What You Owe Versus What You Know: Reflecting on Harlan Ellison While Black

Much of what I am as a writer I owe to years of my youth spent absorbing the stories, essays, and television episodes that fell out of Harlan Ellison’s brainpan. Normally I would assign some clever percentage of artistic mass to this amount, but frankly I can’t even put a number to it even in the name of comedy. So much of what I do as a writer comes from studying what he did as a writer, to the point that no other writer can stand within ten feet of him as an influence on me. Not the man; the work of the man. This distinction is about to become extremely important.

Being a black writer who also happens to be an Ellison fan is, at least in my world, the most complex of relationships. I have a similar relationship with Stephen King – in fact get paid to deliver lectures on that topic – but the Ellison relationship is way more complex and resonates far more deeply with me as a writer. I enjoy much of King’s work, but I would not say I am influenced by it. Nothing I write reads like King. All of the notes I borrow from his songs are related almost entirely to work ethic: write every day, read every day, and remember kids: holidays are days when you have even more time to read and write. (Note: this is advice I have gleaned but rarely followed with anything resembling discipline. Otherwise I’d have a couple of novels you could buy on top of the stuff I’ve published to date, but you can’t because, contrary to rumor, I’m a King acolyte, not fanatic.)

Ellison is different. I became aware of his work when I was young, and after being expelled from THE Ohio State University ™ – something we have in common, actually – I suddenly found I had loads of time to fill in the gaps. And there were a lot of gaps to fill: Ellison wrote any and everything, often at great length. If you think Stephen King is long-winded, spend an hour with an Ellison movie review. If you could somehow extrapolate the number of words in a typical Ellison essay into some novel manuscript ratio, you’d likely discover that Ellison wrote The Stand about ten times more often than King did (twice, for the record).

Anyhow, those gaps.

While I was slamming Ellison stories and essays (less a fan of the novels) into my head, I was at the same time very consciously taking away key lessons for my own writing. Again, I wasn’t jotting down style notes, so my work doesn’t sound like Ellison either. In the creative realm I was always the shining pupil I could never quite embody in any of the schools I was summarily kicked out of. Despite even this education, none of my work looks or sounds like my sensei, but you can tell I have clearly honored their systems. My lessons were largely dictates in permission, essentially clearing the way for me to pursue what I wanted to write even when what came out didn’t conform to The Rules. Ellison showed me that writing long was okay, so long as all the lines earn their keep. He made it okay for me to pursue dangerous ideas and the boon of irreverence and how to fight with a pen. He showed me that punching down to an audience was nothing to be overly proud of. That was the curriculum.

I met Ellison one and a half times at a comic book convention in Columbus, Ohio in 1999 at which he was a keynote speaker. I was at peak Ellison worship at that point, possessing what I’d call a “cute” collection of Ellison work (about 20 books then). After figuring out how to log back into my old Livejournal account, I found this passage from 2005 describing the “one” part of the “one and a half” number of meetings:

I spoke to him only once.

I waited in a long line at a comic convention in Columbus back in 2000 or something, waiting for him to sign something for me. I had bought a book – “I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay” (which I owned before, but had since lost) – but when I got up to him, I held out to him a photocopied piece of paper to sign. I told him that I was a writer too, and that this passage he had written was inspiring to me. He read it over and chuckled. It was a paragraph about Columbus, Ohio, about how conformist and average it is, about how it was the number one test city in America and how that isn’t the indicator of taste, but the complete and utter lack of taste. I kept a copy of that paragraph in a journal I wrote in at the time, intent to never be guilty of the crime my land was known for. He signed it and said, “Man, that was a long time ago.” I said, “Ain’t much changed” and we both chuckled at that.

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about Columbus or otherwise heard me go on about gentrification, you’ve likely heard me drop that test market gem. Well, I got it from Ellison when I was kid. At the time I used the bon mot as fuel to keep my writing original, but over the years that one statistic (and its many implications and indictments) stayed with me, pinned to a carrot-stick just inside my field of vision. Everywhere I looked in my city I could see it. That single paragraph about Columbus became a huge swath of the DNA of my activism and why I organize events the way that I do. It was an eighteen year old snippet to him, but because it spoke to everything I knew about where I was from, at, and likely to be, it became source code in my operating system. There are things I have done –won awards for – because of that paragraph, which calls to mind another writing lesson that is achingly common but that Ellison so thoroughly embodied in a unique way: never let anyone tell you that writing can’t create change. A paragraph I read once while failing at life in my mid-twenties later made me a better writer, revolutionary, and organizer. Given all of that, it arguably made me a better person. And Ellison kept doing that to me the whole time I pursued his work: challenge, shock, dismay, teeth-suck, awe, application, repeat.

harlanellisonsiganture1

I want to mention being black again because Harlan Ellison was, among a great many other things, problematic in this area from time to time, and it’s important to me to unpack this a little now that nothing else can be done.

No one pointed out with more frequency or volume than Ellison himself that he marched for civil rights and helped usher in one of the most powerful voices in fiction, Octavia Butler. At the same time, because he a) battled convention as a matter of course to the point of religious fervor, b) had a rampaging ego, and c) enjoyed holding a grudge the way some people enjoy a post-coital cigarette, he could undercut a reasonable platform with very unreasonable behavior in ten seconds flat. Mind you, these are not personal projections; these are the expressions he had no problem displaying publicly, in front of thousands of people or the eternal page. Like many people, he appeared to believe that proximity (no matter how old or fleeting), success, hard work, and the best of intentions gave one unassailable insight and the right to say whatever they wished so long as they could back it up smartly enough and be willing to weather the potential consequences. So marching for civil rights meant he had, in his mind, earned the right to drop a colored person joke or hyped-up slang bomb here and there, or, as he did in the summer of 2009, rant that he should “bitch-slap” black writer K. Tempest Bradford because he didn’t like something that appeared in her blog…after calling her an “NWA”. He was basically That One White Friend With The Mouth (with a liberal dose of The Old White Guy Who Covets The Past Too Much). This type of cat is ubiquitous in this day and age, but twenty years ago, when it was okay for America to ignore black issues wholesale, he kind of stood out as one of the first notable problematic allies, particularly in the literary community, and especially the science fiction community, where a black science fiction writer was as rare as, well, a black science fiction writer. He would chalk these behaviors up to being your problem and over-sensitivities, not his; or on his better days, concede that he may have misspoke, but with the best of intentions and to preserve his record and reputation as one of the good guys.

But much of this – essentially anything about him outside of his work – were things that came to me after I had already graduated from his institute of literary merits. By the time he became the kind of problem I would normally rail against, I had already gotten everything from him that he had to offer. I was already the writer I was becoming, already put the lessons to use. I don’t mean to suggest he was irrelevant; that’s not even remotely true. But I couldn’t retract my abilities once the vine had soured because my harvest had long been picked. By the time he called Bradford an NWA it was years after I had already acquired my diploma, and seven years before I would meet Bradford for myself at a writing retreat. Interestingly enough, Ellison never came up in any conversations we’ve had then or since, and I consider Bradford a friend. Mind you, I didn’t have to mention any of this here because Tempest is a class act and has allowed for people to grieve their friend/icon/associate as they see fit. But I do feel that Ellison’s take on what he considered “political correctness” (which was not a very good or even functional definition to begin with, as near as I could tell; he was clearly wired to read any criticism by at least black writers about the racism in their field – or at least him – as highly suspect over-liberalism) was wrong, dated, and misapplied. In turn, he made bad decisions because he was intractable about what racism he might contain regardless of who he knew, what he’d done, or had introduced to the world.

Fortunately, anti-political correctness wasn’t one of the things I learned from Ellison. If anything, Ellison was a key component in helping me build the arsenal it takes to question a position like the very one he was espousing. He famously didn’t interact with the internet much, and so was largely shielded from the maturation of “political correctness” from a Reagan-era cop-out to a viable critical theory toolbox. Given the right platform and opponent, he would have gotten served on this matter in 2018. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you meant; what matters is what you did. And there aren’t enough Octavia Butler books in the world that would allow me to throw another black writer under the bus so I could keep my pantheon pristine.

But I must be honest in both directions here: Harlan Ellison made me the writer that I am, and he was prone to generate as many antagonisms as he sought to destroy. Any eulogy you read that doesn’t at least hint at that dichotomy was written by someone on a deadline, on a mission, or, as we say on the East Side, on some other shit. There are ways to honor the work of someone and not the person. Or deciding against that course, to honor the man and not the faults. Or failing that, to honor the lover but not the fighter. Or deciding against all of these treks, to at acknowledge and move on. I cannot tell you what you should take away from his life. I can only express what I have taken away from his life. No one can erase his genius, and no one should erase the lessons of his too-human failings. It is up to each of us to decide what the balance between the two should be for ourselves, whether we put 2000 words in the public sphere to it or not. The legacy of his work is secure, and that’s all that’s left of the man. Acknowledging the full breadth of the man are not shots at his legacy. They are lessons.

And Ellison, without question, taught me that too.

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FIVE HARLAN ELLISON WORKS YOU SHOULD READ IF YOU’VE READ NOTHING

1) Jeffty Is Five (Short story)

2) Grail (Short story)

3) Paladin of the Lost Hour (Short story)

4) Mefisto in Onyx (Novella)

5) “Finding A Worm of Evil In The Apple” from Harlan Ellison’s Watching (Legendary movie review of Gremlins. Yes, that Gremlins.)

(Note: I could have provided links to some or all of these for you to read but that is an act so anti-Ellison I would never do it. Go to the library, you heathens.)

 

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