Jenny's Library

Open Letter to SFWA

Posted on: June 17, 2013

(If you haven’t yet, please read Amal El-Mohtar’s initial and follow-up posts for background. And also just because they’re really good.)

Dear SFWA,

SFWA members,

and fellow interested parties,

I’m not a member of SFWA. I don’t write science fiction – or any other kind of fiction.

What I am is a librarian. A youth services librarian, to be precise.  Since speculative fiction is one of the most popular genres in children’s and young adult literature right now, I think it’s safe to say that my goals and yours are often in alignment.

After all, you want to get your books into the hands of readers and I want to get books into my readers hands!  These may not be our only goals, of course, but as far as goals go, they rank fairly high.  As a fellow professional, I appreciate all the hard work you do to make that possible.  From supporting your members financially and legally to singling out their best work for praise and honors – and much more.

But we need to have a talk, because I’ve been hearing some pretty disturbing things lately.

I cannot say in strong enough words how much Beale’s actions, and SFWA silence on the matter, offends me not just as a private individual, but also as a library professional.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we librarians take issues of freedom of speech very seriously.  We don’t like it when ideas are silenced or people are denied access to information just because the ideas or the people in question are unpopular.  We’ve even been known to do what we can to render laws unenforceable when we think they infringe upon our patrons’ right to read – or even their right to privacy (since the former depends a great deal on the latter).

Defending the public’s right to read can be trickier than it sounds at first. Librarians have learned over the years that sometimes this requires placing limits on people’s behavior while they are in the library.  Solicitation, making loud noises, or being hostile to fellow patrons are all ways in which private individuals can infringe upon others’ right to free speech within the library.  All of these, harassment especially, disrupts people’s ability to make their own reading choices in privacy and without fear. It’s not just a matter of fighting back chaos, it’s about respecting everyone.  Not just the people who are the loudest or most demanding.

The SFWA is not a library, nor is it a workplace.  But it is supposed to be a professional venue.  The same basic concepts about free speech and workplace harassment apply.

US law says that Beale has every right to whatever opinions he has on any subject.  He has every right to express them – in his own space, on his own time.  I’m certainly not going to advocate for libraries start filtering access to his site.  I wouldn’t even be opposed, assuming space and budget and collection development policies indicate it would be a good choice, for his opinions to be neatly shelved alongside all our other books, where patrons may choose to read or ignore them as they wish.  It can hardly be more inflammatory than Mein Kampf or less scientific than the latest book by Glenn Beck.

But the moment that Beale used SFWA resources to promote his opinions is the moment that he made his speech more than just about him and his own rights and his own opinions.  He’s made it about you – all of you – about your integrity, about your professionalism, and about your good judgement.

This is the part that worries me.

As a librarian, I like being able to look over the titles of the Norton award winners and nominees.  It has been one of the many resources I can go to for suggestions on what to buy or recommend to my teenaged patrons, and it’s been a very interesting and helpful one.

But recent events, and your silence about them, threatens the integrity of this resource.

Beale may have his own opinions about the the capabilities of “a society of NK Jemisins” but I have professional obligations to my young patrons.  Obligations which includes fostering their hopes and building up their skills and resources, even for those patrons Beale would deride as “savages.”  When I choose books for my library’s shelves, for library programs and displays, I choose them based not only on literary merit, but also on what they offer my patrons in terms of interest, personal growth, and joy.  When I go to various resources for suggestions and advice, as the sheer volume of books requires that I often do, I’m making a choice to trust the judgement of others.  This includes trusting them – trusting you – to, unlike Beale, see all my patrons as worthy of respect.

You can see my dilemma now. For the problem now is not just that Beale is one of your own, but that he has appropriated your voice.  In blatant disregard of your own policies yes, but unless there are appropriate repercussions for such actions, there must be doubt about your commitment to your own policies.  Doubt about your our own integrity.

What does that say about your judgement?  The judgement I have until now relied upon?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you, individual SFWA member, if I continue to pay attention to the Norton nominees and winner each year, or if I don’t.  It matters to me, though.  When I say that I use the list of Norton nominees as a resource, I say this as a librarian and a reader who has passion for the genre and experience evaluating it.

And when I say that the Norton Award will mean nothing to me, going forward, without Beale’s expulsion, I say this as a librarian who knows my own library’s collection well.  I know that what is most missing from my library’s collection are stories by and about the very people Beale has insulted and dehumanized.  We already have Tolkien and Heinlein.  We will continue to purchase Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman’s latest whether they are nominated for the Norton or not.  What I need are reminders to make room in the budget for stories like Akata Witch, Above, Hereville, and Ash.  Books that tell my most marginalized and oft forgotten patrons that they, too, belong in the library. That they, too, belong to a world of stories and worlds of possibilities.

But how can I trust you to help me with that when you can’t even manage to treat your own members with respect?  What is your judgement worth, if it fails to understand the difference between private speech and blatant disregard for organizational policy and goals?  What am I saying to my own patrons if I trust the judgement of people who associate with men who refer to them as “savages”?  If I trust the integrity of people who make excuses for shocking displays of racism?

If you lack the most basic respect for your own members, if you lack the most basic belief in the humanity of the patrons I serve – of the youth I serve – then I have no use for you.


Jenny Kristine Thurman

14 Responses to "Open Letter to SFWA"

Not to say that you aren’t right (you are, absolutely), but I suspect that SFWA wants to let the new board members take office before they address this issue. Their three year president is stepping down with a new president taking office in about two weeks. VD/TB (love those initials) has threatened legal action if he is expelled. It would probably be impolitic for them to expel him now, with the outgoing board, and leave the new board to deal with the ramifications.

Yes. The absolute silence was worrying me, but I do know there may be good reasons why things are moving at the pace they are. Mostly I’m hoping that sharing this will help people on the inside who are working to make SFWA better.

Nicely put, Admirable Librarian. I agree with your points and respect your arguments.

Very well said, Jenny.

Further to what Sarah said above about this occurring in the middle of transition to a new SFWA BoD, which makes it procedurally complicated…

Also, the outgoing SFWA president is John Scalzi, which I assume makes it even more complicated. Theadore Beale aka “Vox Day” (yes, really, he calls himself Voice of God) has vigorously pursued and escalated a public quarrel against John Scalzi for some time now. Beale attacks Scalzi regularly on his blog with material that would be libelous if anyone took him seriously (for example, he repeatedly claims that John Scalzi is a rapist). Due to Scalzi’s prominence, this situation even got some media coverage a few months ago.

All of which means, I rather suspect, that SFWA could be in a VERY complicated position if it comments or acts while John Scalzi is still president (for 2 more weeks). Because it seems wholly predictable that -any- action taken by SFWA while Scalzi is in charge will be claimed by Beale to be based on personal animus–and that he claim this in the lawsuit with which he is reputedly threatening SFWA. Amidst the BoD’s various obligations in this matter, one of them is to protect the organization, in so far as possible, from collateral nuisance legal claims by a loose-cannon member intent on suing.

That said, though, yes, I agree with you completely. Beale has used the organization as a platform for his personal racist attack on another member. SFWA loses any and all credibility as a professional organization if this is not addressed by expelling him.

Yes, absolutely. I think the worst thing that could happen is that he successfully sues to get back in after being expelled. Because you know what he’ll do is spend ten years going “neener neener” and crowing about how he defeated the evil lee-bruhls and feminazis on his blogs.

As a fellow librarian who is also an african-american SFF fan, I appreciate this post quite a bit.

That’s wonderful to know, thank you. 🙂

[…] Open Letter to SFWA Fascinating perspective from a librarian. […]

[…] Librarian Jenny Kristine Thurman a.k.a. Jenny Gadget has written a great open letter to the SFWA, particularly concerning the racist remarks of Theodor Beale a.k.a. Vox Day which were broadcast via the SFWA twitter feed. Found via Radish Reviews. […]

[…] is and how much I wanted to be a part of it. This is not the post to go into details about an ongoing issue of sexism and bigotry in SFWA–and I’m sorry I haven’t taken the time to write that post–but it also feels […]

[…] People not in SFWA say if Beale is not expelled, it will color their opinion of the organization and its accolades. […]

Thanks for the list of books for young diverse audiences. I’m a middle aged white gal about to foster parent black and latino kids, and I want to get them as interested in reading as I am.
Appreciate the suggestions – they are ordered and on their way for me to check out.

It is official. He is expelled.

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