Rumour, Fear and the Madness of Crowds
Lisa Tuttle

"...irrespective of the form of the outbreak, all hysterical manifestations have one outstanding characteristic which links them together – they occur as the result of suggestion in highly suggestible individuals.... it should be emphasized that the hysteric, whether individual or en masse, is not a fraud or a malingerer....those who 'see' flying saucers or Martian invaders do see something and are honestly convinced of the authenticity of their observations. What is real psychologically is real to the observer. By bearing this principle in mind, our laughter at the antics of our fellow men who are in the grip of mass hysteria will be tempered with sympathy as we read of those all too human individuals who people the pages to follow." [1]

Let's imagine there's a man who has made his fortune by publishing a loathsome magazine. It promotes an image of women as victims, it sexualizes violence, it is an incitement to sexual hatred. It makes the world a more dangerous and less happy place. Then he takes some of this money and publishes another magazine concerned with science and popular culture and which is careful to avoid controversial and potentially offensive topics. It might be going too far to say this second magazine actually makes the world a better place, but it provides entertainment and information for its readers, and enables a number of writers to keep on writing for a living. Should someone politically and emotionally and morally opposed to magazine number one also boycott magazine number two? Will a writer who allows her work to be published in the pages of magazine number two be supporting an evil empire?

"In January 1946, Mead's fellow anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote to ask whether she shared his concern that the Viking Fund, which annually gave some two million dollars for anthropological research, consisted of money that came from the 'well-known Nazi sympathizer Axel Wenner-Gren'. Mead replied, 'To say that because money has been badly come by it should not be used for a good cause seems highly sentimental. Perhaps all the more because it has been badly come by it should be used for a good cause. Because the man who made the money oppressed the poor, fought labour unions, baited reds, fought the federal government, supported child labor, persecuted minorities/attended lynchings, etc., seems pretty irrelevant, and if his money finally goes to good causes instead of evil causes, that is a triumph for society, and possibly even for his conscience.'" [2]

If sponsorship is to be accepted at all, it seems to me that the attempt to sift out the "clean" from the "tainted" money is doomed from the start. People who spend their lives doing good deeds – or even doing no harm – are not usually the ones who make the most money. For better or worse, I am a professional writer. That's how I earn my money. I love being published by The Women's Press, but they are not my only publishers, and I am not always in such accord with the aims and principles of the people who pay me. No doubt there are those who think this wrong of me, and there are those (I do admire them) who never compromise the purity of their vision or their bank balance.

"Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar's alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills." [3]

We all have our limits and our lists, the things we won't do, the things we'll compromise on, the things we don't even perceive as compromises; we have our different rankings of bad, worse, worst, untouchable...Some people I know believe – as they told me at Brighton – that L. Ron Hubbard was "worse than Hitler," and that Scientology is a vast and evil conspiracy, so dangerous that no involvement with New Era should even be considered. "I don't want to tell you what to do, but you shouldn't get involved with those people. They are dangerous. They are lower than Nazis," said someone whom (even paranoids have enemies!) I will not name. Of his passionate conviction there could be no doubt. But was he right? And if he was right about the general bad character of Scientologists, does it then follow that we should not only refuse to have anything to do with New Era/Bridge Publications and their Writers of the Future contest, but that we should – as two other fans said to me – "drive them out of the field"?

What are we talking about here? "Drive them out of the field." Are we talking about making science fiction safe for democracy? Are we talking about overthrowing an evil empire? Are we talking about a nasty expression of prejudice? Let's keep science fiction pure? "Drive them out of the field." Who are we talking about? The Church of Scientology? Individual Scientologists? Employees of Bridge and New Era? Winners of the Writers of the Future competitions? A dead science fiction writer? All of the above, and if you want to be in fandom you'll have to take an oath that you are not now and have never been a Scientologist, nor an L. Ron Hubbard fan...?

I heard quite a bit of bizarre and hysterical fantasizing about what would happen if New Era was allowed to "take over" the SF field – although for me, today, this has been eclipsed by Linda Bellos's prediction that unchecked Thatcherism will lead to gas chambers for gays, lesbians and unemployed black people in seven to ten years time. She sounded so calm when she said it, too – for the second time, on the lunch-time news. Like it was too inevitable even to get excited about. Which I found more disturbing than my paranoid friend's rolling eyes as he howled, "Just you try to get away from them now! See if they let you! Just try!"

Well, I did try, and guess what? They let me.

My involvement with New Era stems from July 1987 when I came to an informal agreement with Robert Springall about setting up and teaching a series of Writers of the Future workshops; I taught at Arvon once, and I liked the idea of getting paid to do something like that again. It seemed I could do pretty much as I wanted – as long as it didn't get too expensive – and I'd never heard anything negative or suspicious about the Writers of the Future contest. There is certainly a felt need among new writers for more markets and for feedback; Writers of the Future seemed to be answering that, and I was certain there would be a clamouring market for the workshops – whoever taught them, and whoever sponsored them.

The idea of publishers sponsoring workshops is not such an odd thing – indeed, it would seem to be in their interest to encourage and develop writers of the future. But they don't, usually. Magazines sometimes have competitions; publishers have been known to sponsor events which encourage reading and writing. It's not about immediate profits, but it can be even more valuable in the long run. I presume that this, not sheer altruism, is behind New Era's involvement in contests, workshops and conventions. Other people suspect some darker motive. Why no rumours about Gollancz – highly visible, with their advertising balloon flying above the hotel, and their SF editor on the convention committee, not to mention authors on the Hugo ballot! – "hijacking" the convention? A representative from The Women's Press was annoyed by the way the British publishers' party (which The Women's Press, among others, had sponsored) at the Corn Exchange on Sunday evening was constantly referred to – even by a Women's Press author! – as "the Gollancz party" – but she saw in this no threat to the purity of the field, no dire warning of imminent take-over; it didn't even occur to her that Gollancz might be trying to cut out the other publishers by spreading a rumour that it was "their" party. I was later told, by a wide-eyed member of the very committee which had originally solicited funds from New Era, that New Era was spreading a rumour that they had sponsored the fireworks. I never heard this rumour; I only heard the rumour that there was a rumour. Indeed, all the rumours that I heard – and all the reckless, rude and stupid speculation about who'd been "bought" and who'd been "brain-washed" – came from people who had nothing at all to do with New Era.

None of these rumours, none of the hysteria I've encountered has convinced me that New Era should be run out of the field. I respect anyone who, for reasons of conscience, doesn't want his or her name linked with that of L. Ron Hubbard – whether that's because they think he was a rotten science fiction writer, or an evil genius – but I think there's a big difference between such a personal decision and the conclusions that everyone ought to feel the same way. I don't think Writers of the Future comprises a clear and present danger to SF any more than I believe that the Tories (despise them though I do) are about to start murdering lesbians and gays. The only intimidation, the only madness, the only attempts at indoctrination or persuasion I've encountered since this whole thing began has come not from anyone at New Era, but from uninvolved outsiders telling me Writers of the Future was a wicked plot, and I'd be in big trouble if I didn't get out.

I am no longer involved with Writers of the Future, not because anyone convinced me with logical argument (which was thin on the ground), but because I learned that the Writers of the Future workshops had a lot more to do with the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard and Algis Budrys about writing than with anything I myself might think about the subject. When I met Algis Budrys, who set up the Writers of the Future workshops in the US, he told me that, far from having the freedom to set up my own sort of workshop, I would be expected to learn what he called "the technology" which he developed for the course – based on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard.

(No, no, not Dianetics! Hubbard wrote articles about writing, for writers' magazines, back in the 1940s.)

Budrys told me, a few days before the Worldcon, that anything with the name "Writers of the Future" had to be authorized and approved by him. If I wanted to teach the workshops in Britain, I would first have to be his apprentice.

Well, I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in teaching people how to write like L. Ron Hubbard, or, for that matter, like any other brand-name author. Neither brainwashing nor tainted money comes into it, and my decision is no comment on the effectiveness of the course, which, from all I've heard (I have three friends who took Budrys's course and found it a valuable experience) is considerable, But teaching someone else's method is not for me. I prefer my own half-baked theories about how to encourage creativity. So I'm going back to Arvon next year, with Iain Banks and M. John Harrison. And after we have conclusively demonstrated that writing cannot be taught, we may restore the shattered egos of our students by founding a new religion. You can start working on your rumours about it now. And if I'm to be driven out of the field, could it be in a red Jaguar, please?

(Quotations from: [1] Rumor, Fear and the Madness of Crowds by J.P. Chaplin, New York: Ballantine, 1959; [2] Margaret Mead: A Life by Jane Howard, New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985; [3] Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion, New York: Bantam, 1971)