1977 - You Don't Know Me, I Don't Know You [Ellison/fandom]

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Gwyneth M905
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1977 - You Don't Know Me, I Don't Know You [Ellison/fandom]

Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 12:05 am

“You Don’t Know Me, I Don’t Know You”
Ellison, H. Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed. pp. 19-32. The Borgo Press. San Bernardino, California. 1984.
The note on the introductory page also states: “This essay appeared as the Introduction to the “Harlan Ellison Issue” of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1977.”

Bear with me folks, it’s been a long time since I’ve tried to write anything of substance, and I’m dealing with an intellect and writing ability much greater than my own. I thought this essay was apropos, as it deals with being ghetto-ized as a “science fiction” writer, a look into Ellison’s creative writing process, and how he is perceived by his fans and detractors, many of whom start rumors about him without fact checking.
Because this essay was written as an introduction for the Magazine of SF&F it is written for fans and addresses us directly.

Please do try to find a copy and read it in its entirety, if possible, before responding. I can pull quotes from the essay, but it doesn’t do it justice. I’ll try to summarize it here for those folks who can’t get their hands on a copy.

He begins with a condemnation of the publishing industry. "Science Fiction" as a category has been, at least at the time of the writing of this essay, relegated to the lowest rung of the carrillon bells. As an example, Harlan notes that Fritz Leiber's first novel in 8 years:

"...isn't as worthy of attention as the first novel of an actor, no matter how well it's written.. it isn't as important as Sybil Leek's astrological bullshit...it isn't as important as a pair of westerns...it isn't as important as a six-pack of insipid romantic novels...? Why is that asshole Ellison angry?"

He condemns fans for not putting their money where their mouths are because they don't know the realities of life for working writers-- that the writers must "sell themselves" to survive and make a working living.

One of the strongest quotes is the following, which I take to heart. I was one of those Ellison fans who wondered just how much of his work was his life and how much was fiction.

Harlan writes:
"You don't know me, and I don't know you.
I don't know any of you who write me letters and tell me either how my stories have altered your lives immeasureably or how my stories are sick and twisted and how I obviously hate women because I had a dog eat a girl in one of them.
How can you know people who refuse to permit your humanity? How can you relate to people who either see you as a monster whose works are created solely to shock and corrupt the Natural Order, or who deify you like the shade of Voltaire?
How can I know you, when you choose to read craziness into my words? When you think every story I write is an accurate and faithful representation of my life? When, if I write about homosexuality or drug addiction or venality or violence, you start your imbecilic rumor-mill that I'm gay, a junkie, greedy beyond rationality or a crazed killer?" (p.25)

Harlan then recounts an episode at a convention where a rumor was sparked that he had thrown a fan down an elevator shaft. This was based on a fan’s incredibly rude behaviour towards Harlan, and Harlan’s self-defense move against the fan, which didn’t hurt him, merely moved him out of the way, and backwards into an open elevator.

The essay ends with the writer’s plea, no – demand—that fans realize that they will never know the mind of the writer, and he will never know them.

For discussion: Why has Harlan’s work been confused with his life? What works in particular seem to draw ire and confusion?
Why is he so often the target of ‘slings and arrows of misfortune’; and grist for the rumor mill?
Why do his fans demand to know him, like a celebrity, rather than allow him to work in peace and let his works speak for themselves? Is this something that Harlan would perhaps like? Are there other writers of his stature who attract this much attention in the magical realism field? Do we ask too much of Harlan? Do we ask too much of his time and attention, perhaps time and attention better spent writing?

rich

Re: You Don't Know Me, I Don't Know You

Postby rich » Tue Sep 12, 2006 6:17 am

Gwyneth M905 wrote:Why has Harlan’s work been confused with his life?


Because he makes no great distinctions between his work and his life. The man seems to be better known among the casual fan for his lengthy introductions more so than his stories.

When a writer mines so much of his life to inform the reader, it's somewhat disingenuous to demand that fans will never know the mind of the writer so stop bugging him. It's not beyond the pale for a reader to want to question the writer, to determine the writer's motives, to want to know the writer, especially if that writer has touched the reader through his or her art.

And it's no secret that Harlan is a "performer". The man loves the spotlight and he's built his reputation, good and bad, on the basis of not only his stories, but his fights and his mistakes and his triumphs. He shares the most minute details of his life, and I don't think he's being entirely honest with himself with this essay.

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Postby Carstonio » Tue Sep 12, 2006 7:00 am

Harlan is one of those people who produce extreme reactions, because he's not shy about sharing his opinions. Almost no one is neutral about Harlan. People would crawl on their hands and knees through steaming monkey shit to either save him from the cauldrons of hell or to throw him feet first into those cauldrons.

In one interview, Harlan said when people come up to him and talk to him like he's Steinbeck, he picks his nose as a way of staying human. I can understand his desire to not be deified. Not that I've ever been deified, not even close. But I hate being the center of attention, because people are watching to see if you screw up. (I once considered running for public office in my community, before realizing I don't have the fortitude to deal with negative feedback from voters.) That deification means that you have no private life. I couldn't have dealt with the fallout from the Connie Willis situation if I were in Harlan's place - I would have turned into a Salinger-type hermit.

I see this essay as a precursor to "Xenogenesis" and the F&SF movie columns about SF fans having no sense of humor.

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Postby Jon Stover » Tue Sep 12, 2006 7:03 am

I suppose the other thing is that when the SPIDER forums stray into areas of analysis that Harlan disagrees with about both his stories and essays, he's shown a tendency to pop up and tell everyone what the story means and/or why a particular interpretation is wrong.

Or in other words, Harlan's intention is one with the content of his stories and essays, according to Harlan. Jeffty is Five = The present devours the past; The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore = Get busy and make something of your life; The Whimper of Whipped Dogs = People suck; On the Slab = People suck; In the Fourth Year of the War = Revenge is fun, and so on, and so forth.

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Postby Jan » Tue Sep 12, 2006 9:04 am

I don't have the essay, so I can't go into anything that Gwyneth didn't mention. I once read a library copy, and I hope my comments are not too far off.

There always was an undercurrent of self-elevation in Harlan's works, which tends to give average mortal readers the impression they're not worthy of him, which is a common protective mechanism (although he's often unexpectedly patient and forthcoming). Then there's Harlan's continuous battle with stupidity, which this text is a natural outgrowth of. Most SF&F writers have had their issues with fandom and meeting their readership at conventions, long before Harlan. Gerrold had characterized SF as an adolescent genre - the fans love to bicker, take sides and see controversies unfold (witness the recent Harlan/Connie debacle). Of course, all of those who are inside the genre (the writers) only meet a sample of their readership and hardly know a thing about the rest. Anyway, what stuck in my mind about this essay was the fact he complained about the lack of respect and recognition Leiber was receiving, which was also really a result of people's stupidity and inability to appreciate what he considers good genre writing - to the detriment of those who spend their years producing it (including himself). The amount of times he did this sort of thing indicates that besides trying to help his friends I think perhaps he's also sort of subconsiously trying to ensure his own immortality, like almost every writer does in their own way. After all, that what writing is, immortality. Meeting the common fans MUST always be a disappointment because they destroy the writer's illusions of having a shot at being fully appreciated.

Jan

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Re: You Don't Know Me, I Don't Know You

Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 10:24 am

rich wrote:Because he makes no great distinctions between his work and his life. [snips]And it's no secret that Harlan is a "performer". The man loves the spotlight and he's built his reputation, good and bad, on the basis of not only his stories, but his fights and his mistakes and his triumphs. He shares the most minute details of his life, and I don't think he's being entirely honest with himself with this essay.


Hi, Rich, great response! (and thank you for your kindness in not pointing out all of the flaws in my little post):D

But wouldn't you say also, based on Harlan's own confession in the essay that he takes on the voice of characters that he is "not", that he conforms the truth to fit the story -- that he may rewrite his own life-- in his stories and his introductions to tailor them to the purpose and points he is trying to make?
Perhaps he is also not being honest with us about his life, which is fine, a writer lies for his living. Perhaps it is we who are being naive about Harlan's disingenuity in his essays and stories. I am not saying that he did not and has not done and accomplished all of the wonderful things he has, just that, as in his novel, All The Lies That Are My Life, we shouldn't necessarily believe all we hear or read about him, even if it comes from him. :wink:

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 10:30 am

Carstonio wrote:Harlan is one of those people who produce extreme reactions, because he's not shy about sharing his opinions. Almost no one is neutral about Harlan. People would crawl on their hands and knees through steaming monkey shit to either save him from the cauldrons of hell [snips] That deification means that you have no private life. I couldn't have dealt with the fallout from the Connie Willis situation if I were in Harlan's place - I would have turned into a Salinger-type hermit.

I see this essay as a precursor to "Xenogenesis" and the F&SF movie columns about SF fans having no sense of humor.


Hi, Carstonio,
Yeah, I hear you, I definitely fall into the former category--Harlan is a mensch as far as I'm concerned and needs to be kept around to keep writing as long as possible. He's a genius. But I worry that the deification keeps him from his work--that fans' intrusion into his private life and doings distract him from doing the very thing that gives him the place in the pantheon to begin with.
What do you think?
Shameful admission: I remember reading "Xenogenesis" a long while ago, but can't find it now -- could you give me the citation so that I may re-read it and compare/contrast it with this piece? Thanks so much!

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 10:35 am

Jon Stover wrote:I suppose the other thing is that when the SPIDER forums stray into areas of analysis that Harlan disagrees with about both his stories and essays, he's shown a tendency to pop up and tell everyone what the story means and/or why a particular interpretation is wrong.

Or in other words, Harlan's intention is one with the content of his stories and essays, according to Harlan.


Hi, Jon,
As Snowy would say in the Tintin comics WHOAH!!! Yikes, I hope Harlan doesn't read this thread. Or perhaps it would be great if he did, I don't know. Yeah, Harlan is a very straightforward writer, very outspoken, I agree with you. That's why I brought up this particular essay, it seemed to say "don't bug me" to fans.

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 10:46 am

Jan wrote: Anyway, what stuck in my mind about this essay was the fact he complained about the lack of respect and recognition Leiber was receiving, which was also really a result of people's stupidity and inability to appreciate what he considers good genre writing - to the detriment of those who spend their years producing it (including himself). The amount of times he did this sort of thing indicates that besides trying to help his friends I think perhaps he's also sort of subconsiously trying to ensure his own immortality, like almost every writer does in their own way. After all, that what writing is, immortality. Meeting the common fans MUST always be a disappointment because they destroy the writer's illusions of having a shot at being fully appreciated.

Jan

Wow, Jan, I think you nailed it. Harlan has spoken and written many times about the elitist attitude he has that some people are better than others -- why?-- because they DO THE GREAT THING that is inside them. He has referenced Simon Rodia who built the Watts Towers as an example of someone who was a day laborer who nevertheless built something that is considered great art. He makes the point that any of us could create something but are just too goddamned lazy to do it.
Which brings us to the fans. Meeting the common fans would be a disappointment would then be a double whammy because not only do they have the affront of not being educated enough to appreciate good genre writing when they read it, but also not reaching for that GREAT thing within themselves and instead being mere CONSUMERS instead of PRODUCERS like Harlan is.
Because Harlan WORKS. That man works his ass off. And I think it must really piss him off to have someone whose only claim to knowledge of him is that they consumed--purchased one of his books--behave in a way that doesn't acknowledge his rightful status as the man who CREATED that book, that world, that piece of immortality.

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Postby Carstonio » Tue Sep 12, 2006 10:48 am

Gwyneth M905 wrote:Shameful admission: I remember reading "Xenogenesis" a long while ago, but can't find it now -- could you give me the citation so that I may re-read it and compare/contrast it with this piece? Thanks so much!


No problem. The essay appeared in an issue of Midnight Graffiti sometime in 1990, I believe, and also (in a censored version) in Isaac Asimov's magazine that same year. But it's easiest to find in the revised "Essential Ellison" from 2001.

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Postby FrankChurch » Tue Sep 12, 2006 1:52 pm

This was from a much angrier Harlan. Todays Harlan is pretty chummy with many of his "fans," so to speak. He learned that candy and sunshine is sometimes better then black belt lacerations.

rich

Postby rich » Tue Sep 12, 2006 2:14 pm

Harlan Ellison, like many writers (or, rather, like writers who try to stretch the boundaries of their genre), seems to have a love/hate relationship with his readers. I don't mean he actually hates any of his readers, except me, maybe, but that when he is writing and when he is pushing the genre, he gets a lot of open mouthed breathers who want to know what happened to the A BOY AND HIS DOG novel.

Whether he likes it or not, HE is a science fiction writer. That's his label, and I think he's been trying to rid himself of the label for some time. However, when he shows up at science fiction conventions, it just reinforces the label.

I think Jan had a good phrase: "undercurrent of self-elevation". I'm not entirely sure what that really means, but I think it may have something to do with HE is a better writer than the usual science fiction reader can grasp. At least that's what I think he thinks.

And maybe he doesn't. But this essay in particular, and Xenogenesis, which could be the paternal twin to this one, shows the frustration of having to deal with us, the readers. And it's not just the readers that bug him, it's that we're into science fiction and big breasted women wearing sock bras (thanks, Jon) and tiny waists and we've got pimples and the only part of the outside world we exist in is the one in our minds. We're not even literary snobs, we're just comic book geeks who stumbled upon someone who can actually write above the comic book level.

Obviously I'm not talking about anyone here, but the general level of fandom may not be that much different than the general level of those reading romance novels: They just want the usual and anyone trying to rise above the usual is getting "uppity".

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Postby Carstonio » Tue Sep 12, 2006 2:41 pm

rich wrote: the only part of the outside world we exist in is the one in our minds.


In another thread, I speculated that SF fandom may have a high percentage of people on the autism spectrum.

They just want the usual and anyone trying to rise above the usual is getting "uppity".


I've heard that Stephen King's "Misery" is really an allegory for how King feels treated by his fans, but I don't know if that's true. Do you know if his fans revolted when he first began publishing non-horror like "Different Seasons?"

I think it's interesting that John Irving's "The World According to Garp" deals very little with Garp's relationship with obsessive, controlling fans. Most of his encounters with readers are negative, like the woman lecturing him about making fun of people with problems.[/quote]

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Postby Jon Stover » Tue Sep 12, 2006 3:04 pm

I don't think Garp could have dealt much with obsessive fans -- Garp was the first bestseller of Irving's career. So instead it generated obsessive fans...

Throw some of this into the mix:

1) Harlan started as a fan, doing fannish things.
2) When you don't have enough fans, your books go out of print and then you probably long for fans.
3) Are sf fans harder to deal with than, say, fans of sports teams?
4) Are print sf fans harder to deal with than Trek fans?*
5) Harlan needs to buy a new sweater or sweatshirt or whatever that red thing is.

*I ask this last because I tend to see Trek fandom, for all its costume balls and Klingon opera, as having a healthier male/female ratio than sf (Trek fandom was basically invented by women) and as being far less enamoured of, for lack of a better term, the culture of meanness.**

** By culture of meanness, I mean the engrained love of putdowns, verbal barbs and half-baked intellectual haughtiness that some (not all, but some) sf fans and professionals have wallowed in for decades.***

*** By decades, I mean measurements of time that group ten years together in one unit called a decade.

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 12, 2006 3:52 pm

Good points about the fannish types, and also about the need to keep fans to keep readership going. But what happens when the pressure from fans stops the work in its tracks? Don't we as fans, as mere consumers owe more to Harlan than to constantly nudge him?

Another quote from Harlan, this time from the introduction to Slippage
"(But there is an aspect of the reader gestalt that is not only troubling, it's terrifying. Not all, but some of one's readers become obsessive and act as if a writer is denying them their mainline fix if they don't get a new book when they want it. No matter that one has more than sixty other books they can enjoy...they want the next one. And they demand it! They write and complain, as if the writing and publishing of a book were akin to daily milk delivery. It creates in the writer a tension that becomes unbearable, that can even freeze the book in its progress toward publication." p.xxii Ellison, H. Slippage. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. 1997.

OK, let me type a disclaimer -- I love having access to Harlan. Every time I have met him in public or spoken with him on the phone he has been a charming and polite man, a lovely man. But I've never called Bradbury, when I was younger, although I read all three volumes of his autobiography, I didn't call Asimov (although I *did* write him a fan letter.)

I don't think that print fans are necessarily more obsessive than Trek fans, but I wouldn't know -- I'm a Dr. Who fan, and the Gallifrey conference offers unprecidented access to the writers and actors and creators of the show. I think it's great that Harlan and Susan make themselves so very accessible to us, as fans, I just worry about burning them out.

(Rich, I've *gotta* find "Xenogenesis". My copy of The Essential Elllison is the wrong version.)


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