(Looks on the Internet)
Huh, seems some Harlan Ellison fans are very angry about this addendum to my piece in the Los Angeles Times about his passing. Well, fair enough; so, let me offer up some further points about it.
1. Why is it an addendum here rather than in the LA Times piece proper? Mostly because I asked what length the piece should be and was told it should be 900 words, and decided this bit was cuttable there and postable here. The piece was always intended for print as well as online, so writing to a specific length was a thing.
As someone who worked at newspapers before online versions of papers were around, writing to length is fun and a challenge I don’t usually have anymore (save for hitting a contracted length for a novel, which is a very different dynamic). Part of the challenge is self-editing, i.e., deciding what parts to keep and what parts to trim. This addendum was trimmable, but still said something I wanted to say, so I said it here. This is why the blog is here in the first place.
2. If it made you angry: That’s fine. To paraphrase another writer on a similar matter, hate to shake you up, but I write to suit myself.
3. Likewise, for those complaining that I did it to “virtue signal” or appear “woke”: lol, okay there, friend. Bear in mind I did this five years ago now — literally five years and a day ago — and I didn’t do it to for any other reason than I was sick of friends being harassed at conventions and having to put up with bullshit. I have a long history of writing things like this. And yes, as it happens, Ellison groping Connie Willis was on my mind, among many other incidents involving harassment at science fiction conventions over the years, when I made that my official convention attending policy.
And when people mewled that I was doing that to be seen as virtuous and woke, this is what I wrote:
I would be perfectly happy if women/minorities/queerfolk of all sorts feel like I fully support their right to go to a convention (and, in general, go through life) and not get harassed for it. The problem is not that I would be happy about this. The problem is the people who think being happy to be seen that way constitutes “sucking up.”
To the extent that my public opinions and personal ethics make other people happy, that’s great. To the extent they irritate or annoy other people, that’s their problem, not mine. In neither case do I have public opinions and personal ethics for those reasons. I have them for me.
4. I do think some Ellison partisans are not aware — or possibly don’t want to be aware — how significant and fundamentally damaging to Ellison’s reputation that the Connie Willis incident was to much of a generation of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans. Regardless of Ellison’s reasons, rationales or intent, it came across to a whole group of people as I get to do this, in front of thousands of people, and you have to take it. It would have been bad enough to do that to anyone, but to do it to someone as personally and professionally admired and beloved in the community as Willis gave it an extra dimension. It made the point that no woman, not even a best-selling, multiply award-winning, brilliant and beloved woman, could expect more from her male peers, publicly or privately.
But that’s not why Ellison did it! Well, I’ve heard lots of reasons why Ellison did it, but no matter why he did it, a lot of people took away something else from it.
But he apologized to Willis! As he should have, and good for him. But other people, including the literally thousands of people he did it in front of, get to decide for themselves how to feel about the incident. Lots of them are still angry about it.
But Ellison was a feminist! Sure. And also, he groped Connie Willis on stage in front of thousands of people. And that moment goes on the permanent record, along with all the other good and bad things he did over the course of a long and interesting life. People get to decide for themselves what it means, and what he means, to them.
5. Now, some of you may not like that some other people in your opinion overweight that single incident. That’s fine, and be aware there are plenty of people who don’t like that you in their opinion appear to want to dismiss it as inconsequential. For me, it was literally my first encounter with the man, so, you know what? It looms large in my memory and it colors my thoughts about him. Harlan Ellison was a brilliant, argumentative, cranky, romantic (in the Byronic sense of the word) volcano of a writer and person, and I loved much of his writing, enjoyed speaking to him, and admired much about him. And also, the very first time I saw him in the flesh, he groped someone I like and admire, personally and professionally, in front of an audience. I laughed when it happened because I thought it couldn’t possibly be serious or unplanned. I was wrong about that, and wrong to laugh.
And for better or worse, that moment — that action of Ellison’s — was a signal moment for me. Both in thinking about how men treat women, and also, how women were treated in a community I had started to call my own. It helped to define me, and who I wanted to be in relation to this community. I don’t want to overstate things here, and there were lots of other moments in terms of my own relationships with women and my community that mattered as well to get me where I am today (and I’ll be the first to note I am a work in progress). But this was one of the first, and it sticks out in my brain. And it sticks out in my perception of who Ellison was. You can like that or not, but it doesn’t change the fact.
6. So, here’s the important thing about all of the above: You don’t get to tell me how to feel about Harlan Ellison or what he meant to me. You also don’t get to tell me how to write or talk about him. Or, more accurately, you can, but I’m not obliged to listen or care. You can complain all you want about what I say and think, of course. And I happily acknowledge that your own personal thoughts on Ellison may be different than mine, and substantially so, based on your own experiences with him. I don’t pretend Harlan Ellison and I were great or even good friends; I was someone he called when he wanted to complain about things, and I was happy to be so. But I do get to take the sum of my experiences with him, and with them craft a Harlan Ellison in my brain, consistent with those experiences and my other knowledge of him.
This version is necessarily incomplete in terms of the whole of his character, but that’s the case of anyone who was not him (and note well that in general, our own versions of ourselves have massive gaps and elisions, because ego is a hell of a drug). This version of Harlan Ellison did any number of things I deeply admire, and also a number of things I don’t, and, obviously, one thing I consider very bad which sticks with me. The Harlan Ellison in my head is complicated, and I am content to let him be so.
7. Corollary to this, you don’t get to tell other people who are not me how to feel about Ellison, either. They’re going to have their own version in their head as well, and you are unlikely to change that. Speaking as someone who gets to see all sorts of fantasy versions of me out there in the world — I particularly enjoy the fantasy version of me who is a failed writer, propped up by my publisher, which is itself on the verge of imminent implosion, for byzantine reasons that would confuse even the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group — raging against these various homunculi does little good. They scurry about anyway.
What you can do, and what I actually encourage you to do, is speak about the version of Harlan Ellison (or indeed any other person) that you know. Your testimony in this regard is almost certainly going to be more persuasive than yelling at another person about their version of Ellison. If you make a good case, what you know of the man may be incorporated into that other person’s view of them. Certainly, my version of him has been influenced by those who knew him who have written about him, both before and after his passing.
I’m glad to know about these other Ellisons I did not get to meet, and now never will, except through other people’s eyes. He’s not boring, that’s for sure.