About Being “Great”: A Twitter Thread

Context: Someone out on the Internet was helpfully explaining to someone else that I was “No [Harlan] Ellison,” no matter how many blogs or witticisms I had. I naturally had some thoughts about that. This was a tweet thread, which I am posting here for archiving and for those of you who stay away from Twitter for your own no doubt excellent reasons.

1. So, indulge me for a minute while I say something here about a thing my detractors do, and why, and what I think about it. The thing is to avow that I am no Heinlein, or Asimov or Ellison or [Insert Revered White Male Science Fiction Writer Who They Consider a Great Here].

2. Why do they go out of their way to do it? Because it’s very important for those they admire to be “great,” for whatever values they consider great, and this is their way of telling themselves (and me, in a distaff fashion) that I will never measure up: I’ll never be “great…”

3. …no matter how many books I write or sell or how notable I become in the genre or out of it. They are denying to me the thing they consider to be the most important thing, and what they assume I consider important as well. Don’t we all want to be “great”?

4. I think it’d be fine to be “great” but “greatness,” however one wants to define it, is not up to me. It’ll be decided by others and will only tangentially have anything to do with what I do. No point seeking it; it seems a task bound for frustration and disappointment.

5. What I *can* work on is being “good.” As in: Am I playing fair with my readers and giving them work that’s to the best of my ability? Am I a helpful colleague to the people who are helping to put my book out into the world and let people know it exists?

6. Am I useful and supportive to other writers and professionals in my field? Am I proceeding with my career in a decent, ethical manner? Am I modeling the behavior that makes others in my community feel welcome and included? Am I still trying to improve as a person and writer?

7. These are things I *can* control, and that I can work on. And to be clear, I am not always as good as I could be, or would like to be. I’m imperfect and I’m lazy. As I’ve said before, sometimes I have to cosplay as a better version of myself and hope that version takes.

8. Greatness happens or doesn’t, and I may never be considered great, which is fine. I’m happy with my life and my career and I wouldn’t change either for a shot at someone else’s definition of “greatness.” Goodness, however, is work that I can do, and should.

9. So I’m not offended when someone says I’m no [Insert their version of a great science fiction writer here]. I’m not! Won’t ever be. I’m me. What I hope to be is not great but good: A good writer, colleague, friend and person. If I can manage that, it’ll be good enough.

10. Thank you for reading, and as always, to reward your attention, here is a picture of a cat.


Spice looking heroically into the distance.

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on April 26, 2021.

— JS

63 Comments on “About Being “Great”: A Twitter Thread”

  1. I for one am glad you’re no Harlan Ellison, because I’m not sure SF/F needed one person with those kinds of behavioral problems; it certainly doesn’t need two.

    (Sadly, SF/F actually has many. But there’s a particular intersection of fame + witticisms that is certainly Ellison-esque, and I for one am glad to see you skip out on the third leg of the tripod, which is being an unapologetic dick to many of the people around you.)

  2. I know very few Latin phrases, but ‘nil magnum nisi bonum’ got stuck in my brain a while back, probably due to American political stuff.

  3. Thirty years from now some writer will have to hear “You’re no Scalzi” from some next gen detractors.

  4. I have to say that this post really resonated with me.

    I was a professional photographer for almost 20 years. I “grew up” in the industry with a lot of people who are – at least within the industry – considered “great”. They are leaders in the field, they win awards and get published and are asked to represent the manufacturers and vendors of photography. And most of them have given seminars, created class series, and/or done some kind of industry education and mentoring.

    And yet, this: ” Am I useful and supportive to other writers and professionals in my field? ” rings to me.

    Because the majority of people in my former industry don’t hold those seminars or give classes or mentor out of a need to be “useful and supportive” but in order to further their own credentials and fame. And they still backbite and undercut the up-and-coming while making money off of the “education” of the people who admire them.

    I never realized how very much that bothered me until I read this thread here and realized that there are actually people who help, educate, and support others in their industry in order to be Good People and not as a different way to promote themselves.

    So thanks for that, John. And thanks for being one of the good people who sets an example for others – not in a “holier than thou” way, but just in a “trying to be a decent human being” way..

  5. I made a similar comment to your daughter. That you cannot control fame, only the quality and style of your own writing.

  6. I’ll also point out that you’re no Leo Tolstoy, David Bowie, or Abraham Lincoln either. Man, get with the program.

  7. “Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgements.” — Zephram Cochrane

  8. I like this. Basically, you do you. And I’m tired of people expecting one person to be like another person to qualify for greatness. I’m not too impressed with this amorphous greatness thing anyway. I would find it more useful for people to assess people by more concrete attributes. Then I could form my own opinion about both the evaluator and the evaluated.

  9. I love it when your posts conclude with a cat picture! After all, isn’t that a prime purpose of the internet? To distribute cat pictures and videos?
    On a more serious note, I really enjoy your attitude towards “greatness”. Definitely not anything you can control. And who gets to define greatness? I like your approach and will support you by continuing to purchase your fun and interesting books! Even if you aren’t certifiably “great”!

  10. For what it’s worth, when I see a cover blurb saying that the author is the new [famous author], I pass.

  11. sputterless sputter< Heinlein worked in a different era, in a different medium. Comparing a living author to one of Campbell's regular contributors just ain't fair. However, Heinlein's own comments make it clear that he approached writing as a craft and had fun doing it that way. John Scalzi also talks about writing as a craft and seems to be having fun. But John's career has a long way to go, and he's already covered enough diverse territory to make comparisons with anyone else kind of silly. Did I recall Starship Troopers while reading Old Man's War? Yep. Did I think about Lock In while hastily tossing an old copy of Time Enough For Love into the recyling bin? Dude, are you on crack?

  12. I blame it all on Lloyd Bentsen. Well, not all. Dan Quayle has to take some of the weight.

    Seriously, twenty-some years ago, Booklist dubbed me “heir apparent to Jack Vance.” He was certainly a major influence on me, along with a spectrum of authors from P.G. Wodehouse to Thorne Smith, but still, I get the occasional “You’re no Jack Vance.”

    And my response is, “Of course not. And I’m not trying to be.”

    I’m just writing the stuff I like to write, the way I like to write it. I just happen to be standing on the shoulders of giants.

  13. You’re no Harlan Ellison – and Tammy and I say “Thank the Goddess for that!”

    Ellison was, while undeniably talented, an entitled, litigious, hypocritical, bullying, sexually-predatory creep whose inflated view of his “genius” napalmed virtually every professional and personal relationship he ever had.

    The older I get, the more I see that Harlan Ellison was not anybody I should ever wish to aspire to….

  14. To be honest, I was on the fence about your “greatness” until Charlie came along.

    As for the cats … they’re cats. They don’t care how great the writing is, so long as you maintain their lifestyle in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed :)

  15. Because my needs are what really matters, and my needs demand you be reliably entertaining, I can say with confidence that you are doing a fine job of it.

    That you are occasionally educational and politically on-point is just fine, too.

    Keep up the good work.

  16. This has to be one of the most sage twitter threads in history (the rest of the dreck there is why I can’t go back).

    You, at least the Whatever Blog you, are an exemplar of the wisdom of knowing oneself and working to make some good persist in the world after you are gone. I don’t know you personally, but I’m continually impressed by your approach to being in the world. You may not be GREAT!(TM) in the eyes of some but you are achieving greatness everyday in the way that you comport yourself.

  17. In a slightly related vein, has anyone come up with a definition of capital-L “Literature” that doesn’t come down to a given book is or isn’t on some predefined list of “greats”?

    I guess the closest I’ve seen is something like being still widely read after X years, but this will surely include many F/SF titles that those trying to make the distinction would rather exclude.

    I have struggled with this concept for most of my life.

  18. @Mark Whybird

    Sturgeon’s Law came about as a direct result of that question. He was being pressed on whether S/F was “Literature” as most of it was crud, according to his questioner. His response:

    “All things—cars, books, cheeses, hairstyles, people and pins are, to the expert and discerning eye, crud, except for the acceptable tithe which we each happen to like.”

    Which we have shortened to “90% of everything is crap.”

  19. I didn’t know who Harlan Ellison was, but after looking him up I can’t imagine any sane person wanting to ‘be’ him.

  20. Well said. I wrote my first novel at age 60. I don’t have time to be as great as anyone. I just love writing, and hope each book I write is better than the last.

  21. I like to keep ‘the writer’ a bit separated from ‘what they have written’ in my head.

    Yeah, ‘X is a dickhead in real life’ bothers some, but me not so much. ‘Do I like the story?’ is my major consideration. When I buy a book, I’m paying that writer to entertain me, not to sit and have a beer with me.

    (And I feel the same way about actors. I judge how they play their roles, I don’t care about their sex lives, politics, religion yaddayadda.)

  22. I suspect that those who strive to be labeled “great” above all else are those least likely to achieve it.

  23. You’re funnier than Ellison.
    You’re not as great.
    Neither of you is as great an sf writer as MA Foster.
    My point exactly. Foster quit writing because he was great, but didn’t like the pay cut of being a writer.

  24. It seems to me that one of the criteria to be on the ‘great’ list is to be dead. Therefore, I am glad you are not on that list as I still look forward to the next Scalzi book.

  25. “sometimes I have to cosplay as a better version of myself and hope that version takes”
    Which speaks to my point on Athena’s post about fame. I’m sure it’s restful to be able to go home and stop playing your best self, even while you keep trying to make your everyday self better.

    Also, that’s Spice trying to cosplay Grumpy Cat.

  26. If you were as “great” as Harlan Ellison, your detractors would just call you a clone or a wannabe. Detractors gonna detract.

  27. Some would regard Not Being Harlan Ellison to be a feature, not a bug. By all accounts, Ellison was a bit of an asshole, and he certainly screwed a lot of authors out of their work with the Book On The Edge of Forever.

  28. Ellison was no Steinbeck.
    Steinbeck was no Dickens.
    Dickens was no Shakespeare.
    And Lincoln was no Lincoln (that is, the popular view has little to do with the actual man).

    I recognize these comparisons step outside sf, but I think they make the point that “greatness” is relative, and people love to hearken the “greatness” we had in the past. The “ancients” were always bigger, better, more than we are now, having fallen from the great heights we once achieved (and kids these days…)

    Or so one brand of “common wisdom” would claim.

    I enjoy your books, short-stories, et. al., and I like Ellison’s stuff less. Does that mean you’re great and Ellison isn’t? No more or less so than if I felt the other way. Personal tastes change, societal tastes and mores change. You make the money you want doing what you enjoy doing. That’s more than plenty.

  29. What a lot of these worshippers of the old gods fail to realize is that diversity works FOR them. The more diverse the field, the better the odds of finding something new that works for you.

    I’ve tried many ‘new’ authors, some I really like and some put me to sleep. And the awards these books may have gathered simply means that someone else loves them.

    Got halfway through a recent book, it was an award winner but it just plodded for me. The mere thought of reading the sequel almost stopped my heart with boredom. Move on. Happily the one I’m reading now is more my pace. (Tip o’ the hat to Cory D.)

    PS, John, if it makes you feel any better, you’re no Kate Wilhelm either ;-)

  30. Not like you need my or anyone else’s seal of approval. None the less I feel a need to acknowledge -You are a good person John Scalzi and I enjoy your work.

  31. Sigh… “fanboy gatekeepers gonna gatekeep”, it’s what they do. Nothing and no one will ever measure-up to whatever they read or watched or listened to during their formative years. And today’s culture keeps a vast majority of people from maturing, encouraging people to revel and wallow in the familiar – and consume and re-consume forever – corporations investing in a “known” commodity means that “shiny new things/authors/ideas” are not as well marketed as existing products.

  32. Personally, I think you’re a really great John Scalzi, whom I recommend unreservedly to people looking for a good read. I also appreciate your efforts to consciously and ongoingly be a better person. Thanks for being you, and let me know you to the extent that I do.

  33. I’m a bit surprised to see Ellison mentioned in the same breath as Heinlein and Asimov. Ellison was prolific, and achieved prominence due to his attention-whoring behavior, but I’d sooner classify his work as “weird fiction” than “science fiction”.

    “Greatness” is in this instance arbitrary to the point of being meaningless, as neither Heinlein nor Asimov, decent pulp hacks but no more than that, would be counted among literary “greats” by anyone’s standards. It’s like arguing who’s the greatest basketball player to ever grace the courts of the ABA.

  34. @Jhanstey nails it: You’re a great Scalzi! In fact, I’d say you’re the best Scalzi that I’ve read in ages! I work at a university library and always recommend you when people are asking for science fiction reads.

    And I’m very glad that you’re no Harlan because I find him unreadable.

  35. Though you surely don’t need my validation, here it is:

    Writing clearly is exceedingly difficult. You make it read easy. Even technical writing, even political analysis, even humor, even your feels. I value your technique and the work you’ve put into your work. I always know what you mean, and how you think about how you feel. You are a communicator. You are fun to read, even when the material isn’t fun at all.

    Let no one take that from you.

  36. 1.) Great post, great cat picture–many thanks for both.

    2.) A long time ago, at a public radio station far, far away, we had a late-night sf program, officially called “Hour 25” (it started at midnight) but more often known either as “Future Schlock” or “Grok around the clock.” We used to do dramatized readings of sf works; the voice actors included Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison. His performance as Rousseau Red Hawk in Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riders on the Purple Wage” was screamingly funny…but he was by no means great to work with. Perhaps some nastiness goes with being (and feeling that one is perceived as)…er…somewhat lacking in tallness; one could drive him incandescent simply by suggesting, in a group. “stand up, Harlan,” if he was already standing.

    3.) A relative of mine was a very successful novelist in Germany between the wars–not necessarily a literary “great” like, say, Thomas Mann (whom she knew personally and admired), but she outsold him quite handily. She referred to herself as “a first-rate second-rate writer,” was entirely satisfied with that, and would have laughed at the idea of any later author touted as “the next [her name]”.

  37. Big fan of Heinlein’s, but toward the end there it started to feel more like typing than writing – I got the feeling that he put every page on a scale and once the book hit a certain weight, he wrote a quick wrap-up and sent it off. (I know it was surely much more complicated, and doubtless involved publishers, deadlines and maximum allowed word counts, but it sure felt that way reading his last books.)

    Ellison? Meh. I enjoyed a few of his works, didn’t enjoy far more, and once he made it all about his personality as an author, I soured even further on him.

    But it still all comes down to whether I like the books. You’re on the shortlist of people whose work I actively look forward to, and an even shorter list of authors where “I don’t want to even read the synopsis. I know I’m going to love it and I’d rather it was a complete surprise!”

    Does that translate to “great?” It does for me. I don’t care (beyond keeping you at the keyboard) whether it does for anyone else.

    Keep ’em coming!

    For the record, you’re no Jane Austen, either. But she hasn’t published much new stuff lately.

  38. Not sexually harassing women is a pretty low bar, but that makes you greater than at least a couple of those names you listed. (as AlexSeanchai already pointed out)

    You’re great for other reasons too, though, as I’m sure you know. :)

  39. Greatness is subjective.
    I suppose admiration is subjective as well. However, you have my admiration for your wit, down-to-earth charm, general humility, and ability to spin some damned fine stories.
    Not to mention your seemingly idyllic life.

  40. LOL!

    Time to get a better class of haters and trolls, John.

    These are moldy and falling apart.

    Does it ever occur to this lot that they could enjoy the same kind of success if they spent less time being outraged over yours?

    You’ve been living rent-free in their minds for years, and they’re slum lords.

    Poor them.
    BTW, aren’t they the types who rant about equal opportunity and equal outcomes?

  41. Why do we need to be great? We can strive for greatness as long as we achieve successful and are happy with it i.e. house over our heads, food on table, being a good parent etc (like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), and you’ve been successful enough to pay off your mortgage many years before retirement, which is something most people can only dream of (and you should be congratulated for).

  42. The late Russell Baker, former columnist for the New York Times, once gave a speech at Johns Hopkins after being awarded an honorary degree. In it he discussed what he’d learned in the 35 years after leaving college with his first degree from Hopkins. He named five things, one of which is a meditation on the subject of greatness. It begins:

    There is a lot less greatness in the world than most Americans think there is. The useful rule of thumb is that most people who are called “Great” by newspapers, television, radio, and after-dinner speakers probably aren’t. True greatness is so widely recognized by all of us that it doesn’t need pipsqueaks to call it to our attention. You never hear anybody refer to “The Great Socrates” or “The Great George Washington”–to “The Great Iliad” or “The Great Bible.” If you did you would suspect you were being addressed by somebody who took you for a half-wit. As I felt not long ago when I heard a clergyman refer to “The Great 23rd Psalm.”

    He continued with other insights about the misapplication of the word “great,” and also discussed the trouble American presidents get into when they want to be great, an analysis that seems remarkably prescient for something written in 1983.

    So, yes, shoot for good, and let others worry about conferring the title of “great.”

  43. I have never understood that comment as an insult. Of course you’re not them! Also, the last thing we need is another Harlan Ellison, one was quite enough.

    Beautiful cat!

  44. John, you shall always be great for having pioneered attaching bacon to a cat.

  45. Nobody’s mentioned it, so will note that this reminds me of an old “Far Side” strip in which a wife nags her couch-bound husband, saying that being “Alexander the Pretty-Good” just isn’t enough.

  46. Is John Scalzi a great writer? Quite possibly so. By my reckonning, “Redshirts” is one of the greatest SF-books of this century…

    And that reminds me. It’s time to buy some more Scalzi books.

  47. Your detractors’ evaluation of you has less to do with you and more to do with their determination not to believe that SF is in decline.

  48. Not being Harlan El is not a bad goal, though, I remember an intro by Stephen King suggesting that Harlan was “the guy I want standing next to me if I have a possibly fatal heart attack.” Personality issues aside, that’s not faint praise.

    Mr. Scalzi, you’re no Roger Zelazny, either, but the only reason I hold that against you is that there is no more Roger Zelazny and no-one is being him.

  49. Ellison, Asimov, and Heinlein: I grew up reading all three. I find all three unreadable now. Yes, I know Heinlein still has a following, but I am not a member. Of the three, Asimov was hands down my favorite. I re-read his autobiography a few years ago and realized that he was a terrible, terrible person. As for Ellison, I met him once, on an elevator at a con when I was a teenager. I don’t remember anything about that elevator ride other than concluding from this brief interaction that he was a flaming ass.

  50. In my humble opinion “The God Engines” has a consistent tone that Ellison could only evoke imperfectly in his most celebrated stories such as “I have no Mouth and Must Scream,” or “Deathbird”. He tries to push it so hard that you become aware you are reading a story and the author is trying to make you feel something rather than just letting you feel it. Though I forgive him for these because of the “hate” speech by AM in the former. That feeling of being in the power of some malevolent/incompetent/inscrutable entity is very tough to pull off. Heinlein tried in “job” but umm, not so good. He was pretty weird by then.

    In terms of style, I find Ellison to be very abstract and you very visual. I can picture your work as if it’s a graphic novel or a movie, but I can never picture Ellison’s environments or people. They are really just vague outlines. So, he’s abstract and your vivid.

    I prefer your work to Ellison’s.

    As for Heinlein. Hmmm. I would compare The Android’s Dream, or Redshirts to some of Heinlein’s later batshit stuff like the Cat who walks through Walls, Number of the Beast, Friday, and I would have to say that you were no Heinlein because Heinlein did not know that he was writing something batshit, whereas it appears that you were playing with being batshit or nonsensical. You were aware of conventions and deliberately violating them carefully. Heinlein seemed to have denied the existence of any conventions. With Heinlein, you never knew when it was going to go completely off the rails, and there was sort of this feeling of witnessing an imminent train wreck. In your works, there was never any doubt you knew where you were going. Oddly, this might work against you by comparison. It’s like watching a tv show where you know nobody important is going to die and things will work out, whereas who knows what the fuck Heinlein is doing? These works of Heinlein fail pretty terribly as actual literature, whereas yours succeed but not with greatness. Does that make sense? Or else, one might say that these works of yours are playful while Heinlein’s are actually crazy and not comparable. So no, you are no batshit senile self-indulgent later Heinlein.

    How about earlier Heinlein? Starship Troopers vs. Old Man’s War? Not a fair comparison. I think of Old Man’s War as being more of an answer to The Forever War by Haldeman (which was a rebuttal to Starship Troopers.). It brought something truly new to the genre, and successfully bridged the extremes of Starship’s Gung Ho narrator with Forever War’s cynical one, giving us a very fully realized vision of the complexities of ethical choices at a Nation/world/ galactic state, Where every decision has terrible consequences. How is one ethical when all decisions are grey? That’s the question the narrator in Old Man’s War seeks to answer.

    So, I’ll stand you above Heinlein and next to Haldeman in this genre.

    I don’t find much to compare to some of Heinlein’s juveniles or early brilliant stuff. It’s just too different, but at his best Heinlein was very very very good. In my opinion Heinlein arrived fully developed and went downhill slowly (largely due to self-indulgence) you on the other hand are still going uphill.

    As for the future. Who knows? 30 years from now there will be evidence that you ate meat and imprisoned sentient cats and dogs within your house, bending them to your will. Will you be hated for this and will it overshadow the substance of your work? Maybe your politics will be vindicated and you will be lionized or they will be refuted and you will be dismissed as a writer of failed propaganda. Maybe nobody will care and just enjoy what you wrote?

    Jesus this is long! What am I doing. I got shit to do. See ya.

  51. The thing with Harlan is that every bad and every good thing known about the man seems to be true. Does the good out-weigh the bad? I’d say: Probably. Your mileage may differ. I do know that the disreputable behavior of many of these classic figures (Campbell, Asimov, Ellison) were a bad example for a lot of folks who found a refuge in SF fandom but whose personality quirks curdled in a hot-house environment. This becomes relevant to a con runner trying to uphold decent behavior.

  52. “Am I useful and supportive to other writers and professionals in my field?”

    Absolutely. I say that as someone who has benefitted from your insights and kindness to other writers.

    I try to pay forward as a writer, to remember what it was like when I started and help out new writers. I don’t think I do it as well as you do, but I try. You offer a great role model for that.

    And hey, reading your posts about exercising was one of the things that inspired me to quit procrastinating and start running in the mornings. Given how lazy I am, anyone who can manage that must be great beyond even a cat’s wildest dreams.

  53. Someone didn’t know who Ellison was. Besides reading his work, you might try to look him up on Youtube, where he has a lot of monologues.

    For Heinlein, you might want to get into the habit of looking at the copyright date, as I do for every writer, because he has vintage decades, yes, and other decades? Not-so-much: Like a household name musician going through different stage personas.

    For reading Scalzi during your formative years, how lucky you are. And I would hope that one day you broaden your comfort zone. You know, the way English teachers and serious writers advise us to do.