Hugo reading 2018: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff

I’ll be doing the Related Work stuff interspersed with fiction categories over the next few weeks, because if last week is anything to judge by, this section can be somewhat hard work to read, because it’s lots of essays. And, like last year, I’ll probably give myself permission to skip a bit through some of the books of essays, just because there are only so many essays I can read in a row and get much out of them.

So, the first item on my list for this year was A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press). I went into this with low expectations. The only thing I knew about Harlan Ellison prior to reading this was that he is a big name in SF and that he groped Connie Willis at the Hugos and then made a particularly egregious series of non-poligies. So I started with a certain bias against him, and that did tend to colour my thinking.

The introduction by David Gerrold did not help. It is cringe-inducingly fulsome. (Also, when translated to an ePub on my Kobo, it is in haiku. This didn’t help, and I resigned myself to reading in an incredibly tiny font again, sigh). There are, we are told, two Harlans: Authentic Harlan, who is wonderful and compassionate and witty etc, but only revealed to the Select Few, and Performance Harlan, who is just too, too, provocative and iconoclastic for words, but really, if you are offended by him, that’s probably a reflection on your own lack of understanding or whatever.

I am unimpressed. Frankly, he sounds like a tosser. I tend to feel that if you are only kind, charming and delightful to those you deem worthy, and are rude and obnoxious to everyone else, thenyou are probably not a very kind, charming or delightful person…

The author of the biography, Nat Segaloff, has also drunk the Harlan Ellison Koolaid, but at least provides more content. Though I found his cheery acceptance of the fact that Harlan ‘tests’ people by behaving badly and seeing how they handle it before letting him into his inner circle somewhat disturbing.

The Hugo packet for this book consisted of the aforementioned introduction, and Chapters 1, 5, 6, 10 and 16.

Chapter 1, “Morning in the Sunken Cathedral”, is about Ellison’s early life, which was characterised by a lot of childhood bullying, some of it anti-Semitic in nature, some of it because he was a self-acknowledged brat right from the start. There’s a rather illuminating quote from Harlan here:

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of ways. Some people get surly; some people get mean; a lot of people become serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill them with their own logic or their own mouth.”

I find this interesting because I was absolutely an outsider and bullied for most of my school life (and certainly used cleverness as a weapon, it being the only one available to me), but while I carry a fair bit of social anxiety and insecurity from that, I wouldn’t say I am particularly angry. Both Ellison’s reaction and the fact that he assumes it to be universal give a fascinating insight into how his mind works…

His family is dysfunctional in some fascinating ways; while his parents were clearly a unified and loving team, his relationship with his sister was toxic from the get-go, and it sounds like there was friction with all his parents’ siblings, too.

The other interesting bit about this section is that his childhood sounds pretty unpleasant, and he is still clearly very angry about a lot of people and things from his childhood (he is still holding grudges and making his childhood bullies into characters in his stories so that he can torture them in literary form), yet he describes his childhood as a happy one. This is an interesting disconnect, and may explain a certain amount about him.

Chapter 5, “Science Friction”, is mostly about Ellison’s attitude to writing, both his own and other people’s.  This didn’t grab me, but the most interesting aspects of it were his dislike for both the term science fiction and for genres generally (he views them as ‘laziness’ on the part of publishers and booksellers), and his very pragmatic view of writing as skilled labour, rather than an art form.

Chapter 6, “Teat for Two”, is probably the most fun chapter.  It mostly discusses his work as a film critic and occasional columnist.  There are extensive excerpts from his reviews, and I feel like he probably found his calling there – being a snarky, superior sort of git with a flair for writing seems to be a good fit for film criticism.  (Actually, this reminded me of the Babylon 5 novels featuring Bester, where he winds up spending a number of years living in Paris and becoming an extremely popular literary critic.  You don’t have to be a delightful person to be a gifted critic – it’s probably easier if you aren’t…) He also expresses his optimism about the human race, which is lovely, until he mentions that people who read romance novels undermine this.  Cheers, Harlan!  If it helps, you undermine my optimism about the human race, too.

Chapter 10, “The Snit on the Edge of Forever” is mostly about an argument about a Star Trek Episode.  Ellison wrote it, the director changed it, and it was interesting to read about the process of this, but having never seen the episode (or indeed much of Star Trek), it was a bit lost on me.

Chapter 16, “The Flight of the Deathbird”, is about ageing, mental illness, his stroke, and diagnosis with bipolar disorder. In fact, this is the most sympathetic chapter, perhaps because it’s the only time where Ellison shows any weakness – he is usually far too self-satisfied and superior for me to want to do anything other than throw rocks at him.

I’m sorry, he really irritated me.

So, here are some things I noticed throughout the book that bugged me, but which I don’t know if I would have noticed without the Connie Willis stuff.  On the one hand, Ellison clearly views himself as a champion of progressive values.  He was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and in fact did a very public boycott of a state that was refusing to ratify it by living in a caravan during the convention, in order not to give any money to the state.  (Notably, this also gave *him* a lot of good publicity, which evidently didn’t hurt).  He was anti-Vietnam, and pro Civil Liberties.

His intentions were good.

But I can’t help noticing that all his most vitriolic criticisms – at least quoted in this book – are reserved for women, and they are just a little bit gendered.  I doubt he is conscious of this, but I suspect there is some baked-in, unconscious sexism there.   He also uses racial epithets like ‘Chinks’ – not viciously, but casually, in passing, when talking about going to the Chinese restaurant that his family went to when he was a child.  It’s hard to imagine that nobody has ever mentioned to him that this is not really OK any more – but it’s also hard to imagine him apologising or changing what he does for the sake of something as minor as someone else’s feelings.  He strikes me as someone who views intellectual superiority as the chief virtue, and doesn’t see why he should change his phrasing if *he* doesn’t mean it offensively.

I could be being unfair, but after reading this biography, I really don’t find myself liking Ellison any more than I did when all I knew about him was the groping incident.

I realise that this review is more about Ellison than the book, but the book is, in fact, mostly composed of quotes and descriptions of interviews with Ellison – it’s a fairly transparent look into how Ellison sees himself and the world, almost a memoir by proxy. In that sense, it succeeds; as a critical biography, it does not, since no attempt is made at criticism.  I’m not really sure how to judge it.  I think it probably does succeed in what it set out to do, but I don’t think it’s doing anything particularly interesting or striking.  And my antipathy for Ellison isn’t selling it to me, either.

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