BFS: Which Way Forward?

The BFS affair continues to rumble on. Pádraig Ó Méalóid has a good post about how these things seem to someone outside of the BFS community. Pádraig makes the point that we’ll all be tarred by this, which echoes the point I made in my original post about all fan-run awards suffering. In comments on Pádraig’s post, Juliet McKenna notes that the scandal has made it all the way to the pages of the Sunday Express. Ouch!

Also yesterday the news broke that David Howe had tendered his resignation as Chairman of the British Fantasy Society. It would not surprise me to learn that a few other members of the BFS committee were going as well. Some of them have been sounding pretty burned out for a long time.

This, presumably, will cause some major soul searching within the organization. Where does it go from here? It could, for example, rename itself as the British Horror Society and hope that the wider world goes away. Alternatively it could try to engage more with fantasy fans and writers. There are a lot of very successful fantasy writers in the UK, and I suspect that some of them, and their publishers, would like an organization called the British Fantasy Society to pay some attention to what they do. A likely result of that, however, is that the old interest in horror will become something of a minority pursuit within the BFS.

Mike Shevdon has suggested that the BFS have separate awards for fantasy and horror, which might seem a good middle ground, but is also likely to doom the society to endless arguments over the dividing line between the two. It is OK for, say, the Locus staff to have a working definition of what they mean by specific genres as far as awards are concerned; it is quite another for a fan organization to assume that there is a universal definition that will work for all of its members.

The key point here, though, is that if people want things to get better (and I accept that right now there’s no agreement on what “better” means) then they have to get involved. The BFS won’t change simply because people are shouting at it. The only way it will change is if a significant proportion of those people who are unhappy at what went on join up and help rebuild the society. I saw Tom Hunter on Twitter yesterday calling for people to do this. I wasn’t going to renew my membership, which expired at the end of September, but seeing as there is a possibility for change I have paid up. How about the rest of you? Please note, time and effort may be required as well as money.

Update: More interesting comment here from Simon Morden.

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26 Responses to BFS: Which Way Forward?

  1. Jo Hall says:

    I’m indending to sign up later this week when I have more cash. I’ve been planning to for a while, but the whole awards farrago put me off a bit. I only want to sign up if the BFS is going to represent ALL British fantasy, not just the small corner of it that revolves around Telos Publishing.

  2. Darren T says:

    I was a BFS member for the best part of the last decade or so (until I let my membership lapse last year) and was a regular Fantasycon attendee for a number of years (until various factors combined to make Brighton impractical for a weekend visit). And I’ve been wondering for a while now – since doing a stint on the BFS committee a few years back, in fact – whether the BFS’s problems aren’t so deeply-rooted, so fundamental, as to make any meaningful or workable solution almost impossible to arrive at.

    The key issue seems to be that the organisation has lost most of the relevancy and usefulness that it offered back when it was founded in the ’70s and through to the end of the ’90s. Back then it provided an essential, unifying link for fantasy (and horror) fans around the country. It offered a way of staying in touch with news and updates about the genre in the UK and with each other (via Fantasycon, which has always been hugely enjoyable and I did miss this year).

    But since the advent of mainstream-adopted, social-media driven Web 2.0, the majority of those activities have been superseded by new technologies and techniques that have moved the bulk of the relevant information delivery, conversation and social interaction online.

    I don’t think any amount of online chatter can be a real substitute for actually getting together with like-minded people, having a few drinks and shooting the breeze, Fantasycon-style. But there’s also no particular reason why Fantasycon couldn’t stand alone on it’s own two feet as a Convention, Eastercon-style, is there?

    So, Fantasycon aside, what does (or indeed what can) an organisation like the BFS usefully offer, to its members, to the authors whose work it exists to promote and highlight, to the genre publishers of the UK? What is the BFS for?

    To ask the most brutal question of all: if the BFS didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? Or would the current members just carry on using the BFS Facebook page and/or online forum to chat to each other? Would they just spend their £35 subscription on a few more books instead? Would someone just decide to arrange an annual ‘convention’ via Meetup.com (assuming Fantasycon didn’t just go its own way) on a ‘let’s just turn-up and have a good time’ basis?

    Until some hard questions about the purpose, the rationale, the very reason for the existence of the BFS, have been addressed and answered, until the BFS has identified and communicated its revitalised mission – something unique and valuable it can offer the fantasy (and/or horror) genres in the UK – then I think there’s a very real danger that it’s just going to go around in ever-decreasing circles, losing members, losing support from publishers and authors, losing any relevancy it may be clinging on to.

    I actually hope I’m wrong about all of the above. But at the moment, I’m really not sure whether anyone out there really cares about the BFS enough to step up and *prove* me wrong.

    • Cheryl says:

      I’ve had similar thoughts myself, which is one reason why I wasn’t planning to renew. However, given that this discussion is going to happen, I decided that I wanted to be part of it, just in case. It still may be that the right thing to do is wind the society up, but I’d like a say in the decision.

      • Darren T says:

        A very good attitude to take. But another major part of the BFS’s core problem is surely the archaic nature of the organisation’s decision-making processes? At the moment it’s a 1970s social club trying to survive in a Facebook world; paralysed by an inability to amend its own structure and move forward to meet the changing needs of the society and its members.

        So how is the discussion going to happen? How is the decision going to be taken? Is it something that can be thrashed out on Facebook, with essential action to follow now, when it’s needed to fix the immediate, fundamental problems? Or will it all have to wait for the AGM at Fantasycon 2012, or for someone to call an EGM in the meantime (and then see if anyone actually turns up)?

  3. I share Darren’s thoughts and concerns pretty much word for word.

    • Cheryl says:

      Much sympathy.

      I wonder, however, what that means for all such organizations. If the BFS has outlived its usefulness and should be wound up, is the same true for other such groups?

      Is it the case that fan organizations simply aren’t professional enough to survive in the world of social media? Is it the case that there’s no point because any mistakes are going to be viciously attacked in public by respected industry professionals, thereby dragging your organization into disrepute? These are things I worry about.

  4. Darren makes some excellent points, and ones which have been echoed in other quarters. *If* the BFS is to survive, it needs some visionaries on the rejuvenated committee, people who will look ahead to the needs of the 21C and not fixate on a sentimental attachment to what worked 30 years ago.

    But as far as I can see, the structure for the kind of broad change required just isn’t there. Members get a voice once a year at the AGM at Fantasycon – a proper voice where things can be voted on, unless, like this year, discussion isn’t curtailed because of ‘running out of time’. The forum is there, and the FB page, but however much people jump around, nothing gets changed until the AGM.

    • Cheryl says:

      If an AGM isn’t sufficient democracy for you, what would you put in its place? Should all committee decisions be put up to popular vote on the forums? Would you prefer a representative democracy instead where committee members regularly sounded out the views of their constituents? This is s serious question. (Especially as this evening I’ll be attending a meeting to help set up a (non-literary) charity.)

      By the way, I absolutely agree about the curtailing of discussion. The use of parliamentary procedure to prevent discussion irritates me greatly. One of the reasons I’m glad that WSFS is not incorporated is that I expect that if it was its leaders would behave in exactly the way the BFS people appear to have behaved.

      • The AGM always worked relatively well in the past, as it does in so many other organisations. The point I was making had nothing to do with democracy, but was about the best way to conduct a fundamental renewal very quickly.

        • Cheryl says:

          I’m not sure that it should be done quickly. If it was I would suspect that some small power group was pushing their own agenda through without proper consultation.

          • Darren T says:

            I agree that it’s important to guard against controlling cliques – or even the perception that controlling clique exists, whether it does or not – as the current furore illustrates. But can the BFS really afford to let this lie for another year?

            Under the current AGM-only system, there’s little choice but to wait until next Autumn before anything can be proposed, never mind decided (unless someone does call an EGM, if that’s even an option?) And I’ve attended Fantasycon AGMs in the past at which measures have been proposed, but not quite proposed correctly – or maybe they required an ever-so slight re-phrasing, the detail escapes me – and the proposal as a result was bumped off the current agenda, for reconsideration at the next AGM… in a year’s time.

            So perhaps rather than ‘very quickly’ we could hope for something to be done ‘relatively quickly’; i.e. within a timespan that would allow for proper consultation and appropriate canvassing of members etc. but that doesn’t require a 12 month gap between periods of discussion and decision-making?

          • Cheryl says:

            That’s entirely reasonable. One of the things we have found useful with Worldcon is to get a lot of the issues with language thrashed through before the convention. When that doesn’t happen you almost invariably get motions referred to a committee overnight to be sorted out.

            What the BFS needs to do is have an online consultation process, to find out what its members actually want, and then another process to determine how best to deliver that. That may take a few months.

  5. CarolC says:

    What has surprised me during this kerfuffle is that everyone has focusing on the never-going-to-be-resolved issue of whether the BFS’s definition of fantasy is too horror-y, but no-one is commenting on the fact that BBC’s Sherlock won Best Television.

    Um, what? There is no fantasy aspect to Sherlock. Or horror. Or even SF. Ryan Britt makes a spirited argument on Tor.com that Conan Doyle’s Holmes has had such an influence on our world that a 20th Century not influenced by those stories has to be classified as Alternate History but that *SPROING!* sound you hear is the definition of AH being stretched beyond its breaking point 😀

    • Cheryl says:

      I don’t see either of those things as relevant, except that the focus on horror is an element of the nature of the BFS that existing members, especially Steve Jones, might want to fight to preserve.

      Fan-voted awards will always occasionally throw up totally daft results. You just shrug your shoulders and mutter “vox populi, vox dei”. There’s no way you can write rules to prevent it. But equally it isn’t suggestive of impropriety, or even navel gazing.

      • CarolC says:

        Oh I agree, it’s just that I keep seeing the Propriety discussion getting derailed by “and it’s not even real fantasy” wails, when there’s a bigger Sherlock-shaped elephant in the room. I do believe that a totally voter-controlled nominations list is a perfectly valid way to run a set of awards, and the weird choices it can throw up are actually fascinating insights into how fluid genre definitions really are.

  6. I have seen online disbelief and heard personal incomprehension at the ‘Sherlock’ result, Carol – it’s just been drowned out by the louder cacophony 🙂

  7. Can’t see how to reply directly to your remark upthread, Cheryl, about online consultation with the members and then discussion how best to achieve that.

    I think that would be an extremely good idea and something to get in hand asap.

    • Darren T says:

      Yep, I completely agree as well.

      But before that can process even start, it needs someone to volunteer to manage said process… and that (again) is where I fear there’s going to be a problem – what’s the incentive for someone to take on a task of that complexity and likely migraine-risk? What’s in it for the visionaries that Mark quite rightly calls for to step-up to the plate and take a swing?

      • Quite, there’s a lot of ‘something must be done’ at the moment, vocal support, even offers by people to stand for office but I’ve yet to see any concrete proposals as to *how* anything is to be done.

        I think – and I’m open to correction – the ball is now in Ramsey Campbell’s court, as President, so the BFS is waiting for him to appoint a new Chair, who will presumably be the one responsible for sorting out an EGM, online consultation, whatever.

        Talk about a poisoned chalice…

  8. Sarah Ann Watts says:

    I think the Sherlock result is weird and rather wonderful – Sherlock was ‘magical’.

    I also think that perhaps part of the problem lies in narrow definitions – each of us possibly has our own ideas of what fantasy and horror are but we should be lowering the drawbridges not pulling them up after us?

    You know the monks of cool in Pratchett? The famous wardrobe choice – ‘hey, whatever I select?’

    Isn’t that what the speculative genres should be? Open to all comers – open to the new and the different – open to pushing the boundaries and exploration.

    Isn’t that where the really exciting writing comes from – writers who see genre as more of a guideline…

    We can’t say – ‘no orcs – not fantasy’ or ‘no vampires – not horror’ and most of us wouldn’t.

    Sherlock was brilliant in that it reinvented a C19th story for the C21st – and appealed to all ages. We could do worse than see that as inspiration?

    • This is why Hugo Award Administrators are utterly loathe to disqualify a work on the grounds that “It’s not SF/Fantasy.” SF/F is so subjective that they leave it up to the voters to decide (collectively, by their votes) what is and is not SF/F. The last time an Administrator DQ’d a work for not fitting genre definitions, it was in Best Related Book in 1989, and the WSFS Business Meeting responded to the disqualification by passing rules that said, in effect, “We really meant to include works like the one you DQ’d, so you can’t do that again.”

      Naturally, there are lots of people whose genre definitions disagree with the electorate as a whole, and they’re the ones who wail about “It’s not even [genre]!” I just hope none of the narrow-definition crowd get hold of the controls.

  9. I think the issues here are far less to do with narrow definitions and far more to do with narrow voting base 🙂

  10. Sarah Ann Watts says:

    Agreed – to celebrate the diversity of the genres we love we need a Round Table?

    And perhaps a Council of Elrond – which the hobbits had to gate crash? 🙂

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