got a gander at her. Protecting their turf, get it? So it’s the 92 year old woman’s fault, and geez, can’t a guy call a woman beautiful? Why so sensitive?
I met Gordon van Gelder, the gentleman editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, years ago, and I thought he was handsome. If I wrote, “The handsome editor of F&SF,” you would think I was shallow. What are we to make of Resnick and Malzberg?
(As part of his rant in Issue #202, Resnick uses this very argument himself. “Yet somehow I doubt that if I mention in one of these Dialogues that [Alan Dean Foster and Robert Silverberg] are a pair of fine-looking men there’s going to be an outraged uproar…” Well, Mike, why don’t you try it? I’m guessing you would never think of mentioning a fellow man’s good looks for a couple of reasons, but one of them is that, for a fellow male writer, it’s merely too trivial. When you and Malzberg reminisce about men, you talk about their work. When you reminisce about women, you talk about their looks. That is the issue.)
Both guys also both went on the lament the good old days (1970s) when lots of them—even Marion Zimmer Bradley, a woman!—wrote porn to make ends meet and nobody got mad at them for that.
SF Bulletin did have an editor, who has stepped down over this. Her name was Jean Rabe. I know little about her except that she edited a terrible steam punk anthology that I read. Based on that one experience, I have to say I don’t think much of her anthology-editing ability. One of the articles in #202, the Andre Norton estate article which I was interested in, was choppy and didn’t provide the information I thought it would. Anyway, SF Bulletin has replaced Rabe with an editorial board. That’s the traditional response to this kind of issue, but it isn’t necessarily a bad response.
Why am I writing about this? Because, even though comments about a woman were the catalyst, I think this might be about something different; the generational divide in SFWA.
At one of the panels during the Nebula weekend, a writer highly-placed in the SWFA structure made a couple of comments about the generational divide. He commented that there were “still some members who were angry that fantasy was included.” He said some people – only one or two he implied – felt that you should have to sell a short story, not just novels, before you were allowed to join. Of course that got a laugh. But looking around the banquet room, and watching how the groups clustered during the weekend, it’s clear to see that there is dwindling phalanx of silverbacks—Silverberg, for example – and a burgeoning crowd of young hipsters. Okay, it’s science fiction, so they’re not really hipsters, but you know what I mean.
Has anyone read Resnick’s steampunk westerns? I haven’t. And Malzberg… ? In this scenario, they seem a bit like the two old guys in the balcony during the Muppet Show, only not as funny. Resnick might think he is entitled to privilege because he accomplished so much during the seventies and eighties. The young-bloods in SWFA might think that they don’t have to be diminished or talked down to when they are just as professional, and contributing to the field right now.
The other magically invisible elephant in the room is the commercial role of fantasy fiction. A lot of old-school SF writers have never liked fantasy. Most of them did a lot of research into their science before they made up their magical nanobots or FTL drives, and they think that fantasy writers don’t research. These people are behind the times on fantasy, since a lot of current fantasy is heavily researched by the writers. Also, right now, though, fantasy is what’s selling. That’s poised to change; within the year, I predict, we’ll see more military scifi, space opera and planet-opera hitting the shelves and landing on people’s Kindles… but right now fantasy is the breadwinner.
Maybe it’s not generational, but good old-fashioned money-envy. Right now, women are writing the category of fiction that is selling (yes, I’m generalizing here). Perhaps, when they are being out-earned by people they think of as “girls,” men like Resnick and Malzberg yearn for a time when women were beauty pageant contestants or Victoria’s Secret models, and above all, didn’t put on airs by being smart and earning more money than they do.
On the other hand, is it really so bad if some seventy-something guy calls a woman “a knockout?” Could this have been avoided if Resnick had said something like, “Hey, I’m old, in my generation it’s said with admiration. Sorry to offend?”
I don’t want to see the Old White Guys trivialized. I don’t want to see the young men who are coming up in the field trivialized. I don’t want to see women trivialized either. I want the SWFA community to live up to my glorious fantasy of it; a big tent, a market-town or a port city bustling with strange new goods, singing with different languages, gleaming with colors and shapes that are different from what I saw back on the farm. That’s what I want from SF and fantasy, and from the organization of writers that write it.
The SF and F community, however is justly famous for its spats and its internal culture-battles. This goes back to the 1940s. Various groups would form and hate other groups. Various types of writers would have feuds with other writers. For a group of underdogs who feel oppressed and marginalized by the mainstream, they have always been quick to oppress and marginalize certain members within their own group. In this, they tend to reflect human society. SFWA is clearly big enough and old enough now to be fighting the “Old Guard versus Young Turks” battle. I may subscribe to the Bulletin now, just to see what happens.