SFWA -- the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, for those who don't recognize the initials -- is certainly no stranger to controversy. Ever since Damon Knight founded the organization back in the 60s, SFWA has shown a tendency to explode into war every few years. Maybe it has something to do with solar eclipses, or leap years, or the cycles of cicadas.
Some of the periodic wars have concerned important issues, from Vietnam to whether or not writers should be paid royalties; others have been fought over trivia, like Nebula rules and a proposal for an official SFWA tie. Most generate more heat than light. That's certainly true of the latest, a huge firestorm that had broken out all over the blogosphere, centering on issues of e-piracy, copyright, "creative commons," and SFWA's response to same.
The difference is, where most of the past wars have been fought internally, in the pages of the old print SFWA FORUM, or the private areas of bulletin boards like GEnie and SFF.net, this one is being fought in public, with the whole internet watching, thanks to the decision of a few of the participants to air the issues on their blogs instead of keeping them "in house." I think that's unfortunate, myself, but it's a brave new world we live in.
One of the unfortunate side effects here, however, is that I see a lot of people slagging on SFWA as a result. The ones that disturb me most are the posts from young writers, an awful lot of which say something like, 'well, I'm not a SFWA member, and now I'm glad,' or 'after all this, I've resolved never to join SFWA,' calling the organization stupid or clueless or out of touch or... well, I don't have to rehash it all here, the fight is being fought on a dozen different blogs right now. Read the posts, and weep.
The part that really makes me gnash my teeth is where I see young writers saying that they don't see what they can get out of joining SFWA, so why bother?
Maybe it's a generational thing, I don't know... but as I see it, SFWA is not about what you can get out of it, and never has been. Damon Knight did not form the group to boost his career, way back when. Robert Silverberg, Jack Williamson, Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, Joe Haldeman, Jane Yolen, Roger Zelazny, and so many more did not give up time and energy they could have devoted to writing novels and short stories to serve as SFWA officers because they thought they'd benefit from the networking, or get higher advances, or win a Nebula. It was all about improving the field. Writers helping writers. Paying forward. Heinlein said it best. You cannot ever hope to pay back the people who helped you when you were starting out, so instead you pay forward, and try to lend a hand to the ones who come up after you.
To paraphrase JFK, one of the heroes of my own generation, ask not what SFWA can do for you, ask what you can do for SFWA.
SFWA is not a union. (I wish it was, and during my own terms in office I tried to move it in that direction, but it's not). It's not the WGA, never will be, never can be under current laws. But it's the closest thing we have. It's forty years of writers helping other writers as best they can. It's the Grievance Committee and the Emergency Medical Fund and the Legal Defense Fund, it's Writer Beware, it's hospitality suites at cons, it's model contracts and random audits, it's the Nebula Awards (love 'em or hate 'em) and the Nebula anthologies and THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME. It has done some incredible things during its tenure, and it has made some colossal fuggheaded blunders too. It can be amusing or infuriating. It's a brotherhood -- and a sisterhood -- of professionals that has included Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Andre Norton, Robert Silverberg, Jack Williamson, Clifford Simak, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and more, and more, and more. That's a club that I'm still very proud to belong to.
I have been a member since 1972. I have considered resigning half a dozen times, pissed off by one or another thing that SFWA has done or failed to do, but I never have, and I'm glad for that. In the late 70s I served two years as South Central regional director; in the early 80s I was a member of the Nebula Rules Committee (may god have mercy on my soul); in the late 90s I was vice-president for two terms; I organized and chaired a Nebula Banquet once. If I had never done any of that, I'd probably have gotten more writing done (or maybe not). I accomplished some good things during my time as a SFWA officer. I made some mistakes as well (one very bad one). It was never what could be called "fun," but I did have the satisfaction afterward of saying I'd done my best for the field and my fellow writers... and looking back, I'm glad that I took my turn in the barrel.
And maybe that's the point of this message. So if any of you reading this are young writers who have the professional credentials to join SFWA but haven't... or aspiring writers who hope to have those credentials soon... and you're reading all this crap in the blogosphere and wondering whether or not you should join... well, I say you should.
SFWA has flaws, SFWA has warts, SFWA makes mistakes from time to time... but in the end, the good it does far outweighs the bad, and you owe it to those who came before you and those who will come after to do your part, whatever that may be.