The late Harlan Ellison, whose death at age 84 was announced on Thursday, was famously touchy about criticism. But no critic did as much damage to the writer’s reputation as he himself did. Despite having recieved many awards for his science fiction and fantasy stories, his reputation suffered, particularly toward the end of his life, from his mercurial and sometimes violent temper, which led to transgressive and criminal behavior. In 2006, he humiliated writer Connie Willis by groping her breast on stage during the Hugo Awards. Ellison claimed that the act was a joke and apologized, but it fit in with a larger pattern of boundary-crossing he boasted in other contexts.
In 1980, Ellison bragged about attacking ABC Television executive Adrian Samish sixteen years earlier for altering the script Ellison wrote for Vogage To the Bottom of the Sea. “I tagged him a good one right in the pudding trough and zappo! over he went… windmilling backwards, and fell down, hit the wall,” Ellison said. The encounter left Samish with a broken pelvis. In 1985 at the awards dinner of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Ellison punched fellow writer Charles Platt, who had criticized Ellison for a speech he felt was tasteless.
Ellison’s violence and sexual assault tainted his reputation while he was still alive; and now, they continue to raise questions about how to evaluate his work. In a measured obituary last week, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow struggled with how hard it was to balance the respect he felt for Ellison’s work and the loathing he had for some of Ellison’s actions.
“Confronting the very real foibles of the object of my hero-worship was the beginning of a very important, long-running lesson whose curriculum I’m still working through: the ability to separate artists from art and the ability to understand the sins of people who’ve done wonderful things,” Doctorow wrote. “These are two questions that have never been more salient in the age of #metoo, and I often ponder this journey I’ve gone through in my views on Ellison since my adolescence.”
Ellison’s death is a natural time to attempt to answer those two questions: to take the measure of his legacy by reexamining his life and work.
One of Ellison’s last short story collections was The Top of the Volcano, a gathering of his award-winning tales. The title was apt: Ellison was a volcanic writer and public presence—loud, furious, fire-spewing, sometimes dangerous, always impossible to ignore. He was a contentious figure who generated heated arguments wherever he went, but by dint of his energy and passion helped change American science fiction and fantasy; He transformed the genres from their pulp coloration of the early 20th century into fields of high literary ambition.
He was born in Cleveland in 1934, and grew up in the small town of Painesville, where he was often a victim of anti-Semitic bullying. He often credited his resilient and contrarian personality to the thick skin he developed as a result of youthful torments. He found escape in science fiction, not just as reading material but also in the sociability of its active fandom. As a teen, he was already editing science fiction fanzines and forming friendships with future writers, most notably Robert Silverberg, who would be his life-long pal.
He dropped out of the Ohio State University in 1953, with what he boasted was the lowest grade point average in the school’s history, and became a writer for pulp magazines. He wrote garish tales in many genres (including soft-core pornography) for publications like Infinity Science Fiction, Terror Detective Story and Exotica.
Little of his early work is worth remembering, but the pulps gave him an education in storytelling that would help him when he moved to Los Angeles in 1962 and became a TV and screen writer. Although he often quarrelled with producers, he made a name for himself in that field, most memorably by writing “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which is widely considered to be the best episode of the original Star Trek series.
The economic security he gained from writing for television allowed him to reinvent himself as a fiction writer in the 1960s. His prose became more energetic and visceral. The best of these stories—“The Deathbird,” “Jeffty is Five” —were much anthologized. His tale “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was included in The Best American Short Stories collection for 1993, an achievement that particularly pleased Ellison as a sign that he was read outside what he saw as the ghetto of genre fiction.
To be sure, even in his best work, Ellison was a limited writer with a narrow emotional and tonal range. He could do rage, terror, and alienation very well, with hectoring and loud stories that mirrored the 1960s countercultural rage at the establishment. But there was little in Ellison’s work of empathy, friendship or love. He had no gift for conveying delicate shades of feeling. It’s not surprising that Doctorow speaks of loving Ellison’s work as an adolescent. In general, Ellison is a writer whose readership leans heavily on people who read him as a teen and often outgrew him. As Tim Hodler of The Comics Journal noted, Ellison “was a perfect writer to discover in middle school or junior high.”
More important than Ellison’s own work was the encouragement he gave to other writers through his editing and mentorship. Ellison’s didn’t just push himself to improve as a writer, he did the same for the genres he was most closely affiliated with. He edited two of the most influential anthologies in the history of science fiction: Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1973). A third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, went unpublished even though Ellison had gathered scores of stories.
The selling point of these books was that they featured taboo-breaking stories, a popular way to market books in the counterculture era. But the true innovation was the high literary standards Ellison demanded of his writers. Along with fellow editors Judith Merrill and Michael Moorcock, Ellison played a crucial role in pushing science fiction and fantasy writers to abandon the blood-and-thunder prose of the pulps and write with greater tact and flare.
Many of the writers Ellison encouraged and promoted—including Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, J.G. Ballard, and Octavia Butler—became major figures in world literature. To Butler in particular Ellison was an important mentor. Unlike Ellison himself, these writers achieved a crossover success with a general audience. They weren’t just anthologized once or twice in prestigious mainstream publications, but rather won a more lasting name among fiction lovers.
Ellison’s quarrelsome personality clouded his reputation. He was quick to get into feuds and lawsuits. A dust-up Ellison had with Frank Sinatra is immortalized in a classic Guy Talese article. Sometimes he had justice on his side, as when he rightly claimed the film The Terminator was plagiarized from his work. (Ellison achieved a settlement with the film’s producers, so the debt The The Terminator has to his work is now acknowledged in the credits.) But often he did not. For example, his 2006 lawsuit against Fantagraphics, a vital independent publisher specializing in graphic novels, seems to have been frivolous and motivated by personal malice. A settlement was reached but the suit carried the real risk of destroying Fantagraphics.
Ellison’s death is an opportunity to disentangle his personal flaws from his lasting achievement with the aid of historical perspective. His macho bluster now seems a period piece—influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Nelson Algren, and paralleled by the antics of Ellison’s contemporaries like Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson.
Ellison’s push to make science fiction more literary was a victorious crusade, although other writers who made the same journey proved better equipped to write lasting books that blurred the line between fantastika and modernism. His best work—found in the collections Deathbird Stories (1975) and Shatterday (1980)—will live on as examples of superior young adult fiction. His personal violence remains unforgivable.