Friday, April 15, 2011

Dreams With Sharp Teeth

About seven years ago (Jesus), I found for sale in the college library a copy of “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and one of “The Deathbird Stories”. Beautiful books, first editions. Had I had the foresight to hang onto them they could probably pay two months rent right now. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to hang onto them as after reading them I came to an important conclusion.

I did not like Harlan Ellison very much.

Now some years later in the wake of Snow Crash and my reevalution of Neil Stephenson, I began to wonder what other writers I may have unfairly left on the dust heap. Perhaps Harlan Ellison was one of those fellows. After all I was overly sensitive at that age, and I just read The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs in Dark Descent. It was overwritten and hectoring but had a certain flare. And lots of smart people like him: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Patton Oswalt. Why not give him another shot? So I bought his seminal collection Dangerous Visions and decided to watch the documentary about him, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, to give myself a bit of an overview. Having done so I’ve come to an important conclusion.

I still do not like Harlan Ellison very much.

Ellison is in the simplest terms, a bully. The worst kind too, one who can dish it out but can’t take it. The fact that he is occasionally brilliant helps not one whit. After all even the lowest bully must occasionally flash some charisma or not even the most craven toady will follow. Make no mistake I’m not saying that Ellison does not occasionally write brilliantly. He has stories, like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” that are literally unforgettable. Stories that sear themselves to your brain, that you don’t so much read as see like vivid brain burning fever dreams that threaten to lobotomize in their intensity. What I am saying is that it is not worth wading through the other ninety percent of self aggrandizing dreck in order to get there. His occasional brilliance only highlights just how far short most of his stuff falls.

If you’ve never read Harlan Ellison he can be a little tough to get around. Though not as his followers will try to convince you, impossible. He writes mostly, but not solely science fiction and pops up a lot in his own work. If you take a shot every time you encounter the word “I” in an Ellison work you will be dead before the first page is finished. He’s basically an ugly, dancing imp version of Kurt Vonnegut (Compare Repent Harlequin Said The Tick Tock Man to Harrison Bergeron. Go! You’re welcome grad student whose dissertation I just came up with). If Kurt Vonnegut’s message was “Damnit babies you’ve got to be kind.” Ellison’s can perhaps be summed up as “Damnit babies you’ve got to be unkind.”

A lot of different things upset Harlan Ellison and he yells about them all very loudly. He stamps his feet and pounds his fist and threatens to hold his breath until his little face turns red thanks to the unfairness of politics, and religion and the kind of world where rats eat babies. Of course, nothing upsets Ellison quite so much as questioning something he believes him. You should see him throw a shit fit about file trading, if you ever want to see some fine hypocrisy. I guess we should question all systems but Capatalistic ones ey Harlan? Anyway every once in awhile Ellison composes a story around one of his tantrums and every once in a greater while that story is a work of genius. What can I say, even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut. But if there’s an author with a higher miss to hit ratio I have thankfully never encountered them.

As for the movie it’s hagiography. Not particularly remarkable hagiography either. A more appropriate title would have been "A Lot Of Famous People Like Harlan Ellison.” Well bully for them. It is this movie’s misfortune to come so close in my viewing after The Z Channel a truly warts and all portrait, that managed to convey the importance of its subject and the respect of his friends, without being a white wash. There’s a moment where an interviewee briefly suggests in the mildest possible terms, that Ellison’s devotion to making a crazed spectacle of himself has distracted others and himself from his actual work and perhaps made it so Ellison has not achieved his full potential as a writer. He is hustled off stage and never heard from again. Why would we want such a dark ray of, you know, interesting viewpoint when we can cut back to Robin William’s mugging?

Yet like the man itself the documentary occasionally shows exactly why people read and respond to Ellison’s work. Just flashes mind, flashes of the brilliance that Ellison is undoubtedly capable of. Like I said, I never said that Ellison is not capable of genius. Just that I am sick of walking through the minefield of his other stuff in order to find it. For all I care he can keep it.


Craig D. said...

But if there’s an author with a higher miss to hit ratio I have thankfully never encountered them.

Stephen King.

It's interesting to compare this Ellison dick-sucking to the general attitude toward Philip K. Dick, which puts him on a huge pedestal while being bluntly honest about his personal problems and the fact that his prose could go from beautiful to awful in the same paragraph.

I try to separate an author's persona from his or her work, and I'm sometimes successful, as with, say, Lovecraft, Fleming, and Highsmith (all of them racists), but authors like Ellison and Orson Scott Card are such unbelievable fucksticks with seemingly nothing at all redeemable about them that I've forever been turned off from the very idea of reading them.

Anonymous said...

Amen. But at least Steve seems like a genuine nice guy. I went into this doc not much respecting Ellison the hack writer and came out hating Ellison the person, wondering just what the purpose of a documentary that would have that effect is, much less who its audience is. And the movie IS about the person (or the persona), not the writer. But maybe his career itself is about the persona.

And don't get me started on Robin Williams.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Craig: Bite your tongue! ; )

It's well known that I've got a big soft spot for ole Uncle Stevie. But in all honesty I'd turn that ratio on it's head for King. I'd say only ten to fifteen percent of what he writes are real dogs. But when he writes one, it's a howler.

Excellent comparison to Dick in particular and the others in general. It just goes to show it's not necessarily what you're about, it's how you're about it. I'd be tempted to say that it's because those Authors where more successful seperating their persona's from their work. But that's pretty much manifestly untrue particularly in Lovecraft.

Having just written that though I think the answer comes to me. Lovecraft and Highsmith both wrote from places of deep insecurity (Fleming is still an exception) Ellison and Card write with the assurance of zealots. I don't mind people being wrong, I don't even mind them being assholes. I mind them being sure.

@ Anon: True. Very Very True. Something Like Gonzo has its flaws but man at least I felt like someone coming away from it would have some reason to know why Thompson was important, aside from the glowing superlatives of talking heads.

Craig D. said...

I don't despise King like some people. Cranky old snobs like Harold Bloom feel that he's contributing to the downfall of Western civilization, which I just find silly. But every time I subject myself to one of his novels, even his most popular ones, I find myself wishing I was reading Richard Matheson instead. I found The Shining to be an insipid bore, and I'd like to leave a flaming bag of dog shit on the doorstep of every person who told me Cell was awesome. (King should be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to someone recite the dialogue from that bundle of toilet paper.) His novellas and shorts have impressed me much more than his novels: I like The Mist, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and some of his crazier (probably cocaine-fuelled) shorts like The Lawnmower Man and Survivor Type. Still, I'll take the worst Matheson over the best King.

But hey, I actually wrote an essay once about why Godzilla 2000 is an excellent film, so it's not like I'm a paragon of taste.

Funny thing: with authors like Fleming and Lovecraft, their racism made its way into their writing, but I'm somehow able to, if not look past it entirely, at least tolerate it. (Some people try to defend their racism as "normal for its time," which is bullshit. I acknowledge that it's a problem while focusing on the better aspects of their writing.) But with Orson Scott Card, I've been assured that his dickheaded views don't appear in novels like Ender's Game, and yet I still wouldn't piss on a copy of that book if it was on fire. Why? I think maybe it's because Fleming and Lovecraft had redeeming personal qualities while Card is such an overwhelming jackoff. Perhaps I'm not as good at separating an author's persona from his or her work as I thought I was.

I saw Gonzo just recently. It's quite reverential, but it's not a bad movie to give to someone who wants to know who this Hunter Thompson guy is and what all the fuss is about. This Ellison flick sounds like it's made by the choir, for the choir.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Craig: Well I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree on King. I can see people not liking his eccentric later stuff but the Shining for my money is still the best American Horror story of the last fifty years or so. I like Matheson, but aside from say "Of Woman Born " I've always found his actual writing somewhat flat and declarative.

It's an interesting point you make about Fleming and Lovecraft. Though I struggle to see what redeeming features Lovecraft had, by all accounts he was pretty unpleasant to just about everybody aside from his pen pals.

The powerful thing about Lovecraft's work is it's immensity and the way it captures just how small humans are in the grand scheme of things. How there are forces so much larger than us that they could destroy our entire world by grunting in their sleep. To me, I'm able to overlook the racism because it seems such a natural extension of such profound insecurity. If you're afraid of everything of course you'll be afraid of others.

From my understanding Card didn't really go off the deep end until the last few years. And most of what I've heard from him honestly doesn't sound that different from mainstream LDS stuff (albeit usually presented much more politely). Not saying that excuses it, just pointing it out.

I stopped reading him simply because I didn't like his writing much. Ender's Game is great, but Speaker Of The Dead just made me shake my head through its entire reading.

Craig D. said...

Agreed on The Shining being the best American horror story of the last fifty years or so. It's just that Kubrick's version of that story thrilled me in ways that not a single sentence of the book did. It's not so much that I think King is a bad writer overall -- it's mostly just a case of "this guy doesn't do it for me at all." I've still got Thinner on my bookshelf -- not exactly known for being one of his masterpieces, but it's there, and I'm sure I'll be giving him another shot one of these days.

Perhaps I've just read way too much about Lovecraft -- and I do love biographies, so the answer is probably: yes, I have -- but when you read about him in depth as opposed to just quick summaries of his life and his views, a portrait similar to Highsmith emerges. They were both deeply insecure and indecisive people who clearly didn't know what the hell to think at any given moment. They both made horrible comments about Jews, and yet both had close Jewish friends.

Knowing more about why someone makes racist comments doesn't excuse their behavior, but it makes me a little more sympathetic to them when I know that they were quite confused themselves and most likely just lashing out. Card, on the other hand, is just another asshole using his religion as an excuse to indulge in hatred, and that turns me off in a way that makes me not want to be involved in anything of his, present or past.

Speaking of Lovecraft and Highsmith, I've noticed a similarity between the two. As you correctly pointed out, "Lovecraft's work is it's immensity and the way it captures just how small humans are in the grand scheme of things." I've always felt that Highsmith had a bit of this in her writing as well, with her views toward crime and punishment: "I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not." If that isn't a Lovecraftian view, I don't know what is.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well I think that Kubrick missed the heart of the story of The Shining, that of a good man destroyed by his demons literalized. But people have been having this conversation for thirty years and I doubt we'll make much headway.

Excellent observation on the parallel's between Highsmith and Lovecraft I never would have put those two together. Speaking of excellent biographies I have The Talented Ms. Highsmith before me and I'm really looking forward to it. Unfortunately I must finish a few other books first.

I have a similar problem with Card with Doug TenNapel, who writes amazing stories, with art that labels him an American Miyazaki and then pens screeds defending Terry Jones and equivocating Rob Bell with Child Pornography. It drives me absolutely batshit particularly since the theology in his work is a lot more palatable. But man he does such good work.

Matt Keeley said...

I've been meaning to read Christopher Priest's non-fiction The Book on the Edge of Forever, about Ellison's anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, which has been delayed for over thirty years. Ellison, as you can imagine, does not like Priest very much at all.

Re: Fleming: If anything, I'd say he's less racist than many of his contemporaries. Bond has a few black allies (Quarrel and a porter) in Live and Let Die, Japanese allies in You Only Live Twice, etc. I'll grant that Fleming can occasionally seem tone-deaf, especially in Live and Let Die, but I think he displays a genuine interest in foreign (to him) cultures and lifestyles.

Craig D. said...

Matt: Right about Fleming. I don't think he's as racist as he's made out to be. Critics, typically, like to focus on one aspect of a writer and ignore anything that contradicts their judgment. Happens with Phil Dick all the time. Read any given mainstream article about him and you'll be given a portrait of an insane drug user who wrote all his books while tripping balls, ignoring everything about the man that would give anyone the idea that he was a rather level headed guy whose drug use mostly amounted to legal amphetamines that had almost no effect whatsoever on his writing.

I think Fleming fits in perfectly with Lovecraft and Highsmith. Whether you think he was less or more racist than those two, the point is that all three expressed racist views (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously -- mostly the latter with Fleming) but kept close friends (a wife, in Lovecraft's case) belonging to the ethnic groups they were seemingly at odds with, and as you correctly pointed out with Fleming, their writing often includes just as many, if not more, positive portrayals of those people than negative. As I said, I feel they were less true racists and more just insecure people who were confused and lashing out.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Matt: I think Fleming's reputation as a racist gets skewed because of Live And Let Die (which in all fairness contains some pretty racist stuff) beyond that I don't see it much in his work.

@ Craig: Spot on about Dick once again. The thing about Lovecraft's Wife that kind of cracks me up was how his marriage apparently had no effect on his views. There are anecdotes about him just going off on anti semantic screeds around her with her literally having to remind him that she was Jewish.

Just goes to show you that Cognitive Dissonance is a might strange thing.

Anonymous said...

I consider Stephen King to be a hack writer without a shred of genius. Everything I have ever tried to read by him has bored me to death.

Of course you're going to write off as a mindless fanboy, well whatever... But Ellison has written many, many brilliant stories. Not just a handful as you're implying. Is he an asshole? Yeah... but so were a lot of great artists and writers throughout history. You going to write them all off, too, because you wouldn't want to have a beer with them?

Here's a suggestion... You don't like Harlan Ellison's writing? Great, that's your right. Just keep it at that and stop trying to bully (yes BULLY) the rest of us who don't agree with you. Because your article is guilty of pretty much the same things you accuse Ellison of...

Bryce Wilson said...

I stand by my statement that Ellison only has a handful of short stories worth reading. He is a remarkably scattershot writer.

I also stand by my statement that he is a self aggrandizing hypocrite. Other writers may have been assholes but they at least have the courage of their convictions. The way Ellison shirks any personal criticism as unfounded attacks while hyperventilating at everyone else makes him a coward as well.

I am bullying nobody. If you wish to read Ellison then by all means read Ellison. Just don't expect everyone to fall for him. I mean lots of people like Ayn Rand too. I'm not about to start praising her either.

I'll criticize whomever I like. And unlike you I actually sign my name and back up what I say.