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.
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