Harlan Ellison obituaries tend to run the same way: stories about the author’s “Harlan story” 1, perhaps with a nod to the fact that he was a serial groper and generally awful, interpersonally, in the inappropriate sexuality sense, to many women, and then a list of stories he wrote that were important to the person who wrote the article.
There’s not a lot of easy ways to wrestle with Harlan Ellison’s thing, see. He was a phenomenal writer, especially early on. I mean that literally – he wrote stories in the first decade or so of his career that were a phenomenon – almost anything from “Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man”, through “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” and culminating in probably my favorite short-story ever written, “Jeffty is Five” . There was work after this point (“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” “Paladin of the Lost Hour”) that was also great, and perhaps even the equal of the early stuff, but it’s that first ten years that contains the work that was an absolute godhead for a lot of sf fans.
He also admitted to committing sexual assault at least once (in 1962), was rumored to be horrifyingly inappropriate to many women for several decades later, often and with much gusto, and grabbed Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo awards in 2006 2.
Beyond all of that, he made life deeply unpleasant for a lot of people, albeit usually deserving people. He was extremely litigious, suing anyone who he thought maybe might have thought about his work too hard while they were coming up with their own. He was an outspoken vigilante, and it’s not hard to find stories of him taking “revenge” on people 3 via some inconvenience. He was a tireless activist, and wrote often about the way that it was, in fact, better and necessary to be a tireless activist. For a period of time he would refuse to go to conventions or other such events in states that hadn’t ratified the ERA, but he would agree to go to those places to stump for NOW, so there are several stories about seeing Harlan Ellison give a speech supporting the National Organization for Women. 4
He was also a vocal advocate for the writers and artists he appreciated. I myself would be less likely to have known who, say, Paul Chadwick (Concrete) was if Harlan hadn’t written so passionately about him. He would bend over backwards for people he felt deserved it, and would defend the dignity and rights of his fellow writers as fiercely as he defended his own. He would write endlessly about the things that he felt needed more public attention. His famed anthology series Dangerous Visions, more-or-less essential reading for a certain strain of sf fan, contained introductions that were often better than the stories themselves 5.
Nevertheless, his attitude – his vigilante taste for prankish “retribution”, his haranguing, his sarcastic dismissals, his impatient dealings with people he felt weren’t behaving in a manner he felt was deserving his time or their station – always seemed to stem from his respect for and obsession with working hard, and respecting the work of creatives – especially writers, but not only writers – as actual work, as something created that is worthy of time and respect rather than as something that was ephemeral or unimportant or inconsiderable. He was certainly willing to work very hard at things when he decided to.
Except, of course, that The Last Dangerous Visions never came out. He solicited stories from people, promising them the moon, promising them royalty payments beyond their wildest dreams, promising them fame and exposure and really great sex, and then….they sat, gathering dust in his office, as he didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain 6. The non-publishing of the work that he had gotten from people that he counted as friends, that he sat on rather than release into the world, did yield several excuses from Ellison, and eventually became the hoariest of science fiction fan jokes.
Put together 7, it seems to be the case that Harlan Ellison was a tremendously principled firebomb, who was completely unable to apply those principles to his own actions. This isn’t uncommon: writing, especially coming up the way Ellison did, is a matter of believing in yourself to such a huge and superhuman degree that no matter how many people tell you “no”, you not only keep taking your work to other people, but you keep taking that same work to other people. It requires, essentially, that one forget that other people might have valid thoughts about you. It betrays a mindset that isn’t particularly permeable to the criticism of others.
Without going too far down this rabbit hole (and straying as far as possible under the circumstances from inappropriate armchair-psychology), it seems easy to me to see how someone goes from that kind of impermeable unsinkability to, having achieved the success one believed bone-deep was coming to them, just being done examining one’s behavior, and believing that one was special enough to get away with whatever it was he wanted to do. The problem is when you are cruel to women, his actions say, not when I do it. When I do it there’s a reason.
He was a unique genius, the sort of person that creates a schism in the field: there are works before Harlan, and there are works after. He did as much as anyone to invent a sort of science fiction-derived horror (c.f. “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” “Croatoan”, probably the two scariest stories I read as an adolescent). When he wanted to, he could be as good and helpful and inspiring as anyone – he, for example, did a lot to impel Octavia Butler into her own career, and that alone is worth several Good Place points.
And, y’know, in a sort of points-based scoring system, I bet he comes out ahead. I bet he did enough good, generally and specifically, to generally come out ahead as an ok guy in the balance. It’s up to each person if they decide they want to evaluate things that way, I suppose, and I don’t know that I’m one of them.
Harlan succeeded big and failed big. He was a lot of things, he was probably actually a genius, and he was definitely, definitively himself, and that’s what he was, and that’s admirable in its way. If he was both better and worse than other people, then that’s how that happened. He couldn’t have been anyone else and he didn’t try. Is that an honor in and of itself? Not really. But it’s what he did, and if you can’t be anything else, you can at least be honest.
I want to say that a lot of this is probably equivocation. Harlan Ellison’s work spoke to me (and to a lot of other people – I am tremendously far from unique in this regard) on such a fundamental, personal level that it became a part of my personality. There is a deeply-entrenched strain of taking ideas from Ellison, not only about how to read or how to write, but about how to be 8. I am less likely, then, to throw it all out.
But as pain fades, and as people forgive, and the work remains (because in this case the work is as good as anybody’s, and probably isn’t going anywhere), then it’s probably not the worst thing to add an asterisk for the way the author behaved. In “Prince Myshkin and Hold the Relish,” Ellison allows for his treatise on dealing with authors that are bad people. Here’s a YouTube video of Ellison himself reading it. This, too, forms a part of how I deal with people who are problematic. I do think that failing to confront Ellison’s failings head-on, no matter if he thought they were failings or not, is also something that I learned to do from Ellison.
So go read something, y’know? If you can’t get past Ellison’s faults (and I would never discourage someone from avoiding things that were not at a high enough standard – the standards should always be higher. Always.), read some Octavia Butler (like, say, The Parable of the Talents or Xenogenesis 9), or his friend Robert Silverberg (The Book of Skulls), or Connie Willis (Doomsday Book is my favorite, but To Say Nothing of the Dog also won a Hugo, and I think under the circumstances, if you’re going to read a book at Harlan Ellison it oughta be one of her Hugo-winners), or hell, I’m sure Kameron Hurley or Claire North or Kij Johnson wouldn’t mind either.
My personal favorite tribute to Harlan would be to watch the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, but to praise the rewriting that Roddenberry did to Ellison’s screenplay, because if I had to put up with his bullshit, he should have to put up with mine.
But I’m not going to do any of that, honestly. I’m too soft, and I’m all talk. What I’m actually going to do is I’m going to go read “Jeffty is Five” again. And I’m going to cry (like I always do when I read “Jeffty is Five”). And then I’m going to read “The Paladin of the Lost Hour” and probably “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man,” and then some other things. And I’m going to annoy people by reading them things out loud, and generally being enthusiastically, evangellically obsessive about it.
Because Harlan Ellison taught me that it’s important to try to fill the world with good things as much as possible, and that sometimes good things come from shitheads. Sorry you were a shithead, Harlan. I wish you hadn’t been.
- I don’t have a Harlan story ↩
- and, thereafter, issued a terrible apology, followed by saying several things after the terrible apology that signified that he didn’t even mean the terrible apology. ↩
- my favorite of which is a story about him mailing a couple of hundred bricks to his publisher in regards to a contract dispute, which you can look up for more and better information. ↩
- after which he, in all likelihood, treated some woman very, very poorly. ↩
- his introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin is the best introduction she ever received in print. ↩
- I suppose he’s lucky nobody mailed him a couple of hundred bricks. ↩
- a thing that’s easier to do with the publication of Nat Sefaloff’s A Lit Fuse, the occasion of which publication caused me to say to someone (I don’t remember who), “oh, he’s dying. This wouldn’t come out if he thought there wasn’t any more of the story of his life to tell”. ↩
- these things range from a disdain from the term “sci-fi”, which I don’t use, to a refusal to capitalize “tv”, to the notion that if you just treat everyone like a person who is equal to you then you’ve covered a lot of your bases (a thing that Harlan failed at more than any other idea he ever gave out), to the idea that good work – good writing, good art – can come from anywhere, and that disqualifying anything for its form or medium is only going to result in your loss. This last is perhaps the most reverberant of all of these things, as it’s a big part of the reason I’m in this space in the first place. ↩
- a novel which happens to share its title with a remarkable Harlan Ellison essay about the effects of toxic fandom on sf, a thing that we’re still trying to deal with, and a thing that was enabled by, well, attitudes like his about whether or not their principles apply to themselves. ↩