Some thoughts and notes about Harlan Ellison, in no particular order, on the occasion of his death.
Content warning: I’m going to say some positive things about him as well as some critical things; if either of those will distress you, then you may not want to read this post right now.
- He was capable of being, imo, an astonishingly good writer.
- He also did some very good things.
- He also behaved very badly.
- I know he went by “Harlan,” but I have a hard time calling him that; it feels too intimate to me. (I feel similarly about referring by first name to nearly anyone I don’t know.)
- I don’t remember when I first encountered his work; almost certainly among my father’s sf paperbacks, which I read many of as a kid. (Possibly the first of his stories that I read was “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” which I loved at the time.)
- I continued to think of him as a young upstart trying to take the sf world by storm well into the 1980s, by which time he was in his fifties.
- He sure was prolific. According to the ISFDB, he had 45 stories published in 1957—and that was near the beginning of his career, when he was in his early 20s. And I’m not sure whether that list includes the non-sf stories he wrote.
- The first time I saw him in person was at I-CON, at SUNY Stony Brook, in the late 1980s. I was struck by his charisma and his entertaining way of speaking; that was when I discovered the idea of attending all the panels that a given panelist is on, regardless of topic. The main thing I remember is that he railed against the movie Robocop, on the grounds that it took human life too lightly. On the topic of how easily human lives can be ended in real life, he passionately declared, “We’re all just baggies of blood!” I don’t know why he reacted so strongly to that one specific movie, as opposed to all the other movies out there in which people are killed casually and bloodily.
- The only time I ever spoke with him was in the late ’80s, when I acquired his home phone number somehow—possibly from a Philadelphia-area writer who had a copy of the SFWA Directory—and called him to invite him to speak at Swarthmore. He told me, gently, that this was his home phone and that I should have called his office phone, during business hours. He asked if I was scared, and I admitted I was (I was very aware of his reputation), and he told me not to be, and that the call would go better if I wasn’t. He told me his rates for speaking (I want to say $4,000?), and said that was in addition to first-class airfare for him and his wife, Susan. I thanked him and got off the phone; he was way out of our price range.
- I heard stories about his nastiness to writing-workshop students when they did things he disliked. I also heard stories about his generosity and kindness to some new writers.
- Why am I writing all this, when I couldn’t bring myself to write much of anything coherent about the death of my favorite writer, Ursula K. Le Guin? I think because her death was harder on me. I’ve loved a lot of Ellison’s work, but his work never had as strong an effect on me as much of Le Guin’s did.
- As noted in my previous post, I read the introduction to, and stories in, Angry Candy at a time when I needed it, a time when I felt like there was a lot of death going on around me. I found it powerful and cathartic, especially the introduction and “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “The Function of Dream Sleep.” I think I read the introduction aloud at a story reading.
- At some convention, probably around 1994, I heard him speak about one of his stories having been selected for one of the big annual literary anthologies, Best American Short Stories or something. (It looks like the story may’ve been “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.”) He seemed thrilled that the story had been selected—mainstream literary recognition! at last!—but he also talked about having been called by a young woman associated with the anthology, who talked to him as if he were a new writer at the start of his career, and he told her off for not knowing that he’d been winning awards since probably before she was born.
- At some convention where I saw him speak (possibly that same one in 1994 or so), my impression was that he looked tired, worn out. He looked and sounded to me like anger had been consuming him for decades. But he went on for another twenty years after that, so I may just have overinterpreted. (That may’ve been shortly before he had a heart attack and heart surgery.)
- I respect his work on the two Dangerous Visions books, and I’m glad that he helped those stories see the light of day, most especially Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah...” and Russ’s “When It Changed.” But Ellison handled the never-published third book badly.
- He behaved badly toward Tempest. I was glad that he backed off and apologized, but I’m sad that (I suspect) his behavior in that instance probably wasn’t especially unusual, either for him or for plenty of other people. Hear a rumor that someone did something that you (without any context) consider bad; go off on them at length; mutual friends explain to you that you were uninformed; quasi-apologize. It’s a bad habit to get into.
- I was present at the Hugo ceremony in 2006 where he grabbed Connie Willis. I haven’t spoken much about it publicly because I’ve heard that Willis would rather it not be discussed, but I will say that in person, live, at least from where I was sitting in the audience, it looked like what he did was significantly worse than it looked in the video of the event.
- I like Nick’s article about Ellison from 2014.
At some point, after one or another of Ellison’s high-profile misbehaviors, I saw a few bloggers say things like “Well, I’ve never heard of him, and he did this bad thing, so he can’t be any good as a writer.” I was flabbergasted; I didn’t wade in because I didn’t want to appear to be defending his behavior, but I consider him to have been a remarkably good writer. And also to have done bad things. It’s quite possible for both of those things to be true at the same time.
(In the years since then, I’ve seen the same kind of reaction play out with other excellent writers who’ve done unfortunate things; it always makes me sad to see those reactions. (In addition, of course, to my being sad about the writer’s bad behavior.) I’m not saying that an artist and their work are always separable; I have no problem with people saying “I can’t in good conscience read or support this author any more,” and for that matter I have no problem with people saying “this writer’s work just doesn’t appeal to me.” What bothers me is when people say “I dislike what this author did; therefore, they must be a bad writer.”)
(Edited to add: In case this isn’t clear from the rest of this post, it makes me similarly unhappy to see the converse argument: “this writer wrote great fiction, so they can’t possibly have done anything bad.”)
- The last time I saw him was a few years ago at a convention. He was standing on a platform in the middle of a big room, surrounded on all sides by a sea of fans. He was holding forth in the inimitable Ellison fashion, but sounding to me meaner than I had personally seen him before. (Though I know from others’ stories that this wasn’t nearly as mean as he was capable of being.) I couldn’t take it for more than a few minutes; I snuck out of the room. (Snuck, because I had already heard him say something unpleasant about someone else he’d seen leaving the room.)
- I’m seeing some friends saying things like “no one can deny he was a great writer” and “the world will miss him.” I’m seeing other friends say that they honestly never liked his writing, or that he harassed them or viciously insulted them. So to those of you who are uncritically sad about his death: that’s fine, you’re allowed to be sad, but please don’t assume that everyone shares your reactions.
- To those who Ellison hurt, and who’ve been distressed by seeing the outpourings of uncritical praise: you have my sympathies. I hope that this post hasn’t added to your distress.
What does all that add up to? I don’t have a single answer. Ellison wrote some imo-amazing fiction (and probably some bad fiction—certainly not everything he wrote was amazing); he did some good things; he also did some bad things. I admire his writing and respect the good work he did, even while I can’t condone his many instances of bad behavior.