Professional Norms in SF

In her post about the Helix racist email / copyright kerfuffle, Mur talks about professionalism:

I can’t see the executives of IBM or Coke sending out a racist email, or changing their websites to throw a third-grade insult (or, if they do, keeping their jobs afterward).

Which I guess answers the question of why there’s so much unprofessional action in this field even at the “pro” level: People don’t have to be professional. Readers seem to still be buying SF no matter how much asshattery some writers (and editors?) spew outside of their work.

I think Mur has her finger on it — it’s all about industry norms. In a corporate environment, the Helix editor’s behavior would be totally unacceptable. HR would get involved, he’d be put on a Performance Improvement Plan, etc. At any large corporation there will be people who think the way the Helix editor does, but they know better than to do what he did, spew their views in business correspondence.

Other industries have different norms. If you’re a union steamfitter, you might end up exchanging words with someone else on the job site, and on rare occasions, someone might get popped in the jaw. The foreman generally handles these incidents on a case-by-case basis. Contrast this with the corporate Fortune 500 environment: it’s actually pretty hard to fire an individual in most large companies, even if they’re really, really incompetent. But if you physically strike a coworker, you’ll be out of there that same day.

In the SF writing profession, the norms are different yet again. Unlike being a cubicle worker, unlike being a steamfitter, in SF it seems the penalty for being an unsocialized loon is pretty close to zero.

As for why readers buy SF from “asshat” writers and editors, that’s because industry norms flow from industry workers, not the industry’s customers. When Intel calls the steamfitters in to help build a fab, Intel couldn’t care less that Joe Smith got into a fight at the last site. It’s up to the foreman and the other steamfitters to get the job done, with or without Joe. Likewise, readers don’t care that some editor might be a jerk — they don’t even know who that editor is.

Unfortunately, SF editors and writers can’t enforce their norms the steamfitters’ way. But seems like a good start.

15 thoughts on “Professional Norms in SF

  1. Sounds interesting, and appropriate.

    Unfortunately, the site appears to be down at the moment, but I’ll keep my eye on it…

  2. I think you’ve hit on something.
    Thanks for the plug. The decision to create Transcriptase was extremely difficult for most of us. We were balancing several different moral imperatives. In the end, I think we struck the right balance. Others will disagree, of course…

  3. Mind you, it’s not like publishing is the most professional business in the world. If I took as long to get back to people who send things to me at my job as agents and editors take to get back to authors…


  4. Thanks Evan!
    Feel free to drop on by Transcriptase and comment, even if it is to say that you hate our writing and our stories suck. At the end of the day, we’re all writers in there, writers who want to be read, for good or bad. We express ourselves through stories and feel rather uncomfortable in Internet flame wars. Our stories don’t really represent us, anymore than finger painting represents a three year old, but still…

  5. Sara — I will! And I promise not to start any flame wars.

    Jennifer — “I’ll get that spreadsheet back to you in 2-24 months. No, you can’t send it to anyone else in the meantime.”

  6. I was incredibly disappointed in Lawrence Watt-Evans’ position on this. How can anyone support racism of any kind? So sad.
    Good analogy, though, with how a business would handle this kind of thing. Puts it in perspective pretty well.

  7. I read his comments in the Making Light thread, and it was very disappointing. Though I thought it paled in comparison to Sanders’s behavior.

  8. Liking sf as I do and coming from a field that also attracts its share of loose cannons (the academic liberal arts), isn’t a certain anarchic elan part of the geek appeal and street cred? Don’t need no stinkin’ badges and all that?

  9. SF fans do embrace the weird and the anarchic. That doesn’t mean we should run to embrace people who poop in the middle of the street and point proudly, “Lookit! I pooped!”

  10. Of course you’re right. The problem, if it is one, is that an anarchic ethic gives very little traction for authoritative sanctioning of poopers. I admire the thoughtful reaching for consensus community standards at Transcriptase, but note also that doing so on the basis of individual statements of conscience or appeals to universal standards that obviously aren’t universal or there’d be no issue is also a bit diffuse. Point being that communities constituted on such bases are uniquely vulnerable to poops – a cost of doing business in this fine way perhaps.

  11. A good point, Carl. I started writing a response but then realized that it’s probably worth spawning into a new blog post. You’ll have to forgive me, I seem to be low on blog fodder these days. 😉

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