nancylebov: blue moon (Default)
[personal profile] nancylebov
First posted on Facebook. There's some good discussion. Related links after the essay.

It's been a bit since Harlan Ellison's death, and while I believe in cutting slack for those who grieve, it's not infinite slack.

I don't have any personal Harlan Ellison stories, but I do have some personal history about him.

I used to be a fan in a moderate sort of buy-on-sight sort of way. I don't have as bad a case of it, but I used to be really fascinated by writers with authoritative voices. I think that's how it's possible to simultaneously be a fan of Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Heinlein. I didn't check their ideas against each other, I didn't use them as guides to life, I just read (and sometimes reread) everything I could find by them. When I was thinking about Ellison, I realized he belonged on the list, even though I didn't like his work as much as the others.

I don't think any of them were a complete waste of time (and not just as bad examples), but I suspect that taste of mine is somewhat pathological.

Everything I'm posting about what Ellison wrote and said is from memory.

Anyway, I started becoming disenchanted with Ellison when I read one of his Dangerous Visions afterwords or forewords about one of his exes. She was horrible, a monster, not a human being. What she'd done was to hold his head while he was vomiting.

I'm not sure why anyone would do that, but I expect it was well-meant, and also that Ellison would have been too distracted by vomiting to tell her to stop it.

What hit me was that he'd used a platform to attack her hyperbolically for something trivial, and she didn't have a remotely comparable platform (this was well before social media) to answer him. My snap reaction was that Ellison wasn't a gentleman. This sounds funny now, and I think it's the only time I've had the not-a-gentleman reaction about anyone, but I do think it's something that's owed between people even if it shouldn't be gendered.

I came to believe that Ellison thought he was right when he was angry. In one way, this is just normal human stuff-- feeling like you're right is probably part of being angry, but Ellison was angry a *lot*, and he made his anger into a moral platform.

Then he wrote a piece about how awful fandom was. Some of it was entirely reasonable. If Gene Wolfe goes to a convention on the condition that no one sends him out for ice, and someone sends him out for ice, this is definitely bad behavior. And it's horrific if a fan throws a cup of warm vomit in a pro's face.

However, there were other things that Ellison said were signs of something wrong with fandom, and one of them was that scholars were going over a writer's fan mail, and found what looks like a piece of green glass glued to a letter.... and it was a moderately valuable emerald. $5000, I think. Possibly worth five or then times as much in current money. How can it make sense to think that sending an unlabeled emerald is crazy the way throwing a cup of warm vomit is? How are they remotely in the same category?

And then I remembered a story Ellison told at an Icon. (That's a convention on Long Island.) He had an agreement (maybe even a contract) that cigarette advertisements wouldn't be inserted in his books. Many of you have never seen this, but there was a period when advertisements were bound into paperback, and those advertisements were on cover stock. I'm pretty sure I only saw advertisements for the Science Fiction Book Club, not cigarettes, but I'm willing to believe there were cigarette advertisements.

Anyway, the editor responsible had a heart condition, and Ellison sent him a dead gopher through the mail. It was a funny story.

After the essay about the horribleness of fandom, I realized that Ellison was presenting attempted murder as funny whether he'd done it or not. My snap reaction was "Fuck you, Harlan Ellison". I suppose a polite reaction would be that Ellison isn't exactly a moral authority. And there are obviously some territorial issues at my end.

Anyway, time passes. I reread Dangerous Visions for a book club and some of the fiction holds up very well, but I'm not interested in the forewords and afterwords. I especially recommend "Faith of Our Fathers" by Philip K. Dick.

If The Last Dangerous Visions every comes out, I'll get it.

I notice that there are people who feel very strongly that they don't want to hear anything bad about Ellison. This is my wall, not theirs.

At some point, Ellison excuses himself for being verbally nasty to someone on the grounds that he (Ellison) had the flu. Guess what? If you haven't spent decades cultivating your ability to be verbally abusive, you won't be that good at it when you have the flu.

And there's the Connie Willis incident, where Ellison grabs her breast (hard enough to hurt, she said) at an awards ceremony. There's video.

So, Ellison dies. I notice that one of the people who doesn't want to hear anything bad about Ellison was a friend of Ellison's but was afraid of Ellison's temper.

The eulogies are fascinating. I've never heard of anyone else who was so good at kindness. Period. Full stop.

And he was also a horrible person some of the time.

I have no idea whether the two were inextricably linked.

It might be possible to use Ellison's kindness as a good example. I could end there on something of a high note, but I'm not sure I want to end on a high note.


Ellison about the gopher story

Ellison telling the gopher story

Where to find Ellison's "Xenogenesis" It has no connection to Octavia Butler's series of the same name.

Ellison groping Connie Willis

Alan Dean Foster really did say a fan threw a cup of vomit on him I'd reached a point where I wanted verification of things.

The Last Deadloss Visions by Christopher Priest. Ellison put together Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions-- these were supposed to be stories which couldn't be otherwise published, and included some major works.

Ellison wanted to do one more, The Last Dangerous Visions, and got the rights to a lot of stories, but then the project stalled out because it was huge (Ellison wanted to do substantial forewords and afterwords for each of the stories) and because he was procrastinating.

He this dragged on for decades, and he made a big moral issue of not giving the rights back to the authors.

Date: 2018-07-11 03:54 pm (UTC)
malkingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] malkingrey
Harlan Ellison was, if nothing else, walking proof that the gift of being a good writer and the gift of being a good person come in two separate baskets, and not everybody gets both.†

And the fact that he was capable of being both extraordinarily kind and extraordinarily unkind shouldn't really be surprising -- nobody is ever a hundred percent anything, except for characters in badly-written fiction.
Also, of John Scalzi's observation that the failure mode of "clever" is "asshole."

Date: 2018-07-11 05:28 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
And the fact that he was capable of being both extraordinarily kind and extraordinarily unkind shouldn't really be surprising -- nobody is ever a hundred percent anything, except for characters in badly-written fiction.

Kindness isn't just something someone is: it is a skill.

And kindness and unkindness are exactly the same skill: the skill of accurately anticipating how different ways of treating someone will affect them emotionally.

The difference is the use to which it is put.

Date: 2018-07-11 06:21 pm (UTC)
malkingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] malkingrey
I don't know . . . I've met enough naturally kind persons to be aware that I'm not really one myself. But at least my mamma tried to raise me right, so I can (I hope) manage not to be actively unkind -- also, I'm lazy, and being actively unkind, like holding grudges, is just too much like work to be attractive.

Date: 2018-08-04 12:31 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] mental_mouse
Kindness isn't just something someone is: it is a skill.

Well... certainly that applies to purposeful cruelty, sadism, and in Ellison's case I'd accept that call.

As an aside though, I'll note that there is more to evil than malice; consider also indifference. If you don't care about someone and don't have to care about them (e.g., they can't kick back), then the results will be often unkind, even if you're not even aware of who you're running roughshod over.

Of course, that sort of impunity helps with sadism too! Ellison played his privileges... well, like a pro, to maintain his standing in core fandom and even as an author. My general sense was that the turning point was groping Willis in 2006. It's not just that it was a new level of blatancy or offensiveness; every time before this, each new outrage would simply reaffirm his power when he got away with it. (See also, the Tangerine Twit).

But there were two things different in 2006: Firstly, a tide was shifting: The SF/F community was becoming aware of harassment issues, and especially the new generations of writers were starting to take the randy old codgers to task. Secondly, he seriously misjudged his victim, in that Connie Willis was (and still is) both a major author in her own right, and personally popular as well, especially (at a guess) with the younger generations. Suddenly, the "wild and crazy old-timer, you never know what he'll do, he he", became a "creepy old pervert, who knows what he might do next".

Now, I'm not sure what official sanctions he faced for the incident itself... but regardless, a lot of people just said "the hell with this guy". And this time it wasn't just folks he'd directly screwed over, but people who'd been watching from the sidelines. He lost enough visibility that when he did die, I was hearing people on non-SF forums saying "I thought he died years ago...".
Edited (Quote to clarify what I'm responding to.) Date: 2018-08-04 12:33 pm (UTC)

Date: 2018-08-04 01:14 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] mental_mouse
And non-writing stuff like speaking, GoH, emceeing, that sort of thing? His misbehavior had already gotten him banned or disinvited from a goodly number of venues, and after 2006, I imagine even more concoms just noped on by.

Date: 2018-07-11 04:00 pm (UTC)
conuly: (Default)
From: [personal profile] conuly
Wait, wait, wait. I'm still stuck on the massive hypocrisy of "holding my head while I vomited is evil but grabbing breasts is fun times for all".

Date: 2018-07-11 07:15 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] romsfuulynn
I saw the ex-wife complaint, and either prior to that or subsequently he talked about another ex-wife. The balance of power issue bothered me at the time.

Date: 2018-07-11 08:52 pm (UTC)
soon_lee: Image of yeast (Saccharomyces) cells (Default)
From: [personal profile] soon_lee
I haven't (re)read any Ellison since that incident. Because of what he did to Connie Willis.

(I admired his writing, and some of it still holds up.)

Date: 2018-07-12 03:45 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ndrosen
One of uncles went to high school with Harlan, and has expressed to me a poor opinion of the man personally.

His fiction isn’t really my thing, although I have read some of it, and I grant that he had talent of a sort.

BTW, I have also read Ayn Rand, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Heinlein, and a bit of G.K. Chesterton, but with more compulsion than you to figure out who was right about what.

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