The Filthy Pro
(Sample Column from the SFWA Bulletin)

All excerpts © Laura Resnick


Ghetto to Ghetto

I was raised by a science fiction/fantasy writer, and—as is often the case with sf/f offspring—I spent at least as much time among sf/f folks, while growing up, as I did among my own relatives.

So I was already aware, when I started writing romance as an adult, that genre fiction is a series of ghettos, as distinct and diverse as the immigrant neighborhoods of early 20th century New York. Like anyone raised in one ghetto, I knew very little about life in the others (or, as an agent once said to me, “It’s like having relatives in Russia; you know they’re there, but that’s all you know.”). My career, therefore, has been an intensive education for me. And like someone who marries outside of her culture or who emigrates to a foreign land, I’ve had to learn to live in both worlds.

It’s a perpetual waltz which has its amusing surprises, unexpected tempo changes, and occasional missteps.

I still remember the time a fellow romance author, upon learning I would be attending Worldcon (the World Science Fiction Convention) in her native city, offered to meet me for a drink in the hotel lobby. After a half hour of watching her stare open-mouthed at every passer-by, so astonished that she was totally unable to focus on our conversation, I finally suggested we quit trying to talk and I’d just show her around the con (convention).

It has always seemed commonplace to me to see Vulcans, wookies, armed space crusaders, medieval knights, half-naked Gor slaves, Klingons, talking apes-of-the-planet, and other such persons wandering around casually. To my friend, however, an hour spent at Worldcon was more jaw-dropping than the Jerry Springer Show. (While I’m on the subject: Yes, Springer is from Cincinnati. No, we do not accept responsibility for him.)

Anyhow, my own genre-induced culture shock came a few years earlier when, upon arriving at my first romance conference in jeans, I turned out to be so underdressed for the occasion that I felt self-conscious the whole time I was there. I had never before seen so many writers disguising themselves as respectable middle class people, and it gave me vertigo. It was my first clue that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

By contrast, the sf/f community was up in arms for a while over the “weapons ban” which cons started invoking in the ‘80s. “Weapons” refers to the phasers, rays guns, death blasters, swords, and daggers which some sf/f fans like to carry around as part of their hall costumes (the afore-mentioned wookie and medieval knight outfits). The mundanes (people who aren’t sf/f types) staying at sf/f con hotels would often be alarmed—go figure—by the sight of armed-to-the-teeth star-troopers or warlords getting on elevators with them or approaching them in corridors. This, in turn, created problems with hotel security. Consequently, concoms (convention committees) had to develop rules to regulate sf/f’s interaction with the real world in this respect. I’ve never dressed up at cons, so I haven’t paid much attention to the rules, but I know they generally stipulate no carrying weapons in any area where hapless mundanes are likely to be frightened: public rooms, hallways, stairwells, elevators, restaurants, lobbies, etc.

Meanwhile, at the time when some sf/f folks were condemning these policies as fascist imperialism, some romance genre folks were criticizing people who came to conferences dressed as casually as, oh, me. It was, I gathered, a good thing my editor had bought a bunch of books from me before ever meeting me, because some members of the romance community seemed convinced I’d have made an irretrievably bad first impression in person, given my dress code.

Is it any wonder that I felt confused? In sf/f, I rubbed elbows with people dressed like warriors, apes, and aliens, as well as those who appeared not to have changed clothes since 1968. Yet in the romance world, evidently nothing in my wardrobe was respectable enough for a public appearance. I had never worn a suit (my god, a suit?) in my entire life, and a reader at my first and only Romantic Times convention even felt compelled to tell me how unflattering my best dress was.

However, modes of costume and dress at cons are only a superficial difference, and the contrasts go so much deeper.

Sf/f writers are a volatile lot—or so I realized after I started spending time among romance writers. I have never seen a president or former president of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) publicly describe the books of some members as something which “a brain-dead chimpanzee” could write, as did a former president of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). I have never seen an officer of RWA stand on a chair shouting during a business meeting, whereas this doesn’t shock anyone during a SFWA meeting. I have never seen two romance writers hit each other (though I did once hear about a near miss), never mind engage in a fistfight which disrupts a workshop or a banquet. And I’ve never seen audience members throw anything at speakers during a romance workshop. So if I occasionally find the romance community bewilderingly conservative, I’ve also learned to appreciate how mannerly it is. (I’ve also noticed that each community likes to think it is more professional than the other. And I’m not touching that topic with a ten-foot pole.)

I started writing sf/f about three years after I broke into romance. I began with sf/f short stories; after 2-3 years, I had written so many that sf/f people started asking when I was going to write a book. Most of them thought I was lying when I said I did write books; then they giggled when I explained my books were under another name and in another genre. (I’m convinced that some of them don’t even know there are other genres. However, I once met a romance bookseller who—I’m not making this up—didn’t know there were other genres besides romance.) Once I did start writing sf/f books, I got so bogged down in massive epic fantasy novels that I was unable to write more romance novels for a while; and I was amazed at how many people in romance thought this meant I had died or quit writing. Meanwhile, almost no one in sf/f seemed to believe me whenever I said, “No, I’m not a first-time novelist; I sold lots of novels before ever venturing into this neighborhood.”

Except for a few cross-genre readers, I seldom meet anyone in romance who has heard of our bestselling authors in sf/f, never mind our award-winning ones. On the flip side, I’m constantly amazed at how many sf/f folks have never heard of any of romance’s mega-stars, yet assume that I’m wrong when I say Danielle Steel isn’t a romance writer (and that I’m lying when I say my own romance novels aren’t like Barbara Cartland’s).

Another obvious difference between the two communities is the polyglot composition of the sf/f community as opposed to the more homogenous make-up of the romance world. The romance community consists almost exclusively of editors, agents, professional writers, and aspiring writers. Here and there, you meet the occasional reviewer, webmistress, or bookseller, but most romance conferences consist of people who are romance writers or who want to be.

By contrast, the sf/f community is the ultimate tossed salad. Naturally, there are pros (writers—also known as “filthy pros” and “dirty old pros”), editors, agents, and aspiring writers. There are reviewers, columnists, and magazine publishers. In addition, there are fanzine writers and editors, and these hobbyists are so valued by the community that they have their own Hugo Award categories. Artists—professionals and amateurs, painters and sculptors, illustrative and original—make up a large portion of the sf/f community, and an sf/f con of any size always has an art show, an art auction, and art programming. Dealers (booksellers) are another major part of the community, and virtually every sf/f con has a dealers room; there are dealers whose full-time living is made driving from con-to-con throughout the year to sell books. However, booksellers aren’t the only members of the sf/f dealers community, as a visit to any dealers room reveals; there are also jewelry makers, craftsmen, weapons dealers (swords and ray guns), sellers of medieval costumes and belly-dance bangles, etc. 

Then there’s the Georgette Heyer crowd (you may think it’s incongruous for the World Science Fiction Convention to host a Regency dance every year, but it makes perfect sense to sf/f people), the Edgar Rice Burroughs collectors (still known as “dum-dums” by some, because of the dum-dum sound that jungle drums make), First Fandom (people who joined sf/f fandom before the glaciers retreated from North America), Second Fandom (people who joined fandom slightly thereafter), gamers (Magic, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.), costumers (large sf/f conventions usually have a masquerade show), filkers (sf/f folk singers), media fans (sf/f TV shows & movies), creative anachronists, and SMOFs (more about them in a moment).

The most significant way, I think, in which sf/f differs from the romance community is that the biggest portion of the sf/f community are fen (fans). I was suprised, upon becoming a romance writer, to discover that—apart from attending a couple annual conventions that target readers—there’s relatively little a romance fan can do to participate in the romance community. Once you get past pros, almost every active participant of the romance community whom I’ve ever met is an aspiring writer. Now, it’s no secret that some of them aspire a lot more seriously than others, but the romance community is primarily built around people who want to work in the genre rather than people who just want celebrate it.

By contrast, there is a decades-old rich and complex fannish tradition in sf/f, a vast international community of people who come together, put on conventions, form clubs, have their own extensive fannish lexicon and culture, and travel the world, all in celebration of sf/f, all in honor of their consuming passion and hobby. There are written and oral fannish histories; books published about fandom, and books published by fandom; fanzines and fan art; international fan funds such as TAFF (the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund) and DUFF (the Down Under Fan Fund) to send deserving fans as goodwill ambassadors to fannish communities on other continents; fannish awards and honors. Among other things, no sf/f convention would dream of not having a Fan GoH among its GoHs (Guests of Honor—think “keynote speakers”), and whole program tracks at sf/f conventions are devoted to fannish interests and personalities.

So at my first romance con, I must have seemed rude—or at least very strange—when I kept saying to people I met, “You’re an aspiring writer, too? Oh, come on, where are the fans? You can’t all be aspiring writers!”

As for SMOFs, the Secret Masters of Fandom, I was raised to view them the way Sicilians view the Mafia—we didn’t even say the word “SMOF” aloud in our house when I was a kid. Although sf/f fandom is a democratic society, the real power lies with the SMOFs. The location of Worldcon each year, the rules of the Hugo Awards, coveted Guest of Honorships, introductions to reviewers and booksellers and head waiters, the success or failure of a fanzine (or even a prozine), the success or failure of a con, the outcome of a fan feud, the weather in Boston... All of these things depend upon the will of the SMOFs. (I personally suspect they were involved in the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

Anyhow, I have occasionally tried to introduce a custom from sf/f into romance (not, obviously, the sf/f tradition of reviling pros) and vice versa. It has always been a mistake. Oil and water don’t mix, and no one appreciates being told, “Hey, in the other neighborhood, they have a better way than this.” Sf/f and romance are what they are, and each is strange and wonderful (and, okay, a trifle exasperating) in its own way.

So here’s my advice, based on long experience and the occasional misstep: If you want to work in two genres and be accepted in two communities, then you must respect their separate cultures and customs—or else just get the hell out of Dodge.