Writers of the Future and Scientology

An LJ friend recently posted a piece titled Why I No Longer Support the Writers of the Future Contest.

I was a first place winner in Writers of the Future back in 1998. It was my first major short fiction sale. WotF paid me better than anyone else ever has for a short story. They also flew me out for a week-long workshop with folks like Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton. It was a great experience, and I’m genuinely grateful for that.

When the subject of Scientology came up, we were told that the contest and its finances were completely separate from the church. That’s something I’ve repeated to other writers more than once.

I’m no longer certain this is true.

Frank Wu wrote about the financial connections between Scientology and Writers/Illustrators of the Future back in 2005. He also reproduced a letter he received in 2006 from Joni Labaqui, one of the contest administrators, who wrote:

You were actually wrong in that Scientology pays for the writers and illustrators awards. The Hubbard estate (which is not the church) makes so much money on royalties from his hundreds of published fiction it would make your head spin. You were right about the fact that every one of us who works at Author Services is a Scientologist, but the judges of the contest are not. They share the same goal that Mr. Hubbard did in starting and paying for this contest – to help the new guy…

I met Joni 13 years ago, and while I was rather overwhelmed that week, I remember her as a nice and hard-working person. I liked her.

In a similar vein, Jerry Pournelle (one of the WotF judges) writes:

I also don’t have to have an opinion about the Church of Scientology, because it doesn’t operate the Writers of the Future, and has no influence over who wins it. That much I can guarantee. The contest isn’t rigged. Algis Budrys wouldn’t have anything to do with it if there were the slightest chance of that. Nor would I.

I agree that it’s not rigged, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise. Does the church operate the contest, though? It looks like the “Writers of the Future” trademark was assigned to the Church of Scientific Technology (if I’m reading the records correctly). What does that mean? I’m honestly not certain … but it suggests to me that perhaps the wall of separation isn’t as solid as Pournelle believes.

I agree with John Scalzi’s post that Writers of the Future is not a Scientology recruitment scheme. I remember joining a few friends as a kid for a Christian camp. I felt more pressure to join that church than I ever did at Writers of the Future. While the WotF experience idolizes L. Ron Hubbard, there was no attempt to recruit me. However, I’ve spoken to one individual who did observe precisely that kind of high-pressure church recruitment tactic toward someone there for the contest at a WotF event.

A fair amount of the “Writers of the Future = Scientology!” writing out there is big on angry rhetoric and short on anything resembling facts, which is a little frustrating. (See this piece, for example.) I’m not trying to tell anyone what to believe. I’m just trying to gather what information I have to try to sort things out in my own mind. Some of the information comes from people who prefer to remain anonymous. All I’ll say is that I wouldn’t include their claims if I didn’t think they were reliable sources.

I was told by one such individual that for the church, the goal is not so much to help new writers, but to promote LRH and his brand. Particularly in schools and to kids, where they push the contest anthologies hard, hoping the books will serve as a gateway into Scientology. (This was presented not as conjecture, but as directly-overheard statements from multiple church members.)

None of this is meant to undermine the good things the contest does. The judges are, for the most part, amazing writers and people. Getting a walking tour of Hollywood from Tim Freaking Powers remains one of my favorite writing-related memories to this day. And I know that a lot of people involved with the contest, particularly some of the judges, are insistent about keeping the church separate from the contest.

But I no longer believe that Writers of the Future is entirely separate from Scientology.

I’m not saying everyone should run out and boycott the contest. But I’ve publicly praised Writers of the Future on many occasions, so I thought it was important to state this publicly as well.

I know the comments on this one have the potential to get messy, so let me preemptively ban some of the things I’ve seen on similar discussions elsewhere.

  • “Scientologists are all ________.” Just like Catholics are all pedophiles and Mormons are all polygamists and so on? Don’t be an ass.
  • “All religions are equally evil!” I’ll buy this as soon as you provide historical documentation on the Quaker Crusades.
  • “Why are you picking on religion?” I’m pretty sure I’m not, thanks.
  • “Aren’t there more important problems to worry about?” The Official Hierarchy of What We Can and Can’t Worry About pisses me off. Don’t go there.

With that said, discussion is welcome, as always. Just keep Wheaton’s Law in mind, ‘kay?