You Will Work in This Town Again

Jeff VanderMeer has a great post up on why no one should put up with harassment from “big names”, no matter what they say about advancing your career if you tolerate them or hindering your career if you don’t. I want to add something personal to that–not about harassment, though I’m tremendously glad that it’s being talked about and deprecated this way, but about genre career trajectories in general.

When I was a high school student, I interned for a major SF/F imprint. If I named them, you’d know them. My high school had a great internship program and many of the other people who interned for this imprint went on to work for them during and after college. It was expected that this would be my first step on a smooth path to a predictable career. Instead, I pissed off an editor and got fired.

I want to let that sink in a moment. This was my big break! My golden opportunity! And I got fired. Summarily canned. My internship advisor refused to stand up for me, which I still resent, but I expect she was in shock; people who entered that internship program didn’t get fired. Certainly not smart people with bright prospects, like me. This reinforced my perception that this was a Really Big Deal.

I was absolutely certain that I would never work in the field again.

I knew just how much people talk to one another in genre circles, because I’d grown up hearing endless gossip about authors and editors and publishers. I’d read fanzines. I’d heard stories of conventions. My immediate assumption was that one angry influential person would spread the word far and wide and make sure I never got my foot in another door. I set aside my dreams of being my generation’s Terry Carr, and I went off to college and majored in computer science and mathematics because there was no point to even bothering to major in something like English or publishing. I was through. My tiny little career had been squashed before it ever had a chance to grow up.

In case it isn’t obvious, I was completely wrong. Not only did I end up working in this town again (via a hilariously circuitous route), I occupy a moderately prominent place in it. I’m even on passably cordial terms with the editor who fired me. Looking back, I suspect it never occurred to that editor to badmouth me beyond maybe a few grumbles to friends; I was only that terrible and that important in my own head, the mindset that I’ve heard described as “the turd at the center of the universe”. To the rest of the industry I was a blip, a little stone that sank instead of skipping merrily across the pond. While I was bemoaning the death of my dreams, they got another intern and life went on precisely as usual.

So the next time you annoy someone in the industry, as you inevitably will because we’re all imperfect people and we all get on one another’s nerves sometimes, don’t panic. Our incestuous clan has tolerated and even welcomed a great many people whose behavior should earn them nothing except epic quantities of side-eye. You have vanishingly small odds of being the very first person to make the entire genre publishing world so angry that it closes ranks against you. This isn’t license to be an unrepentant, unremitting jerk–asinine behavior is generally neither enjoyable nor practical, and while no one is entitled to threaten you, people are quite entitled to individually decide they don’t want to work or play with you–but it is certainly license to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and not let yourself see disaster in every personality clash.

If that perspective gives you the courage to stand up to ludicrous claims that any one person can make or break your career, so much the better. The only person who can make or break your career is you. And if this town is the one you should be working in–as it is and always was for me, even when I had given up–then you may find your career is rather less breakable than you thought.

5 thoughts on “You Will Work in This Town Again

  1. Jennifer Rose

    A wonderful & important piece. The only surprise is your surprise. Along with your daily dose of SF growing up, there were all those romances–”Drat you, Brand Renfrew!” on page one leading not just to passable cordiality but love forever after.
    May you always work in this town!

  2. Kevin A. Lewis

    I was initially a bit nonplussed by this post till I read Jeff’s post and posted a comment; as a guy who occasionally fly-fishes in the Crab Nebula by sending out the odd book query or two, I admit I had a moment of paranoia a couple of years back when an agent at a large influential house was initially interested in a YA fantasy-spoof I was throwing around; the project fell apart when nobody could wrap their minds around the idea that it was supposed to be funny for it’s own sake and relatively lesson-free. I pulled the plug myself and wondered for a while if this had gotten me greylisted, but I realize these guys see thousands of projects every year and don’t have time to maintain a grudge list. This business is flaky and inefficient by nature and one has to wade through it on it’s own terms…

  3. Paul Riddell

    Oh, yes. I have grand fun with that threat, because I received it quite a few times when I was writing. In nearly every last instance, it was because I finally got tired of editorial malfeasance and incompetence, along with a lack of payment as an incentive for putting up with that, and quit. I immediately received threats that I should come back if I knew what was good for me.

    My best example was when I was writing for “Science Fiction Eye”, back about the time its ever-increasing delays was earning it the nickname “The Last Dangerous Magazine”. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, comparing “Science Fiction Eye” and _The Last Dangerous Visions_ is potentially libelous: contributors to LDV got PAID.) I finally got tired of waiting 2 1/2 years between issues, tired of much-requested articles and reviews disappearing, and tired of editor/publisher Steve Brown’s never-ending excuses as to why each issue was later than the one before. I quit, and promptly received a threat that “if you leave, I’ll let all of my friends in the science fiction industry know that you’re erratic and undependable.” The direct threat was that my career, such as it was, was dependent upon my coming back.

    At that point, I ignored the threat. I figured that quitting an increasingly irrelevant magazine wasn’t going to crater my career, and that the few people that might listen to Brown would be eclipsed by the number of editors who would ask “Science Fiction What?” That held true: one last issue of the magazine came out, a full year after I quit, the magazine shut down entirely in 1999, and Brown didn’t even have the decency to let subscribers know that he was shutting things down. To this day, nearly fifteen years after that last issue, I still get people asking “Do you know how to contact Brown? He still owes me for a full subscription.” (For the record, no, I don’t. If anything, he’s done a really good job at disappearing, and I can only imagine that he’s waiting until everyone’s completely forgotten before he surfaces again.)

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Heh! All comments are held for approval because I get so much comment-spam; I promise it’s nothing personal.

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