Harlan Ellison: No Easy Legacy

Harlan Ellison died the other day.

Let me be straight with you before we go any further. Harlan Ellison was an asshole. It’s okay to call him that because he would agree with you. But he was, to many, the kind of asshole you could enjoy listening to. The kind that could insult you to your face and make you smile anyway. You know, that kind of asshole.

Let me be straight with you before we go any further. Harlan Ellison was also the other kind of asshole. The kind who goes too far, who doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, who hurts people, who crosses the line. The kind that could make people leave a room crying, make them consider quitting writing, or even grope them publically thinking they are being cute. You know, that kind of asshole.

For some it’s not okay to call him that because they respect the man and his work. For some it’s a zero-sum game, and admitting they crossed the line means it’s no longer okay to respect the person on other levels or their work. It’s the reason The Cosby Show is no longer shown on the air. I know I can’t listen to Bill Cosby’s comedy anymore. It’s just ruined for me.

But admitting to someone’s faults is not a zero sum game. We admit HP Lovecraft was a racist but still love his horror. Isaac Asimov was an unrepentant groper of women back in the day, to the point where the chair of the Chicon III convention wrote a letter to him in 1961 inviting him to give a lecture on “The Power of Posterior Pinching.” Yet his work is still respected.

Aside from separating the work from the person, we also feel compelled to defend the person as well. It’s not easy to love a piece of art but hate the artist, or, at least, something that they’ve done. We’re torn between trying to explain away these actions as being part of a bygone generation, or that they didn’t really mean it, or that that we’re better than that now, that things are different and that was in the past.

Things are different, yes, but they only become different when we acknowledge these things as wrong. To wave it off as a product of the age is to dismiss the problem.

This past week, actor Terry Crews went before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about toxic masculinity and how he used to be part of the problem. He also talked about his own experiences with sexual assault, when he was grabbed by the genitals by a Hollywood bigshot, being told who really has the power.

And yet the response to this by some was to question Terry’s strength and masculinity. To say that they would never let someone do that to them. Why didn’t Terry punch him in the face? As if that was the only correct response. And, of course, implying that Terry was weak for not doing something.

So, back to Harlan Ellison. In 2006, at the Hugo Awards, author Connie Willis was introducing Harlan Ellison, and the two banter a bit on stage playfully, with Connie asking if Harlan is going to behave himself, and Harlan saying repeatedly, “No” to the audience’s laughter. He puts the microphone in his mouth like he’s a child. Then, at one point, he grabs Connie’s breast.

He crossed a line.

Some people will look at the video of the event and say he’s just playing. That it was just an improve moment demonstrating his childish behaviour (Harlan himself, after apologizing for the event, would call the behaviour “puckish”)

He still crossed a line. Full stop. You can read more details of the incident here: https://scendan.livejournal.com/586135.html

Which brings me back to thinking about those men who asked why Terry didn’t punch his assaulter in the face. In the light of Harlan’s act (which the audience lapped up) some asked why Connie didn’t push back, so to speak.

First off, you’re in public, and you’re painfully aware of that fact. You, more than anyone, are aware that all eyes are on you. You try to keep things going like it’s normal, because the show must go on, or because you don’t want to disrupt the party, or you’re just afraid of what might happen next. You want it to be over, and engaging or fighting back keeps the situation going rather than ends it.

Secondly, she should not have to push back, any more than Terry Crews should have to punch a producer in the face for grabbing his crotch. By focusing on the “should haves” you make it about the victim, when it should be about the assault.

Anyway, learning this about Harlan put a bit of tarnish on him, but in some ways it’s a stain I always knew was there. Just expressed in different ways.

In professional wrestling there is something known as kayfabe, which is basically the wrestlers staying in character, even when they’re not in the ring. I don’t just mean the smack-talking interviews either. Some wrestlers will stay in character outside the ring as long as they’re in costume, even if they’re eating at a restaurant. It’s funny to think of wrestlers as method actors, but there is a method to the madness.

Everyone knows professional wrestling is fake, but as long as the wrestlers are in character the fans suspend their disbelief. It’s an unwritten contract between performer and audience.

I think the reason everyone laughed at Harlan’s grope is for a not dissimilar reason. Harlan is a product of his own kayfabe. The audience sees him not as a human being, but as a character, a walking piece of performance art. As a result, his actions are seen through that lens.

Think about it for a moment. How many people look at President Trump the same way? How many people excuse what he says and does at rallies because they don’t think he really means that? How many people excuse his Tweets for similar reasons? And honestly, Trump acts a lot like a professional wrestler doing kayfabe.

So, yeah, I didn’t want to go down the Trump Hole, but I did, because I think it’s important NOT to dismiss things because we tell ourselves it is part of a performance.

As much as I admire Harlan Ellison as a writer and (mostly) as a person, I’m glad I didn’t meet him. At least, not in the sense of having my work “judged” by him.

See, writers are needy creatures by nature, and while we sometimes need a swift kick in the butt and to get over ourselves when it comes to self-pity and writers block and the like, not all of us have thick skin, and even those that do can have a gap in their armour.

In an interview on Prisoners of Gravity, talking about how to be a writer, he made me believe that I could do it, by being classically blunt. He said there was no magic bullet, and that you just had to put your butt to the seat and put in the work. Anyone could be a writer. That’s the secret.

But at the same time, I’m equally sure that if he ever reviewed any of my early works, up to and maybe even including what I’ve written recently, he’d eviscerate it and make me question my purpose in life, stumbling around aimlessly in the streets as if I’d witnessed a Lovecraftian horror. I’m no stranger to criticism, and I have a thick skin, but I know there’s a big red self-destruct button hidden in the lower basements of my psyche, and he’d know exactly where to find it.

Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. I never will, and that’s probably for the best.

While I admire the work, and often times the man, he crossed the line from time to time. And he should have been a better man than that. I admire his fearlessness, but not his dickishness. I want to be a better person than that. More importantly, I should not want to BE him. But I also want to not be afraid to speak my mind.

Perhaps that should be the legacy of Harlan Ellison the man. To enjoy the parts of him we can respect, and to try to be better than the parts we don’t.

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