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September 04, 2006

On Harlangate

For those of you who don't know, legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was given a special Hugo award at Worldcon last week-ish. During the ceremony, which was announced by eminent science fiction writer and guest of honor Connie Willis, Ellison and Willis, longtime friends, became engaged in an unscripted comedic dispute---for the benefit of the audience---over Ellison's infamous bad behavior. Willis told him to behave; Ellison responded by putting the microphone in his mouth, making a number of other comments and gestures, and ending by squeezing Willis' breast.

No action was taken at the time against Ellison (Willis was professional about it and simply continued the ceremony.) But now the entire SF community is howling away about it on their blogs. The substance of that discussion is not merely that Ellison's actions were unacceptable. A lot of long-held anger against the apparently sexist old-boy network in SF/F is being vented. (I write "apparent" because I'm still new to fandom and don't have any personal experience with the old-boy network.)

I'm not going to comment on any of this because you can guess how I feel about it and any of the millions of other blogs commenting on it right now are saying pretty much what I would say.

But I do want to talk about Harlan Ellison, whom I've never met, and whose work I've never read (and probably never will, now.) The one thing I've known about him since I entered the SF world three years ago is that he's famous for being an asshole. Everybody loves his assholery. When I was at the Clarion West writers workshop, one of the running themes was getting visiting writers and editors to tell us their Harlan Ellison stories. We ooohed and aaaahed over what an asshole he was and all felt in on the joke. Even I loved hearing about the time Harlan walked out of his room naked at a workshop (he writes naked) and shocked some unsuspecting visitors, or the time called up a young writer he'd never met in the middle of the night to critique her first novel, which had just been published. That became a catchphrase for our class: "You don't want to write anything that Harlan Ellison would call you about."

When we were designing the class t-shirt (a clarion tradition: the t-shirt bears the names of the participants and their favorite quotes from the workshop) the Harlan quote was to go on it, but several members of the class became afraid of the consequences should Harlan hear about it and not like it. (I thought we should ask him simply because I wouldnt' want my name used without my permission, either. I didn't know at the time how much power he had.) So they arranged to have someone who knew him call him up and ask him for permission. He gave it, graciously, like the grand old man of science fiction that he is.

What I was left with in all of this, more than anything, more than my sense of his assholeness, more than my understanding that "everybody loves Harlan's assholeness", was that everybody was afraid of Harlan Ellison. For he wasn't just a randomized asshole. He was especially known in the gossip for turning his assholeness on people who displeased him.

When Octavia Butler died this year Ellison was asked for a comment by the media and was quoted as saying that Butler was King Kong to his Fay Wray, an attempt at a comedic comment on Ellison's shortness and Butler's tallness. I reacted, however, to the unconscious implication of the comment: Ellison is white, Butler was black. King Kong had just been remade, to much discussion in the blogosphere about the racial subtext of the original (raging black atavistic male kidnaps tiny, pure white civilized female) and how the remake hadn't adequately addressed or subverted this subtext. Butler is much on the record having addressed the intersection of her height and her blackness, talking about how men have always taken her height as a personal insult. At best, his comment seemed outrageously insensitive.

I took my objections to the Carl Brandon Society list, a list-serv for SF/F writers of color, and wondered if Carl Brandon should make some sort of public statement. One of the board members talked me down, explaining that Ellison and Butler had been good friends, and that, although his comment seemed insensitive, he was probably grief-stricken, and shouldn't be taken to task for what he said in that condition. She also explained that Ellison has been both a feminist and a civil rights activist in his past and should be respected for this. I let it go and I'm glad I did. Ellison shouldn't have been taken to task then, not because he didn't deserve it---he did---but because Octavia Butler didn't deserve to have her death be about what an asshole Harlan Ellison is.

I also discussed this issue on the Clarion West class of 2003 list. I was told by many of my classmates (again) that he was a friend of Butler's and in mourning, that the comment was just a stupid joke, and (again) that he was really and truly an old time activist for civil rights. So it was unfortunately not at all surprising when Harlangate happened and Harlan apologists (in the words of one of my classmates who agreed with me) started "flying out of his ass left and right." Their arguments? That he was a friend of Willis'? Check. That it was just a joke? Check. That he was an old-time feminist who supports women's rights with his money and his mouth? Check.

Only, this time, he's not going to get away with it. The board member who talked me down this spring over the King Kong comment, brought it up again on the list and said that she'd still have advised calm, but would change some of her comments if she could. Prominent SF writers and publishing types and bloggers are stating publicly and distinctly that his actions were disgusting and unacceptable. People are talking about general measures that should be taken at cons to prevent any more groping of anyone by anyone. All to the good.

I just want to remind everyone at this point (and yes this is an "I told you so" moment) that Ellison's been pulling this shit for decades. He was groping women in public back when that was still considered okay. He was viciously attacking people publicly and privately, calling them (especially women) without their permission, and exposing his naked self to strangers, again, without their permission. For decades everyone has been giggling, making excuses, and saying "Oh, that Harlan Ellison". It took a public groping of a well-respected writer, who was the event's guest of honor, onstage at the ceremony for SF's highest award ... and in 2006 ... to get people to finally, publicly censure him. And still no official action has been taken against him.

No one should have this much power, no matter how nasty they are. Despite the (justified) tack that many people are taking on this issue, which is that it is not just about Ellison, but rather about sexism in SF ... this is about Ellison, about an individual who, just by being an asshole over the years, and then going after and intimidating anyone who objected to his assholery, has pretty much put himself above the rules.

Is he still going to get a free pass? Will we be giving out any more free passes?


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2003 was also the year that Gene Wolfe walked out of Odyssey, and it was in that circumstance that Ellison had a lot of cretinous things to say about workshops in general and Clarion in particular, and Clarion West in particular. I distinctly remember Neile not being at all happy about it, and if I wasn't concentrating my ire on Ellison is was just because I was distracted by another asshole on another board. I always have a hard time getting people to get as angry as I am at bullies, but even when people were laughing and saying "you haven't been critiqued until Harlan Ellison has torn your manuscript in little pieces, spit on it, jumped up and down on it shouting abuse", it wasn't particularly indulgent laughter, and the idea that there was a reason he hadn't been invited back to Clarion was pretty clearly hanging in the air.

Perhaps there were Ellison apologists among us - one of us was particularly sanguine about getting that quote, who wasn't even one of ours, on the t-shirt - but I never was one. I had already heard the story about the gopher about it, and I did hear the *other* story about Ellison that wasn't as funny as the call at midnight one.

The fact was, we had several people we respected that were friends with him, and this is because I have listened down the ages to lots of people tell me that Ellison can be extremely generous and supportive and has been so to people in the field in the past.

I'm sorry for him. He hasn't aged well, and he's finally managed to exhaust the reservoir of good will the community had for him. The incident has indeed been useful, and I am pretty proud of how the community reacted to it.

Oh - and I had read the excerpts online of Chris Priest's The Book On The Edge Of Forever, too.

Hey Claire -- Interesting stuff here.

The issue of Harlan's behavior being encouraged and indulged by the SF community for years came up over here and I think PNH nailed it in his response. The times they are a'changin. I, for one, have never had any patience for the HE crap; he started berating me once when I picked up the phone at someone's house I was visiting who _was_ friends with him (he mistook me for the lady of the house) -- I hung up on him right away. Which made everyone a little upset, but, you know: fuck that. There is no excuse for someone who behaves this way. Zero.

anna, i realize that a lot of people at clarion west were not comfortable with his behavior, and that's part of the reason why we were hearing so much about it. but what i got mostly (and i could be wrong here) is that everyone was afraid of him, and that's why no one was clearly and loudly speaking up. if i'm wrong about that then i'm wrong. it wouldn't be the first time ;)

but yes, i agree with gwenda that the times seem to be a-changin', and that's probably because the guard is changing. folks are coming into more prominent positions in sf who simply won't put up with this kind of shit, and i'm glad of it. i'm just hoping they take ellison's pass away. i don't ever want to be at a con with him.

gwenda, now you have your very own harlan ellison story to tell to the kiddies! i don't envy you, though.

OK, Light, just cut it out, all right? You keep waiting till I'm asleep, sucking all my thoughts out of my head, giving them a good wash and brush up, putting them into a logical sequence and then displaying them enticingly in a blog that's smarter, better connected and just damn prettier than mine. And all I'm left with is "what she said."

What she said, OK.

wendy, if you'd stop editing that stupid, critically acclaimed rag, then you'd have time to bloop me (that's "blog scoop".)

sobs pathetically. Who has TIME to do any editing? I split my time between headdesk-ing and trying to placate my whining laptop

I've only been in fandom (read: going to Worldcons) for nine years, but "Harlan Ellison is an asshole" is one of the first pieces of 'insider' information I ever learned. I've known it for so long I don't remember being told. It's just one of those things everyone at cons is assumed to know (on par with "the elevators will be slow"). I wish it wasn't that way. Famous people of any stripe should have trouble finding the time to be assholes, and talented, working writers doubly so.

Hi -- came here via When Fangirls Attack --

Ellison does have an unsavory history with women that goes back well before I, and probably yourself, were born -- the man's been married something like seven times, which most likely speaks for itself.

And I won't defend the Connie Willis incident. I will say that, as a longtime admirer of Ellison's work, I cringed to hear of said incident. I cringed on behalf of Connie Willis, who certainly deserves to be treated with as much respect as I'm sure Ellison would expect a peer to show him, and to be honest I cringed on behalf of Ellison. I'm very, VERY glad that I did not see the spectacle of a writer whose work has been an important part of my life for more than half its span behaving like a fool. A seventy-plus-year-old man groping a woman's breast in public, frankly, is about as pathetic an image as I can conjure up. I'm embarrassed for Ellison, since he seems incapable of feeling embarrassed himself. He should have treated Connie Willis with some dignity, yeah. But a little self-respect would have been nice, too.

On the other hand.

Your thoughts on Ellison's Octavia Butler comments...I'm sorry, but no. There's a time and a place for subtextual analysis. Mind you, neither person is someone I've ever known (I met Octavia Butler in 2004, and received a very nice -- yes, nice! -- letter from Harlan Ellison when I was a teenager, but that's about it), but I understand that Ellison and Butler were friends for several decades. I seriously think casting aspersions on this subject is...well...really not cool at all, and something that Ellison would likely take very personally, and something that -- to me -- he'd be totally justified in taking personally. Some things cross a line, and suggesting that someone had racist inclinations toward a longtime friend who recently and suddenly died...I would say that's one of them. It's in extremely poor taste.

mike, when i'm grieving over recently deceased friends, i don't compare them to king kong, especially if they're black. if he can't figure out something so simple at a time when he needs most to be giving pubic respect to his friend, then there's something really wrong with him.

and no, that's not your cue to fly out of his ass, smearing excuses for him. calling people on their racism never seems to be in good taste, does it? there's never really a good time to do it, is there? but then, calling your old, black friend, in memoriam, king fucking kong isn't in very good taste either. and he doesn't get a free pass because she's dead.

I'm not arguing with that interpretation of what Ellison said. But I do think that casting aspersions on a person's relationship with a recently deceased friend is pretty damn insensitive -- EVEN IF YOU'RE RIGHT. It's called decorum, and if it's not okay for Ellison to do without it, it shouldn't be okay for you, either. And it isn't. Sorry.

who was casting aspersions on anyone's relationship with anyone? i don't know anything about his relationship with octavia butler---or with connie willis, either. and what he says about either one, how he behaves or has behaved towards either one, in private, is none of my business.

how he behaves towards them in public, however, is my business, if i choose to make it so. what he said about butler was a public statement solicited by the media. he was asked to say something about octavia butler on the occasion of her death. and his public statement about his friend, for the ages, was a comparison to king kong. you expect me to respect that? i don't think so.

and for the record, what i'm expecting of harlan ellison isn't decorum, for fuck's sake. i like manners and good taste as much as the next gal, but rudeness is not the problem with what he said about octavia, or what he did to connie. racism and sexism aren't problems because they're rude.

Actually, what he said was that he was Fay Wray to her King Kong. Octavia Butler was rather tall, and had a rather deep voice. Ellison is rather not tall, and can be rather shrill. I'll risk being called a racist myself and say it's not an unreasonable comparison, one that probably isn't any more flattering when applied to Ellison than applied to Butler, and one that was obviously intended to be funny. I'm not naive enough to say I totally missed the racial aspect you point to, but I'm also not willing to out-and-out characterize it as racist. You clearly are, and in so doing, you're unavoidably characterizing his view of her as racist -- hell, it was pretty much your objective.

But you're right to say that it was a statement that was put out there for public consumption. As such, I shouldn't have implied it should be above scrutiny. It's not a place I'd go, because frankly, I think it's kinda fucking tacky. God knows Ellison has written and said enough other stuff that pissed people off that it's really not necessary to tastelessly drag in Octavia Butler to try and prove a point. But this is us going in circles.

wow, did you even read my original post? i was talking about my own experience with harlanness, which included two stories: the t-shirt, and the discussion over the octavia comment. i wasn't dragging in random shit, i was discussing what makes me think that harlan ellison is an asshole. basta.

I'll risk being called a racist myself and say it's not an unreasonable comparison, one that probably isn't any more flattering when applied to Ellison than applied to Butler, and one that was obviously intended to be funny. I'm not naive enough to say I totally missed the racial aspect you point to, but I'm also not willing to out-and-out characterize it as racist.

So why didn't he say "She was Fafhrd to my Gray Mouser"--?

What your subconscious tosses up unreflectively says a lot about who you are deep down. (Mel Gibson, anyone?) Calling black people monkeys - even jokingly - is Not On.

And how non-racist is he really? About as much as he's really non-sexist. Ever read "Daniel White"--? That's about as racist and vile a story as anything that Pat Buchanan's ever dredged up. I'm looking, and I can't find a single non-misogynistic story by Ellison so far. They're all prurient, stereotyped, and nasty examples of masculinist privilege and resentment of women.

He did one dramatic thing back in 1978, and he gets to claim he is the great champion of women's rights that we all need to bow down to. He makes a big deal of how he marched with MLK. Well, so did Joe Lieberman - and that hasn't stopped him from running a vile race-baiting campaign this year. Where's Ellison been during the past 30 years? How come he's never written anything like "Handmaid's Tale or "It Walks In Beauty" if he's this great feminist? Or like the cutting allegories of racism in "Martian Chronicles"--? How come he's never spoken out like Vonnegut who's still going strong, on human rights abuses? It's all Harlan, Harlan, Harlan the hero - but it's all in his own head.

You don't get free passes based on 30-year-old gestures - those laurels are mighty damn dusty by now.

preach, sister!

So very, very late to this post. Sorry. You're in the wrong filter on LJ and I kept missing your posts and.. bah. Anyway, you're on the ABW bogroll now. There's no escaping you.


thanks, T, for the no-escapey ;)

Mike: I seriously think casting aspersions on this subject is...well...really not cool at all, and something that Ellison would likely take very personally, and something that -- to me -- he'd be totally justified in taking personally. Some things cross a line, and suggesting that someone had racist inclinations toward a longtime friend who recently and suddenly died...I would say that's one of them. It's in extremely poor taste.

So is Harlan Ellison's subsequent comment, claiming that because he "discovered and encouraged" Octavia E. Butler, he's entitled to grope women and this "miserable lynching" (as he refers to the current public criticism of him for his assault on Connie Willis) therefore ought to stop.

I agree Ellison's an asshole, proved many times over, but the assumption that was expressing racism in his comparison of Ellison and Butler with Wray and King Kong is a stretch. Racism isn't this ineffable "unconscious" thing that people express whether they mean to or not. As to why he said Wray and Kong instead of Flwerwwerl and Zelkewckslioi or whatever -- perhaps the familiarity and cultural icon status of the movie had something to do with why it came to mind so readily. Was his extemporaneous remark thoughtless? Yes. Racist? Not self-evidently.

Racism isn't this ineffable "unconscious" thing that people express whether they mean to or not.

Actually, yes, it often is.



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