My brother's oldest son, Stuart, was asked by his teacher what he liked about school. He answered, "It's not about what I like, it's what I have to get used to."
My brother's oldest son, Stuart, was asked by his teacher what he liked about school. He answered, "It's not about what I like, it's what I have to get used to."
Here's what the local newspaper's horoscope had to say for those lucky enough to be born today, whether this year or earlier:
During the next four weeks you need to keep a low profile and not take any gambles with your career or money. The stars are not dire, but your timing could be off. By the end of October, you will be rolling in the clover.
And Freewill Astrology had this nice thing to say for the upcoming week:
Albert Einstein was extremely famous during his lifetime. Although he had no publicity machine promoting him, his face became an iconic symbol for genius. "Einstein" was, in effect, a brand name that made people think of creativity, wisdom, and imagination. There were times that bothered him. "I am no Einstein," he said, preferring to be his raw self rather than the idol on a pedestal. I offer his example up to you, Libra. You can benefit from slipping away from, ignoring, and even rebelling against your image right now. Return to the source of your ever-evolving life energy.
Stevereads tackles the history of the first Star Trek books, which were collections of stories from the original series. I well remember being mesmerized by the covers and the thrill of reliving this series, whenever I liked, in book form. (Man, I'd have loved Wild Wild West novelizations too!) (interesting that those two shows were contemporaneous). Just seeing those images of worn and creased covers parts a veil in my heart and I am 11 years old and standing in front of a shelf of books at Crabtree Valley Mall's Walden Books (it was two words back then) and calculating how I could get every one of those books for my very own. The nascent collector and hoarder of books was born.
Steve Donoghue has apparently been around since the days of the first Trek fanzines and writes with authority not just about that era of human achievement. He seemingly does nothing but read and writes -- with charm, vigor, intelligence, shrewdness, and a wicked sense of humor -- about what he reads. What I love about his blog (and what has moved his posts high in my Google reader feeds) is his catholic taste in subject matter: popular magazines, comics (he's a Legion of Super-Heroes fanboy), foreign literature, Elizabethan/Victorian/Edwardian literature, and -- probably his most cherished category -- historical fiction and literature, especially Tudor-era novels. Click on any month under his Archives link and wallow in the variety and types of reading matter this fellow ingests. It makes me wonder how much he reads that he doesn't write about.
In addition to his blog, he contributes reviews to Open Letters monthly site, for which he is an editor. Recently, he wrote a long and satisfying post on Pindar, encapsulating not just the era in which Pindar wrote, but what makes Pindar worth knowing about and reading about.
But though every post promises something new I've probably never heard of before (I've added many a book to my Amazon wish list based on Steve's recommendations), it's the barbed wit that keeps me coming back. Here's one of my favorites from his Star Trek books post:
Fans ate it up, and by this point they had guaranteed the continuation of their own feeding in the only way that ever guarantees such things: they put their money where their mouth-breathing was.
Read any of his Vanity Fair or GQ posts for drive-by snipings of this week's celebrities.
And while I enjoy his whimsical reading projects - such as his reviews of romance novels on which cover model Paul Marron appears -- I like that he doesn't shy away from tackling more worthy subjects. He recently gave the National Geographic a right thrashing for its King Tut cover story and laments Christopher Hitchens, in several senses of that word. And he's not forever carping or sniping, though lord knows, there always seems to be more bad than good out there (especially in the penny press).
I enjoy his clear-eyed appreciations and opinions of well-known authors or classic works, such as Dracula and his hellspawn, Gore Vidal's essays, Howard's End and on and on. But I particularly enjoy his touching appraisals of quixotic little books that were sent out as letters in bottles, and whose delicate and touching messages found in Steve the perfect reader.
Friend and colleague Lewis Shiner is a writer and novelist who has been releasing his fiction on the web for the last few years. Here's an appreciation of Lew and his site that I wrote for the SILS Galley, way back in Fall 2007:
Raleigh resident Lewis Shiner made his name in the '80s as a cyberpunk science-fiction writer, though he has worked many genres as a fictioneer: westerns, hard-boiled mystery, anarchic skateboarders, rock music, fantasy. He won the World Fantasy Award for his 1993 novel Glimpses and his most recent, Say Goodbye (1999), was a bittersweet story of a young woman's indie singing career. He’s written dozens of short stories in his 30 years as a writer, but times are changing for short-story writers. Short stories continue to be written and read, but interested readers have to search them out, and, for genre writers particularly, the short story outlets are pale shadows of what they once were. In a manifesto on his website, Fiction Liberation Front, Shiner says “that whatever future the short story has, the Internet will be involved in it. ”
Although compensation for writers is still an open question, Shiner has decided to embrace “this uncertain future” with his website, which aims to stock all of his short stories, screenplays, fugitive journalism, and other writings -- for free -- under a Creative Commons license. It’s an experiment, of course, and who knows how it will turn out.
In the meantime, read the fiction! Although Shiner is best known for his science fiction, his technical range and emotional subtlety use genre as simply another tool to tell the story. His most personal and white-hot stories center on music: “Sticks,” about a rock-band drummer, and “Perfidia,” about the mystery surrounding Glenn Miller’s death, embrace pain, loss, and personal responsibility. One of his most powerful stories is “Steam Engine Time,” a take on what would have happened if Elvis had arrived on the scene 50 years early. By contrast, “Lizard Men of Los Angeles” is a throat-grabbing thrill- ride on the old sci-fi pulp wagon.
Lew just sent an email today saying two more novels from his backlist -- Frontera and Glimpses (the latter won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1993) -- are being published by Subterranean Press. They're available through Amazon.com, your local independent bookseller, and -- of course -- the Fiction Liberation Front.
Sorry to disappoint my skeptically inquiring readers, but I love reading my weekly Freewill Astrology post.
Rob Brezsny's Libra posts for the last three weeks have swirled around the idea of a cycle ending, taking stock, and looking ahead. Here's how his Aug 12, 2010, reading put it:
If you and I were sitting face to face and I asked you, "What are the most important lessons you've learned these last 11 months?", what would you tell me? I think you need this type of experience: an intense and leisurely conversation with a good listener you trust -- someone who will encourage you to articulate the major developments in your life since your last birthday. Here are some other queries I'd pose: 1. How have you changed? 2. What long-term process needs to come to a climax? 3. What "school" are you ready to graduate from? (And by "school" I mean any situation that has been a hotbed of learning for you.)
Well, of course, the use of the word "school" got my attention. And I think he's right about looking at the sweep of the last year for the big lessons, rather than picking away at the details of this or that assignment., or becoming obsessed with today's details while not acknowledging what has happened to me. I think I had a bit of that conversation on my last call with Cairene, and my just recently ended coaching relationship with Christine also raised some good thoughts about the experience.
So, what are the most important lessons I've learned since August 2009? No doubt I'll come back to this post as more stuff floats to mind. No doubt I'm missing more than a few.
I can't remember how I ran across Markson's novel This Is Not A Novel, but I found it so fascinating an experiment that I scooped up and read his other novels that followed the same disconnected yet mosaic-like form.
Colin Marshall has written an appreciation of Markson, who recently died, that takes in all of his novels, and the comments led me to this post on the author's death, written in the late-Markson style.
It's a potent style that's quite seductive to adopt. I adopted it when writing about Markson's last books for the school's in-house zine, The Galley, and which I've included below. (I had a stringent word-count to meet, hence its painful brevity.)
Suggested headline: This Is Not A Book Review
Commuting from the Park & Ride lot, I read these books, one by one. You can read 10 pages in a very short time.
Unusual they are, with sometimes awkward syntax. With about 14 one- or two-sentence blurbs to a page. Sometimes only fragments.
Every page filled by remembered passages of verse or prose, quotations, anecdotes, the detritus and gossip of artists’ sad lives. The “residue of a lifetime’s reading,” says the back-cover blurb.
A melancholy book. With one or two jokes thrown in.
You’re left to intuit what’s really happening at its center. Rather like contemplating the negative space in a painting. It’s weirdly fascinating and absorbing.
Markson claims that not one fact is repeated among all the books.
Reader’s Block and This Is Not A Novel are the first two books, and are the best. Markson has found a new, challenging, avant-garde form, and plays with this odd new toy.
But the third book, The Last Novel, feels too deliberate and planned.
Give them a try. They’re at Davis Library. But I bet you’ll read more than 10 pages at a time.
Over the July 4 weekend, I faced the fact that I was not enjoying the PhD experience. I discovered the limits of my capacity for the amount and velocity of work that poured into my life. I survived and that was as much of an accomplishment as I can claim.
Based on what others had told me about their experiences, I was not the only one going through changes and wondering if this was really an experience I wanted. I kept waiting it out, expecting it to get better or for me to get more motivated or to discover the spark that would light a passion for what I had intended to do. I never caught the spark and I never found a way to make it enjoyable. I got perhaps a grim satisfaction out of pulling rabbits out of hats, and decided that I did not want to live under that kind of pressure all of the time.
I never really adapted to the pace and wound up not performing to my and others' expectations in several areas.
As one of my coaches said, at this point in my life, it's OK to not want to make the sacrifices that are necessary to get the degree.
During my single year in PhD-land, my primary focus of research was myself. I learned a lot about my beliefs, the unchallenged rules that governed my life, and other inner mysteries. I learned how to take care of myself in a crisis (real or perceived). I discovered new ways to manage myself and my emotions.
Had I known what I would go through, I would probably still decide to do it, because I'd think, "Ha! I can figure out a way around that." And I would have fallen into the same traps again.
Next steps? Finish my master's degree. Underschedule my fall and spring semesters so I can finish my master's project. Have the student experience that I wanted to have. Graduate in the spring and invite my parents to come take pictures (I started work on my master's in 2006, after all -- I deserve to dress up!). And, think about the big question I've avoided answering for 25+ years: what do I want?
So, as this blog's title says, "Learning as I Go." Still going, still learning.
Interesting confluence of views from today's feeds: Let's face it, science is boring - science-in-society - 21 December 2009 - New Scientist "Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring."
Medical Hypotheses: Why are modern scientists so dull? "How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity"
Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.
“Our whole life is an attempt to discover when our spontaneity is whimsical, sentimental irresponsibility and when it is a valid expression of our deepest desires and values.”
Helen Merell Lynd
If 2009 represents the death-throes of an industry, well, the end won’t be pretty - because Nook or no Nook, publishers this year went to just the same exorbitant lengths to churn out mountains of crapola as they did when no electronic readers threatened their existence at all.
It won’t surprise me if neuroscientists eventually succeed in unlocking the mystery of music. I don’t fear that prospect, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that part of the charm of music lies in the fact that we don’t know what it means, any more than we can explain the equally mysterious charm of a plotless ballet by George Balanchine or an abstract painting by Piet Mondrian. “We dare to go into the world where there are no names for anything,” Balanchine once said to Jerome Robbins. Most of us, on the other hand, live in a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation. That’s why it is so refreshing to enter into the presence of great art, and why the greatest works of art always contain an element of ambiguity. A masterpiece doesn’t push you around. It lets you make up your own mind about what it means —- and change it as often as you like.
Wikipedia about today. Here’s what the BBC and NY Times have to say. A certain key event from 1961 is missing from all three. (But you could go read some F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories anyway or watch Jim Henson’s early version of the Muppets selling Wilkins Coffee.)
It’s also National! Punctuation! Day!
There are certain character traits of people (including maybe people you might know) who might have been born on the 24th.
Another numerology trick is to add up all the numbers of your birthdate till they reduce to a single number, which expresses your “qualities.” So, say someone was born on this day in 1961 (as a hypothetical example), 9 + 24 + 1961 = 1994. Then add 1+9+9+4=23. Then 2+3=5. This is the Life Path number.
Here’s what another page says about 5s:
You abhor routine and boring work, and you are not very good at staying with everyday tasks that must be finished on time…If you are living on the negative side of the Life Path 5, you are apt to be multitalented, but suffering from some lack of direction, and there is confusion surrounding your ambition. Restless, discontent, and impulsive, you may bounce from one job to the next without accomplishing much at all.
Watch out, 5!
In the Tarot tradition, the Major Arcana card for 5 is The Hierophant, whose keywords are education, belief systems, conforming, and group identification.
This day falls under the sign of Libra.
I wonder what else could be said about this day?
A few months ago, I was struck by this tweet from HiroBoga. For whatever reason, a circuit snapped in my head and I Got It. All my little productivity obsessions and systems were all about creating my own infrastructure: my calendar, my to-do list, my inbox, my habits, all of it. If I were to look at myself and my life as if it were a business, then these are the tools I need to make sure the business runs efficiently and doesn’t fall behind. We all do it with our reminders for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook, getting the car’s oil changed, keeping receipts in a shoebox for income taxes, etc.
But these systems are not the thing itself that I want to accomplish; rather, they’re the mundane roads and bridges that help me get where I need to go.
Transitioning now to the grad-student life, I see that I’ll be an entrepreneur of a sort: I have to define my domain of interest, find interested backers and supporters (faculty to be on my committee), find funding (grants, fellowships), create a product line (articles, studies), create a network of professional contacts, etc. And this “business” needs to be supported by an infrastructure that helps me get the work done.
Reading that tweet helped me realize that what I’ve been doing this year and especially the past few months was preparing infrastructure to support me in my new life. I couldn’t have said what I was doing or why, but now I can.
So this is what I did:
Even my silly posts on writing lit reviews and research papers document my experiments with creating repeatable processes to reduce the chaos and mechanical effort of getting through school. There will always be thinking and writing, and they will always take time and will be hard work. but I want the tools, habits, and systems to help with some of the heavy lifting so I don’t have to spend thought and energy engineering a new process every time. I’ll be using this blog as a place to document some of those terribly nerdy student things.
And I hope these tools can be adapted and re-fitted to other jobs and assignments I take on as I move through the academy’s alimentary canal.
One of the ways to make sure a change in your life sticks is to make what you want to do so easy to do, you can't avoid it. Another way is to adjust your environment so that going back to the old way is more difficult. Not given to easy solutions, I suppose, I opted for the latter.
I've now started my first semester as a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science (SILS). I was 12 hours from finishing my master's, but it was clear to me that the master's wasn't going to help me; I was going to stay where I was, career-wise. Unlike my friend Mike, who'd gotten his MBA in the same time period and thus had both the sheepskin and the experience, I would have only had the diploma with no relevant work experience or internship to back up the education.
But I saw that I loved the campus environment and was good at this type of work. I also found very encouraging support from fellow students and key faculty. And some opportunities came my way that I did not want to ignore. So, for many many reasons too numerous and tedious to list here (though "100 reasons I'm in PhD School" would be a good topic for a post), I opted to make some severe changes in my life.
The most critical one was to leave my full-time job and drop down to about 10 hours a week--enough to cover my weekly car payment and provide some spending money. I also helped to interview and train my successor. The finality of my decision really didn't hit home with me till we started interviewing candidates: someone else will have this job and, if the school thing doesn't work out, there's no going back. That's when this whole adventure started getting Real for me.
(This may be because I'm from a generation and upbringing where Having a Job is the primary sign of worth and usefulness to yourself, your family, and your self-esteem. Not having a Real Job is just strange and odd to me, like looking at a picture of myself printed backwards.)
The image I use to describe this to people is that of a ratchet: turn the ratchet, it clicks past the notch--and can't turn backward. The ratchet only turns one way. Likewise, I've made changes to my environment such that I can only move forward; I can't go back. And while it's a little terrifying, this commitment is a good thing for me. I've left jobs before without a second thought, because I was fortunate enough to have some safety nets in place--my parents, The Beauteous Liz--and I was confident I could find another job in the local tech-writing field if I needed one. My skills were portable and I had the freedom to go where I thought the jobs were the most interesting (though after 4 years at a place, I was always ready to leave and try something new).
In this case, I am my safety net. Liz is still there, of course, as is our house, our friends, etc. But there are hardly any tech-writing jobs out there nowadays, and the good times are past when the table was so full you could live off the crumbs. This, among many many other reasons, was why I made this choice to take the fellowship and invest in myself now, rather than wait. The wave was cresting, and I wanted to ride that current as it moved downstream rather than continue to paddle and waste my energy trying to make it back upstream. And the commitment that this racheting effect enforces is important to me right now. There's no easy escape hatch back to my old life -- it's up to me to make this work. It's a challenge I feel ready for.
Pretty soon I will lay off the “As a Rip van Winkle returnee to your country, what I notice is….” approach. But I have to say that it is striking to come back – from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate “official truth” in China – and see the world’s most mature democracy, informed by the world’s dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can’t think this is a sign of health for the Republic.
This wonderful but cruel game never stops testing or teaching you. “The only comment I can make,” Watson told me after, “is one that the immortal Bobby Jones related: ‘One learns from defeat, not from victory.’ I may never have the chance again to beat the kids, but I took one thing from the last hole: hitting both the tee shot and the approach shots exactly the way I meant to wasn’t good enough. … I had to finish.”
In this excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, his mother asks if he wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.”
You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore. But it was a very different matter in 1933.
I love the use of that word fabulous. It saves the passage from sounding like a cranky-old-man reminiscence.
Dahl gets his wish and is posted to Africa, where he will work for three years straight, with no opportunity to visit home or see his family. I admire the detail and compression in this paragraph as he summarizes three years of his life into a paragraph.
…I got my African adventure all right. I got the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the long safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations. I learned about an extraordinary machine called a decorticator (a name I have always loved) which shredded the big leathery sisal leaves into fibre. I learned to speak Swahili and to shake the scorpions out of my mosquito boots in the mornings. I learned what it was like to get malaria and to run a temperature of 105 degrees F for three days, and when the rainy seasons came and the water poured down in solid sheets and flooded the little dirt roads, I learned how to spend nights in the back of a stifling station-wagon with all the windows closed against marauders from the jungle. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilisation.
In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, he’s left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.
…[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn’t done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.
I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.
A very nice habit we picked up from Liz’s parents was her dad reading to her mom. We’ve adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I’m an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we’ve decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there’s an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It’s well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn’t sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I’ve never seen before, in a place I’ve never been before, saying things I’ve never heard before.
Boy covers Dahl’s first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It’s a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: “Why aren’t they using anesthetic, for God’s sake?!?”
But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, “they do things differently there.” On the occasions where a serious operation is needed–his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on–the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one was simply expected to take it.
Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone’s caned bottom and admiring the housemaster’s technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.
It’s an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.
Thanks to the glory of Netflix, Liz and I saw this documentary that I can assure you never visited the Carolina Theatre. It’s a bio-doc on the writer Harlan Ellison, 72 years old at the time of the movie’s release in 2007, and covers an impressive sweep of his life, with samples of him reading from his stories, talking heads quotes from friends and other writers about his influence and the impression he’s made on their lives, and various NSFW-language interviews that evoke the man’s history, philosophy, irritations, annoyances, and, now and then, joys. (The YouTube video here is from the movie; it’s HE in his most typical mode of full-flow righteous anger–well-deserved, in this case.)
I was introduced to HE as a sophomore in high school and didn’t look back for nearly 15 years; his personality and writing were vivid, electrifying, throat-grabbing–uncompromising, is the word that leaps to mind. Uncompromising to the point of lunacy, sometimes, but all in the name of dignity, self-respect, and justice, which for HE are paramount virtues.
“Dreams with Sharp Teeth” was a real test, as Liz had never experienced Harlan and was put off by his abrasive and, it must be said, obnoxiously show-offy personality. But she said she grew to like him better as the movie went on; you see the grit, energy, anger and just plain orneriness (an old-fashioned word that Harlan would love) that took a bullied little kid from Painesville, OH (a metaphorical town name, if ever there was one) to Los Angeles and success, of a sort. The movie confronts the fact that, although his writing has always been admired by his peers and lauded by fans, his career never really took off. His labor in the vineyards of genre fiction, teleplays, and short stories won him many writers’ awards, but not mainstream success.
The documentary recognizes the respect that is paid to his longevity and his highest writing achievements–especially some of his most important short stories from the 1960’s, such as “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” But he still remains a marginal literary figure, it seems to me, a miniaturist in a culture that likes The Big Novel, the province of a dedicated few. His legacy, in addition to his thousands of stories and awards, may be more in the writers he has inspired who’ve gone on to produce Babylon5, the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and other TV series, or had more commercially successful writing careers themselves (such as Dan Simmons and Neil Gaiman, who pay tribute to HE).
As Gaiman says in the interviews, HE’s greatest creative act has been this character called “Harlan Ellison.” Partly sincere, partly schtick, with a freakish a memory for cultural and historical details, a fast-talking patter, and in-your-face energy–an electrical storm front on legs–driven by a hair-trigger temper and a determination to prove he’s better and smarter than the bullies around him.
He says, in a poignant reflection, that being beaten up every day by bullies makes you an outsider. I think that, in many ways, large pieces of him are still hurting and still wants a happy childhood.
Another legacy of his childhood is that he sees the world as a big bully that shouldn’t be let off the hook. In fact, the bully should be shamed, kicked where it hurts, and his nose should be rubbed in it. (“Revenge is a good thing,” he says in a 1981 TV interview.) It powered his writing and his political and civil rights activism, his numerous lawsuits against studios and networks, and made him a fiercely loyal friend and ally. But it also meant he couldn’t pick and choose his battles because everything–from a Writers Guild contract to the wrong brand of yogurt at the grocery store–demands a shouting confrontation, and if you cross him, then get ready for screaming phone calls.
While he never got to be one of the writers of great movies, as I think he dearly wished to be, it’s hard to imagine him being happy on a movie set. To have the sort of control he wants, he’d have to do what his acolytes have done: become the producer and helm the entire enterprise. But that would mean he’d have to be the boss, and I’m guessing he’d not enjoy that role. He considers writing his holy chore, not producing or directing. Although I think he’d love meeting and kibitzing with the actors (his life’s wealth could be said to be the devoted friendships he’s gained of rich and famous people), he’d be driven to mania and a rusty chain saw by the thousand compromises and trade-offs that are a major movie production.
And also, he’s always been an outsider; to be a producer/director would mean having to work inside the system, and he couldn’t flatter and cajole the suits whose primary concerns are the budget and the schedule, not the story. HE knows his confrontations and lawsuits have poisoned the studios and investors against him and made him virtually unemployable except by a few younger-generation writer/producers who see him as a mentor who inspired them when they were teenagers. He says he has accepted that condition–though it’s hard to be sure. Regret and disappointment are other major themes in his work.
The movie is a wonderful hagiography of Ellison (much better than the similar “The Mindscape of Alan Moore” in 2005) though it does assume that he’s loved by his fellow writers, which isn’t always the case. “The Last Dangerous Visions” issue is lightly touched on and then set aside. There has been some criticism of the movie because none of his enemies are interviewed–HE reportedly told the director, Erik Nelson, that he’s known by his impressive enemies list and they should have a hearing in the documentary–but Nelson replied that HE was his own worst enemy.
I’ve grown up seeing HE’s image in photos and television interviews, and it’s poignant to see how he has aged. The geeky kid in his teens becomes the slim, handsome, dynamic ladies’ man in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is a round matzoh ball who looks like Larry “Bud” Melman. The fire is still there, but the heart attacks, surgeries, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other maladies (none of which are described in the documentary) are catching up with him.
I came to HE’s writing first via The Glass Teat, which a high school friend introduced me to. For the next 15 or so years, I became an Ellison fanatic, read all the stories, interviews, columns, etc. His last great book of stories, to my mind, is Strange Wine. He’s written some remarkable stories afterward–“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was selected for Best American Short Stories 1993–but I’ve not enjoyed them as much as I did his early work. His art has evolved from pulp genre fiction, to his own brand of fantasy, to, in the last 20 years, a Borgesian lyricism and vision, with non-linear stories that are collages, impressions, prose poems, descriptions of mood and interior states rather than character. That I can’t connect to this vision–which eschews the traditional short story and plot props I’m accustomed to–I will take the blame for. As an artist, HE continues to evolve and follow his muse where it leads him; not all of his old fans can do the same.
I was often struck by the fact that HE wrote two or three novels during his years as a pulp writer, but none afterward. I think this was a shame and a missed opportunity. It could be that his inclination was more for the pointed message, the singular effect, the impatient prophet–maybe he had too many things to say–a sprinter, rather than a marathoner. Of course, the screenplays he wrote (such as his famous unproduced screenplay for “I, Robot”) also took as much time and measured energy to write as a novel. But I think movies called to him as an artist in a way novels couldn’t.
The documentary features television interviews from his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small tour of his remarkable pop-culture museum of a house, which is stuffed to bursting with books, ephemera, and toys. It struck me as the magical treehouse his 8-year-old self would have wanted to live in, a very safe and cozy Xanadu (complete with secret passageways and pizza) that’s retreat and recharging station and probably everything HE would have ever wanted.
It will be odd the day I wake up and hear that Harlan is not part of the landscape. I wonder whether he will see death as a bully or a friend.
Where to start. For the fiction, The Essential Ellison is a good but large and baggy collection; Deathbird Stories is an earlier and more compact volume that contains many of his classics. Dangerous Visions is his groundbreaking SF anthology; I’ve not read it in decades but still remember some of its stories. His Dream Corridor comics are interesting curios, but not essential.
I daresay that his reputation, like Gore Vidals, may rest on his essays, which are remarkably supple yet all of a piece. It’s in these essays (and the introductions to his stories) that the Harlan Ellison voice and “character” were forged, and I can recall more happy moments reading them than I do his fiction. Sleepless Nights in the Procrusteam Bed is the best nice-sized volume that shows his range. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook reprints his 1960s essays and they’re all immediate and throat-grabbing. Harlan Ellison’s Watching contains his fugitive movie criticism; The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat contain his classic dissections of network teevee in the 1960s–truly a snapshot of another era and full of opinions that are still scarily relevant.
In the 1980s, he started a fan club thing called The Harlan Ellison Record Collection, which made available recordings of him reading his work. (This was pre-Internet days, kids – it was all done by mail and Pony Express.) Listening to him performing (not reading, performing) “Prince Myshkin, or Pass the Relish” and “Waiting for Kadak” are more fun than reading them. I also hugely enjoyed the 60-min interview of his “Loving Reminiscences of the Dying Gasp of the Pulp Era”; he clearly has a great nostalgia for that period of his young manhood, and there are times he can sure sound today like a cranky old man lamenting the good ol’ days.
But it’s the recordings of his public lectures that are the most entertaining. Of the On The Road series, my friend Scott says that the preferred order would be vol. 2, then 1, then 3.