Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Blog

He had a mouth, and he could scream

HarlanEllison

When I read yesterday morning on Twitter that the combustible writer Harlan Ellison had died, and then saw on Mark Evanier’s blog that he was sorely tempted, so tempted, to write his true (negative) feelings about Harlan Ellison but couldn’t bring himself to do so yet, I decided that nothing was keeping me from doing so, and from writing about my long-ago literary run-in with him.

After all, nothing ever stopped Ellison from attacking anyone.

In my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction, I read what there was of Ellison to read. Here’s what that meant:  short stories, his intros and outros to other people’s short stories in “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” and comic-book adaptations by other writers of his work.

That, plus 27 teleplays, looks like the bulk of his work.

He wrote a couple of dime paperbacks when he was young, and what the Internet is generously calling “novellas” (one of them weighing in at 91 pages, no doubt with wide margins), and… not much else in a writing career that theoretically encompassed 60 years.

For many years now, I have checked in on the Ellison oeuvre to see what I’ve missed, or to see if that long-promised “real” novel would finally get finished and printed, or if the “Last Dangerous Visions” collection of short stories (again, by other people) would ever get printed. Nope, and nope.

There is no law that writers should write a lot, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Harper Lee famously wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and infamously had her poor first draft, “Go Tell A Watchman,” published by her caregivers just before her death. Ralph Ellison, justly acclaimed for “Invisible Man,” struggled to finish a second novel; his posthumously published “Juneteenth,” cobbled together from drafts and notes, did nothing but harm his reputation. But the difference between those notably unprolific writers and Ellison is that they weren’t so mouthy about their supposed status as great writers. Ellison was a poseur.

As a teenage writer, I started to get published. I published some non-fiction first in amateur, non-paying markets (comics and science-fiction fanzines), and then started to get published in actual paying markets. In addition to news and features, I was writing a lot of essays and reviews, mostly, as I recall, of music, comic books, and science fiction. Somewhere in that span of time from about age 14 to 18, I got into a literary feud in print with Harlan Ellison.

I wrote something that was published.

He wrote in a response that was published.

I wrote a reply that was published.

And so on.

And so on.

I don’t remember where this was published, and I don’t remember even what it was about. But what I do remember is that I was in a tit-for-tat with a well-known, television-appearing, minor-celebrity writer who was extremely well-known and lauded in genre fandom circles.

And who was I? I was a 16-year-old kid typing away in his parents’ basement.

And at some point in all of this, something occurred to me:  I was 16. He was about 44. It was cool picking on him and having him respond… but why did he have time to do this? Shouldn’t he be writing? And, toward the end of my Ellison-debating, Ellison-reading stint, I started to ask, Shouldn’t he… grow up?

And that’s what happened: I grew up.  He didn’t.

One week when I was an undergrad studying writing, my fiction professor got called away for the week, so he hired me to substitute-teach one of the class sessions in his absence – an absolute thrill! – and I assigned the Ellison short story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man!” because I remembered it fondly and because we hadn’t read any science fiction. The class dutifully read that assignment and whatever other story I assigned and we discussed it. When the professor, a widely published writer who won the Pulitzer and who still frequently publishes in The New Yorker, returned, he wanted to talk to me about that Harlan Ellison story I’d assigned. And here’s what he pointed out:

The Ticktock Man is a straw man, set up to be easily knocked down. You are set up to disagree with him from the beginning; he makes no great case for himself; and in the end, he is proved to be a hypocrite.

Easy.

And by easy, I now mean: adolescent.

That’s about when I realized that Harlan Ellison’s life work was adolescent. It could be fun, in the way that good low art and good popular art can be fun, but it couldn’t be grown-up. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t require any work on the part of the reader. Everything was easily handed over, and quickly, for instant gratification.

The truth wasn’t that Harlan Ellison had plenty of time to argue with a pimply boy 30 years his junior (although he did). The truth was that it was a priorityfor him because that’s how adolescents are. And that adolescence, which I don’t think he ever shed, informs all of his work.

Because, really, what is his legacy? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of schlock – the Pat Hobby stories are really terrible, as are many of his other short stories – but, BUT, he did write “The Great Gatsby.” Isaac Asimov was a genre writer who wrote about 300 books all tolled, but some of them are magnificent, and leave a last legacy – certainly the Foundation books, and some of the Robot series.

Really, what is Harlan Ellison’s legacy? Writing a good episode of “Star Trek” (which he was on record as hating) and a good episode of “The Outer Limits.” Editing the two “Dangerous Visions” collections of others’ work. Having a run-in with Frank Sinatra that became a set piece in a magazine article 52 years ago. That’s more than most of us get, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify the fame that he worked so hard to establish and keep.  And it’s not enough to make up for all the goddamn arrogance.

Addendum. The British writer Christopher Priest, who to my immense delight once commented on this blog, legendarily took Harlan Ellison to task for his hypocrisy in never completing “Last Dangerous Visions” while holding all the other writers’ stories hostage. His popular piece demythologizing Ellison and recounting the “Last Dangerous Visions” nightmare is available for free reading here. I recommend it.

2 Responses to “He had a mouth, and he could scream”

  1. Dan Says:

    Cogent!

    Like you, I thought Ellison was a mildly enjoyable writer with a few good notches on his gun. Unlike you, I was never tempted to read any of his articles, interviews or whatever, so he remains in my mind as a nonentity… except for a funny story Robert Bloch wrote about collaborating with him.

  2. Don Randall Says:

    Thanks Lee for summing up what I felt about Ellison as a “fan”…having grown up reading any and all S/f….I knew that many many reviewers raved about him and he surely was mentioned whenever 60’s s/f was discussed and ALWAYS referenced “Star Trek”….I just never “got” him….I knew a lot about his running battles and his verbal assaults ….although didn’t know you were one of them. I agree sheer output doesn’t equate to worth ….cantankerous and petty has generally been my takeaway where he is concerned. Thanks for this piece.

Leave a Reply