Harlan Ellison is not better than you.

Posted: July 22, 2010 in Soapbox

Jason Sanford’s post about Harlan Ellison and Prince quitting the Internet (and the discussion that ensued in the commentary—click the link to see what I’m talking about: http://www.jasonsanford.com/jason/2010/07/harlan-ellison-and-prince.html) got me thinking about a couple of things with regards to the whole issue.

Just to reinforce the fact that I am not singling Ellison out here, first of all, I sort of understand his beef with the Net. A lot of days the Internet and its accompanying online community seem like one big version of chat roulette—that is, you have to wade through a lot of dicks just to find anyone worth talking to. I am not an active user of Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Xanga, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…mostly because I consider them a waste of time more than anything else. (If I ever develop any kind of real notoriety, that will probably change.)

However, as someone who has been both on the authorial and the editorial sides of the desk, I find it very hard to watch people justify the bad behavior of a few writers just because they are celebrities or because their work is considered to have unique artistic significance.

Authors of legendary status like Ellison often get put on pedestals because of the near-universal appeal of their work, but at the end of the day they’re just scraping rent like everyone else, and in my opinion, one of the most absolutely cool things about writing is that it isn’t just for little gods like Ellison. It’s for you and me too. Harlan Ellison is no better than you are, and he has no more right to verbally abuse a stranger in a bookstore than you do. Neither does Stephen King, nor Neil Gaiman, nor any other literary genius for that matter.

We are all peers in this business, and we all got into it for approximately the same reasons. One only has to go over a list of famous rejections to come to terms with exactly how much undiscovered literary talent there is floating around out there, ready for someone to snatch up and deliver to the world.

On one hand, I totally understand what it is like to be a writer—I am one. As a general rule, we’re a neurotic, temperamental type, sensitive to criticism and often embodying egos like bad-natured dogs on long leashes. Ellison is not alone in that regard. I can completely sympathize.

But, on the other hand (and this is the snub-nosed, practical side of me that has to do stuff like pay bills and redline manuscripts all day and listen to authors bitch on a regular basis) as an editor I know exactly what it’s like to work with “holy terror” writers like Ellison. One guy whose work I have edited in the past consistently turned in really good copy, but trying to collaborate with him on anything was like slamming your head in a filing cabinet. I would rather take the most hapless misspelled hopeless case of an amateur over working with him any day. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how good you are if people can’t stand you.

Let me repeat that, because it apparently bears repeating: It doesn’t matter how good you are if people can’t stand you.

Yes, writing is art, and one in which the art’s creator is pretty removed from the art itself, unlike acting, another realm where artists are known to act the ass on occasion. But at the end of the day, writing is also a business. And you know what? It’s the business aspect of it that buys the groceries and maybe a posh crib in Bangor one day if you’re talented, smart, lucky and gracious (not at all in that order).

As a writer you are perfectly free to rant, wail, whine, gnash your teeth, punch walls, pour Jack Daniels on your cornflakes, whatever it is that helps you do your thing – by all means, go wild. It’s one of the perks of the field. But as soon as you step out into public, real public—whether that’s attending a marketing meeting, speaking with editors and publishers, signing autographs for fans, or even just organizing a marketing campaign, you better have your most charismatic and loving game face on, because a reputation like Ellison’s can follow you around for a long, long time. And it’s really unfortunate when your bad temper gets more publicity than your stories do.

In the words of the King: “Let the word and the legend go before you. There are those who will carry both. Fools, perchance. Let the world go before you. Let your shadow grow dark.”

  1. Gregg Jameson says:

    I’m not so sure about the “near-universal appeal” of Harlan Ellison’s work. If that were the case, the bookstores should be full of his stuff, like they are of Ray Bradbury, or Robert Heinlein, or Ursula K. LeGuin, or other genre writers who can legitimately claim that appeal.

    Ellison’s appeal seems based a lot more on his personality than his art. Everyone talks about what a great writer he is, but none of that great writing is currently for sale, except in the used-book stores. Seems like the market is telling us something about so-called near-universal appeal.

  2. Gregg Jameson says:

    I think Ellison’s big appeal is to people who like his acting out. It’s probably a vicarious thing.

    I see a lot of stuff on Ellison that starts with “he’s a great writer, but” — and I’m not sure if time is proving that artistic greatness, if one of the requirements for that is the work surviving the author. I mean, what’s in print?

    Ellison was definitely of his era, and he made the most of his reputation, but I can’t think of a single property of his, except for a Star Trek episode, that is carrying through.

    • kellyeparish says:

      To me, there are plenty of great writers out there right now that don’t come with a “but”…and that’s why writers like Ellison are a little irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.

      “He’s a good writer…but he’s got the attitude of a rattlesnake with a superiority complex.” “She’s a good writer, but she refuses to self-market.” “He’s a good writer…but it’s ten years between mauscripts.” “She’s a good writer, but once she’s done with the manuscript she won’t let you touch it.”

      All of these “buts” make a writer less marketable than he/she was before the “but”. To which I say, talent doesn’t mean a damned thing unless you have an appropriate vehicle to deliver it in.

      Show me the hotshot new young writer who is talented and has the appeal/charisma/showmanship to organize a bookstore flash mob via Twitter or Facebook. That’s the kid I’m keeping MY eye on…

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