It may seem peculiar, but I go long periods ignoring the Horror Writers Association.
It’s not really a big mystery: I don’t belong to the Horror Writers Association, and I confess, I have no professional interest in it.
While some may say it is because I have not been professionally invited (not having sold the “easy to achieve” $25 in professional sales – a statement, by the way, I contest and protest), it is more than that. After years of watching the HWA, I grew to dislike the cachet of the association.
And after a recent attempt to visit the HWA website to “see what’s doing” among the “Professionals” (a somewhat annual task I perform and one which typically leads to my quick exit with an eye-rolling angst), I discovered that scandal – yes scandal – was brewing. Had brewed. For the last two decades.
And I missed it. The question is: should you?
What’s On YOUR Resume?
Now, it is important to note than any organization with the sheer numbers of membership and length of existence as the Horror Writers Association and which manages its history without a major public scandal is doing pretty darn well.
And it is also important to state that any organization of this breadth and depth is also the mirror of every other governmental entity it is fashioned after – responding to insinuations or outright accusations with denial, defensiveness and eventual action. Typically, such an organization seems to move at glacial speed when immediate speed would be better for all. And perhaps that is why the scandal (as it were) took wing at all.
Then again, important accusations were made.
And if you are a writer whose goals include becoming a member of the illustrious HWA, or if you proudly already include it on your resume, perhaps you should make yourself aware of the observations of malcontents and decide for yourself. Because if you are a writer, you should not only have principles, but stand by them. And if you join an organization, any hint of scandal or complicity becomes all yours by association.
As a writer, critical thinking goes with the territory.
This means you take nothing for granted – especially the more sensational something is rumored to be. However it also means being aware that one is responsible for one’s own decisions, and that sometimes those decisions carry consequence.
There was, in April of 2016, an eye-opening post from established writer and Bram Stoker Award winner Brian Keene titled, “Why and When I Will Begin Boycotting the HWA (UPDATED x3)” at http://www.briankeene.com/2016/04/13/why-and-when-i-will-begin-boycotting-the-hwa/
I was astounded to find a legitimate laundry list of unsavory allegations with regard to the operations of the HWA since the early 1990’s.
In this case, the scandal is really about an observed and disturbing pattern of behavior noticed by some members who objected strenuously enough to them to distance themselves permanently from the HWA.
And while some might call them “mere” allegations, these allegations are no joking matter.
They include allegations of embezzlement, and assertions of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in prestigious award nominations, as well as those which include abuses of trust, the breaking of organization by-laws, exposure of the membership directory to a known stalker, and adulterated awards voting process, missed office elections, and more (according to a blog post by author Brian Keener). And they are – to some folks – serious enough in mere allegation form to warrant not only disappointment, but to generate real professional differences in what is acceptable, forgivable, and even forgettable.
I am thinking the HWA should be adult enough to handle that, and would wish dissenting members well in their departures. And then perhaps would also take a serious look at how the ivory castle might be viewed by outsiders looking in…at least for the sake of the future and its future members. And while officers of the HWA did respond to the allegations AND the post, one cannot help but also feel a bit underwhelmed.
There inherently remains a professionally imposed chasm… a qualifying of complaints, as though only “approved” peers of the HWA might have legitimate opinions, or may voice concerns. It is that ever-present sense of superiority that clings to the HWA which is not only hypnotic, but strangely repellent.
For example, as an occasional visitor and potential member, I have always felt “dismissed” by the organization’s public face, a consequence of that persistent and elitist tone. Whether the HWA is right for the genre or for other people, I cannot say. I can only say it is clearly not right for ME. Keene’s observations only confirmed the existence of ghosts I whose presence always seemed to loom large behind the professional tone of the organization.
These are not ghosts which should be exorcised with denial. Rather, they should be met with apologies, and revised procedures, with real attempts to mend fences.
So I find Keene’s comments vitally important –especially to writers like myself who (for whatever reason we are not widely published at the moment) are left feeling uncomfortable at best with our impressions of the HWA.
Says Keene of his catalog of allegations: “The list is to demonstrate that somewhere along the line, the train came off the tracks and it has remained there, regardless of which administration is in power. I stand by my assertion that it is important to list these, as it demonstrates a pattern. And as Jeff VanderMeer said on my public Facebook page, ‘ I’ve had nothing to do with HWA for more than 15 years because of the pattern.’ The pattern is the entire point.”
I mean if our patterns of being unpublished writers matter…
Sometimes an organization becomes too big to save. The question is: is the HWA there yet?
Sometimes such an organization becomes everything it claims to warn and fight against. And when that happens, leaders within that organization have only themselves and their own hubris to blame.
And then in November 2017, there rose the spectre of the sexual harassment dismissal of a prominent writer/editor discussed in the post of blog File 770 titled “Horror Writers Association Bans CA Suleiman from StokerCon” authored by Mike Glyer at http://file770.com/?p=38766
As a female writer of Horror, this comes as no real surprise, but a real disappointment… and yet another item to join Keene’s list of HWA public relations and image problems.
And while the HWA has taken steps to correct the trajectory of such damaging allegations, they are a large organization and large organizations typically wake up late and under-achieve repairs in their attempts to be fair but litigiously aware.
For many, it just feels like too little, too late.
In self-defense mode, they do not see what outsiders see.
We have in this latest “scandal” an oblique- though-Science Fiction writer’s view of an HWA casting couch. One has to wonder, how long has that been there. But then, don’t we all really know?
Isn’t the lack of the elevation of women writers in our canon and the almost total lack of writers of color tell that tale?
Having prestigious female editors – no matter how accomplished – does not make up for that, and I will tell you why: if female writers or writers of color cannot get published in the handful of “acceptable,” HWA-approved, sometimes-appearing-in-literal-print magazines, they do not get paid that “easy to achieve” $25 minimum in sales to warrant membership in the HWA, which in turn limits further acceptance in publications, which in turn limits nominations to or acceptance by HWA-sponsored or infused awards, or Best Of publications.
The drowning of real voice continues. The banishment of dissent is complete.
And if the officers of the HWA are slow to rise, or are inadequate in their rising to act on such patterns, such accusations, such scandal…doesn’t that in itself suggest that the HWA has perhaps made itself obsolete?
I would hope not. There should be something salvageable in a noble purpose…
No, I would hope that it is all about wariness of legal reprisals.
But for the world it looks like too much tolerating of an obnoxious and unwelcome relative at the holiday gathering. It looks, smells, and tastes like complicity.
And it looks like arrogance.
The HWA & the Future of Horror: What’s In It For You?
I want to make clear I am not seeking to participate in the “bashing “of the HWA, but I do agree with many of its critics that we all need to be paying attention here, because they have the reputation of representing the entire genre.
I think the idea behind the formation of the HWA was not only honorable, it was timely. And I do think that in their own way and at least initially with good intentions, the HWA has thought itself to be the best bet for the genre to offer a guiding hand if not a guiding light as to how the genre can grow itself, sustain itself, and monitor itself.
However I also think that power corrupts, and that the bigger a group gets, the harder it is to truly vouch for the reputations and honor behind its members and their actions. I do think it is possible for such a group to become too large to be serviceable to its original mission statement, and I do think the capacity for ego-led behavior to become self-endorsed increases the more exclusive and elitist the group makes itself.
The HWA was founded by writer Robert R. McCammon in 1984, a writer of the 1980’s boom times who had the foresight to see the genre needed a sense of direction.
Precisely at this time, Literary Critics were starting to founder under the weight of the 1970’s explosion in publishing of all genres and the internal discussion of the inadequacies of either Literary Critical Theory, contemporary writers, or both. The ability of Critics to help guide professional direction of national writers was simply overwhelmed. The capacity of the public to “weigh in” on a book’s popular value and potentially its quality had begun to erode the very concept of an “establishment’s” authority.
For those reasons, the HWA was needed as a mitigating source of information and recognition.
But with the onset of the Internet Age, the bomb-throwing began, and the victims are not only publishers, editors, Critics, booksellers, and writers – it is also those organizations like the HWA that are taking it in the teeth.
The simple fact of the mere size of the organization that may be a contributing factor to its undermining by scandal. But leadership cannot escape the taint of its members’ misbehaviors, nor absolve themselves of their own sins.
Because where ever there is absolute power, there is also the potential for just such a group to decide it is running things – all things – having to do with the genre. They can drift in their moral imperative until they become a parody of what they intended.
When that happens, it is typically accompanied by the sensation (and then the declaration) that they are responsible for the inherent production of all quality work in the genre, that they are the rightful judges, juries and executioners, and that they are entitled to omnipotence, to proper deference…
But I say that because you are fortunate enough to find a professional paycheck in traditional publishing, mentoring by old school traditionalist editors, and/or the promotional luck of traditional publication… this is not qualification enough.
Many more of us would have joined those ranks long ago if traditional publishing had not undergone an evisceration of its way of doing business to begin with. For those of us in the genre who would be interested in becoming editors, professional writers, or working anywhere in the old traditional system, the door is firmly closed and locked. Permanently.
To claim our unemployment and lack of mentorship means we neither have the dedication, the talent, or the value of those who benefitted from that older system is a dangerous fallacy to launch in the genre.
And I say, you are not Literary Critics. Therefore at best, you think yourselves better.
In a few decades, Critics will let you know the truth of it.
But I digress…
When it comes to being a Horror writer, there has – for many years – been nothing more prestigious than the credential of belonging to the Horror Writer’s Association. For some, it means a second look by editors, perhaps a qualifying reason to be considered in an anthology or a contest or an award, and always a validation of belonging…
There is also a titillation and ego-stroking moment when one considers that not just anyone can belong to its exclusive membership. Certainly there are now (after either pressure, financial incentive, or both) associate-style memberships – the chance to lay about on the periphery with one’s nose pressed up against the glass. But I am talking bona fide membership with all of its promised perks.
As a writer, one must weigh whether this is what one wants or needs on one’s resume. And while many novice writers are star-struck at the possibility of sharing community – even if it is in another room of the same house – with the likes of the Stephen Kings of our genre, hobnobbing with famous editors, and potentially sharing a publisher with someone special – one really should think about what joining means.
Oddly, writers are not typically joiners. So it is to me amazing that like lemmings, the HWA is the cliff we are naturally expected to flock to. To desire. To covet. To lust after.
Perhaps this is because I simply do not. In full disclosure, I have no interest in the HWA.
There is nothing personal in it. I simply want to do whatever I do on my own merit, free of fetter, rebelling against my own people-pleasing gene by not-adding more people to please. And my ego is just fine, thank you, without any stroking or promises of inside knowledge and secret handshakes.
Part a very important part of the reason I chose to abstain from pursuing the goal of HWA membership (of any kind), is that I have seen and read essays on the website which I found to be dictatorial, harshly critical, and elitist in tone.
And while I am familiar with the “editorial voice” (which conversely, many editors in their very tech-writing kind of thinking is bare-bones and to-the-point, void of sugarcoating and razor sharp in its directness) completely fail to hear themselves… What I read was – at least to me – patently arrogant. They included rants and polemics about the audacity of the unpublished to call themselves writers, about the absence of concern for quality or craft, the invalidity of online magazine publications, the conceit of self-made publishers and the self-published, the self-aggrandizing pats-on-the-back…
For an organization overseen by professional, traditional editors and writers we are led to believe embody the Establishment, the lack of listening to one’s own tone or the arrogance of thinking such a privileged position is ultimately validated either by years of experience or personal position in that very organization is flat-out offensive.
Furthermore, the constant redirection of our genre by way of the HWA’s endorsement of conventions, awards, publications, publishers, writers, contests, and literary-style criticisms seems to present a conflict of interest. By their heavy artistic influence, are they not dictating the very future of our genre instead of being a forum for diversity and growth? Shaping what will be allowed to see the light of day?
While I don’t mind reading opinions, when those very opinions are not only cloaked in the guise of the HWA’s official “position,” but wield unfettered the Sword of Publication and Awards… well, things look subversive. Contrived. Controlled.
I see such overreach as a way to manipulate the type of Horror we see being published – as just another version of the Good Ole Boys’ system long lambasted about by the very writers and editors and publications the HWA is supposed to represent. When we limit the number of editors and slap a definition on “established” authors in the genre, I believe we limit the genre.
For example, we look to the HWA for our Best Of anthologies, for rankings of Horror publications, and Horror editors. We also tend to only see criticisms of independently published or self-published works and self-publishing authors – because those HWA editors and publishers and writers are the ones getting the readership boost of traditional publishing. This leads newbies to the assumption that all things flow through the magic hands of the HWA, or they are renegade, unendorsed rebel works of little or no merit.
For example again, it is from the HWA that we have seen a consistent criticism of contemporary, non-HWA writers and their works. These are the writers and works (we are told) which do not conform to craft, genre conventions, or literary standard. This is (we are told) what is bringing our genre down, ruining the genre, giving everyone a bad name which Literary Critics have been complaining about.
But the HWA – like MFA programs everywhere – are ignoring what else the Literary Critic is saying: we have too much repetitive drivel pouring out of published Horror. We keep reinventing FORMULA instead of story.
(As an under-published, unknown Horror writer, you can leave me and my work out of this. But you cannot exempt the HWA or MFA programs, or traditional publishing. Sorry.)
Literary Critics don’t have the time to troll the waters of us lesser-knowns, of small press publications, graphic novels, and comic books. What they are looking at is the Big Names of contemporary Horror and all of their followers… at the very traditionally published which the HWA spends so much time lauding above the rest of us.
And regardless of the status and glory of those Big Names, Critics are not at all happy about the (perhaps) better written Horror they have inspired, because as any reader can tell us, the storytelling is just not there and we are still consistently missing the Literary mark as a genre.
We do not improve that by making a Professional Writer’s association more exclusive with a centralized star-making power machine.
We do that by educating our writers earlier…when they are still in elementary and high school. When we actually separate writers from readers and teach elements of CRAFT.
We do that by getting our hands dirty. By trolling about in pulp and bad writing and honing rusty skills, milking the story-telling gene until we rediscover how Literature works within the subtext of our genre. We do that by random publication of stories in cheap magazines, by recreating that fertile field of creativity and writing mills that enabled stars like Lovecraft, Poe, and even Stephen King to rise to prominence.
I personally do not see that endorsed by the HWA. And what I have seen or sensed, has led me away from any interest in the HWA.
The bottom line is that whenever you trust groups of people, those with subversive agendas will eventually ruin everything – or attempt to. You should always look carefully at groups and professional organizations before you join…perhaps even hang back and study them and their doings for a while.
- Is the administrator/president someone who has been around awhile, has developed a reputation, and is someone with some kind of verifiable experience or track record?
- Is there more than one way to find or contact this person?
- Do you have enough information about the group to reasonably find it again if contact paths go silent?
- If you submit work, is there some sort of arrangement in place to ensure that it is not shared without your permission? And how is it disseminated and handled if rejected?
- Do you know other members, trust other members, or are you among the first members?
- What are the net benefits that you receive as a member, and are they worth your trust?
- Are you asked to pay dues, and if so, what do you get in return?
- Is there legal accountability in the organization?
If you are joining a writers’ group, there is an element of trust you have to be willing to extend – especially if it is a critique or professional group. As the administrator of a Horror writers’ APA, I suggest you not only ask the above questions, but that you participate by monitoring your first work exchange or submission within the group – how it is received, processed, handled, and/or returned. Are you treated with respect? Is your work treated with respect? Is the end result not what you want – but what you need?
You have the right to the assurance that someone is taking reasonable responsibility for the protection of your reputation and your work as a member of that group – even if it is the HWA, and especially if you are paying dues.
I truly believe that being an officer of a group of writers is a position of trust – not a reward or proof of popularity, wisdom or righteousness. There is an inferred and innate obligation to look out for both the organization and the writers within it… to guard the mission.
If the HWA can’t or won’t do that…if it is too icky to handle scandals and accusations, maybe members should wonder where their money is going.
Isn’t it supposed to be about the genre? And isn’t that by default – you?
Some writers won’t mind the fallout. Some will decide to join the HWA despite any hint of scandal in the hopes that they will only have great things happen as a result. To them I say, bon voyage. Just go in with your eyes wide open.
After all, no one ever plans to be the victim of misadventure.
Greater Rocky Mountain Horror Writers APA welcomes writers of all stripes and levels, currently at no cost. Visit our recruitment and club webpage at https://grmhwapa.wordpress.com/
2 thoughts on “Scandal at the HWA: How Big is Too Big?”
Again, wise and analyzed to perfection! Great work!
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Thank you, Lara. Kind of wish it wasn’t an issue, though…Seems we can’t behave in large groups of any kind these days…
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