by Janis Patterson
I make a goodly portion of my income by writing, and I believe a lot of you do too. We are professional writers, and I think most of us are proud to be called ‘professionals.’ Professional has long had a meaning of “behavior, attitude and level of skills” with an ability to demonstrate “a conscientious, courteous and business-oriented manner.” (definition thanks to resume.com)
I wonder just how long that will last, because the rot is setting in and if we aren't careful it can spread. A large writing organization which has always touted itself as being a professional organization underwent a train wreck in December of 2019, the results of which jangle in the writing world even today. It involved charges and counter-charges of racism, some of the most vicious and vulgar language and name-calling I have ever heard anywhere and, according to some, the exodus of almost half its members and the disaffiliation of a number of its chapters.
When the dust cleared, even the much-respected yearly award program had been scrapped, re-formed and re-named. Torturous and much-publicized reconstruction of the entire organizational structure resulted in a practically new organization to which they happily gave the secondary appellation of 2.0. Some members were ecstatic, some were not.
While such violent and vulgar methods were lamentable, it is not unknown for organizations to reinvent themselves, though usually not in such uncivilized ways.
It is what came next that put the term ‘professional’ at peril. After the new rules and contest requirements were put in place - without any mention of removal for problematic content, note - and heartily trumpeted throughout the genre writing world, the contest was opened. Entries were made and judged and the winner selected.
Then the proverbial noxious substance hit the fan.
Although the winning novel had followed all the rules, had entered with proper protocols and been weighed by a number of trained judges, a smallish but very vocal segment of the membership raised holy hell, sending howling protests resonating through the organization’s forum. Anyone who dared question this recension of the award was immediately labeled a racist and told they weren’t wanted.
The problem? The book - an historical story - started with a (real) tragic event where the US Army waged war on some Indians (Native Americans? Aboriginals? First Nationers?). The hero (fictional) was repulsed by the action, yet as he was a US Army officer he followed orders and did his duty. Fast forward a couple of years; the hero has changed because of what he has seen and is doing good things, meets the heroine and love ensues.
So why the kerfuffle? According to the objectors, the book glorifies the massacre of Indians. Because the hero took part in the action, he cannot be redeemed, he does not deserve a happy ending, he should be damned by God, vilified and tormented forever in this world and the next. Even the idea of God’s love and redemption came under fire from the objectors. (Which, if you think about it, sort of parallels the fate of Confederate soldiers - it makes no difference what good you did in the last 50-60 years of your life, all that is counted and that which damns you forever is that you served 4 years in the army of the Confederacy, a belief which is equally illogical.)
Now I believe in liberty - you should be free to believe what you want to believe, you can read the book or not read that book or any book, you can say what you want to about it, you have the freedom to make your own choices. I have my opinions, you have yours. That’s the way things should be.
Not now. The screams from the objectors became so strident and insistent that IN SPITE of the book having fulfilled every requirement of the contest, IN SPITE of having been judged by a number of trained judges, IN SPITE of the contest rules having been clearly stated when the contest opened, the organization made the decision to ignore their own rules, ignore that the book had fulfilled all mandatory regulations, ignore that it had been judged best by judges trained by them, with the result the award was rescinded and taken away.
Just how professional is it for an organization - which prides itself on calling itself professional - to decertify a book which has fulfilled all the rules they themselves wrote after a long and arduous and very public couple of months? In effect, they wrote a contract and then based just on the feelings of some of the members simply ignored it.
How can anyone ever trust them ever again?
I don’t care about the content of the book, and I don’t care about the feelings - PRO or CON - of the members. What I do care about is the utter disregard for legality and the sanctity of their word. Professionals know once a contract is set, it should be fulfilled. Contest rules are a contract, and to change them after the fact is both dishonest and dishonorable.
Who is to say even if they fix this situation by writing other rules that they will live up to them the next time? Or what is worse, institute a draconian rule of censorship in which only approved subjects can apply? What’s to keep them from simply ignoring the new rules if the resultant winner in the next contest offends someone? If they behave in such a blatantly unprofessional manner this time, there is no guarantee they won’t do it again next time. Or the next time. Or the time after that.
Professional writing organizations should be just that - professional, honest, and true to their contracts. Otherwise they should not be called or regarded as professional.