The Asshole On The Edge of Forever

 

There’s a meme floating around Facebook lately (or the more “literary” parts of Facebook). It’s a Harlan Ellison quote about paying the writer, and the basic premise is: Writers should be paid for their work. Hey, I agree with that one hundred percent. I can’t take as hardline a stance against “exposure only” markets because I think they can benefit burgeoning writers, but, all in all, yes, writers should be paid for their stuff. Fair is fair, after all.

 

But here’s the thing about Ellison: He’s a fucking hypocrite.

 

Ellison is a known bastard. In fact, he’s such a prick that the Walt Disney Company (who hired his ass for some reason) canned him on his first day: The man literally came back from lunch of his first day to a pink slip. The article I linked above, however, is too fine a chronical of his bastardry to even attempt to enhance. What I’m going to be railing about today is Ellison’s planned-but-never-published anthology The Last Dangerous Visions.

 

See, while Ellison is a son of a bitch, he’s a good writer. In 1967, he put together an anthology of short stories called Dangerous Visions, which effectively kicked off the “New Wave” of science fiction. It includes such SF heavyweights as Issac Asimov, Robert Bloch, Philip K. Dick, Larry Niven. (Of course Harlan Ellison put one of his own stories in, because what was the editor going to do, reject it? LOL).

 

In 1972, Ellison did it again with Again, Dangerous Visions. This one features work by Bradbury, Vonnegut, and a very young Dean Koontz.

 

Because everyone loves a trilogy, Ellison decided to round the series off with a third volume, to be titled The Last Dangerous Visions. Originally slated for release in 1973, The Last Dangerous Visions was going to be a massive 700,000 words and feature the work of over a hundred authors.

 

Though he doesn’t like to admit it, Harlan Ellison is not a god, but a mere mortal; he got busy and couldn’t focus on TLDV.

 

He has yet to come back to it.

 

It was announced in 1979 that TLDV had been sold to Berkley Books, who planned to release it in three volumes.

 

Other than that, not much has happened with the book. Ellie says he wants to get it out before he dies, but that possibility is getting more and more remote with every passing year.

 

Look, shit happens. I don’t think any reasonable person could get too mad at Har-El just because he bit off more than he could chew and choked a little. I understand the writers being disappointed. The Visions series was a big deal. Getting a story in that was like hitting it big. Having that elation turn to horror as the editor throws up his hands and walks away is awful, but manageable

 

Only it didn’t quite go down like that.

 

Being a terrible person, Ellison strung his contributors along all through the seventies, frequently telling them that the book was due to drop at any minute, that he’d just given it to the publisher, etc. By 1977, writers who had work set to appear in TLDV were starting to get upset. Ellison was of course a huge jerk about the whole thing, refusing to release anyone’s work, etc. One of his contributors, Christopher Priest, published an essay on the subject in a 1987 fanzine. The Last Deadloss Visions is a revealing read. What follows are two letters and one “eyewitness account” from The Last Deadloss Visions:

 

14 December 1977

Letter from Harlan Ellison, circulated to all LAST contributors:

—————————————————————

 

This is far too long (and too tediously self-serving) to be reproduced in

full, but here are salient extracts:

 

    ”We are now forthcoming from Harper & Row.”  [A new contract is

     enclosed, with alterations.]  “The most significant [alteration]

     is a guarantee that the book will be published before Christmas

     1978.  Over the outraged howls of Harper & Row I have made it a

     13-month guarantee.  I did that to restore faith with those of

     you … who have waited literally years to see the work in print,

     and despite delay after delay–justified or not–have stuck with

     me.  As this will be a 3-volume boxed set, over 600,000 words, it

     will take Harper & Row a good nine months to send the book(s)

     through production.  I know I’m cutting it close with you, but I

     felt I had to do it if I was to summon up the gall to ask you to

     re-sign with TLDV.  It is incumbent on me to advise you once

     again that the stories have, in fact, reverted to you.  Long

     since.  You can refuse to sign, keep the advance payment you

     received, and sell the story elsewhere.  Or you can trust me just

     one more time and stay with the project.”

 

 

 

 

29 January 1979

Letter from Ellison to contributors. (“SUBJECT: Impending Publication”):

———————————————————————–

 

     “As the enclosed letter will inform you, there has been a major

     change in the status of [LAST] and, as a result, a major

     improvement in your position in the book.

          “G.P. Putnam’s Sons will be doing the book in a three-volume

     boxed set.  They are advancing us $50,000.  After repayment of

     the monies owed to Harper & Row and New American Library, I will

     be dispersing most of the remaining thousands directly to you, as

     an additional advance payment for your work in the book.

          “The entire month of February will be spent completing the

     prefatory material and the introductions; delivery is scheduled

     for 15 March and publication–if all goes as expected–will be

     Christmas of this year.

          “It is a year later than my last communique with you

     indicated, and God knows most of you have waited far longer to

     see your work in print than I had any right to expect; but I

     think you’ll agree this is a most salutary development.

          “This is the third publisher to contract for [LAST].  We

     started with Doubleday a long time ago, then moved the book to

     Harper & Row, and now Putnam.  A number of you have been

     (properly) annoyed at what seemed to be unnecessary delays in

     getting the book out.  I’ve always tried to be candid with you

     about these delays; and with only a few exceptions you’ve all

     understood that I take my custodial responsibilities for your

     work very seriously.  It is precisely that sense of

     responsibility that brings us to this point.  Please understand:

     I’ve seen too many rotten examples of anthologists who’ve conned

     you into doing original stories that went into books that

     instantly vanished from view.  And you never saw another cent of

     royalties.

          “Everyone who has ever published a story in one of the

     Dangerous Visions books can attest to the large and regular

     royalties that keep on coming, year after year.  I feel it is the

     most basic element of my obligation to you, to keep on making

     money for you.  A story in a DV book has life, it will be an

     annuity.  So as caretaker, I have to go with my instincts about

     marketing.  Thus far I’ve been correct.”

 

     [Two rambling paragraphs follow, in which Mr Ellison explains why

     he keeps changing publishers.]

 

     “Well, last year Vicky Schochet came out here from New York to

     help me finalize the book.  She read it from front to back, and

     was more enthusiastic than I can say.  Now she’s the editor at

     Berkley/Putnam who has arranged for the buy-out with H&R.  She

     wants to do the book, she knows how good the book is, and she has

     fired up Putnam’s so _they_ want to do the book.

          “The way it should be done.

          “With major advertising.  With special packaging.  With

     heavy promotion.  And with a $50,000 advance payment.

          “That’s the story.  I tell you all this, of course, to get

     you to hang in there for one more month.  By March 15th the book

     will be in Vicky’s hands and she’ll circularize you confirming

     same.  But before that time, we’ll have an advance check of fifty

     grand.  I’ll pay back the advance we got from Harper, the money

     New American Library gave us, and the vast bulk of what’s left

     will be divided into pro rata shares and sent off to you.  Within

     a month you’ll have a big schlug of money to cement your staying

     with the project so we can do it right.

          “I’ve run out of ways to beg you to stay with me; you’ve

     long since run out of patience with me.  TLDV has become one of

     the big myth-objects of our time.  Like Atlantis or Reagan’s

     intellect.  But that very word-of-mouth advertising, that bated

     breath attitude on the part of the audience, serves you all in

     the extreme.  When Putnam’s releases TLDV for the Christmas

     season, it has a guaranteed trade sale waiting.

          “And we’re talking a _very_ expensive package here.  Three

     books, approximately 700,000 words, over 115 stories.  And huge

     profits for all of you.  The attached letter from Berkley will

     buttress all the foregoing.  Be patient for another month and

     enjoy a second advance payment as a mark of good faith, as well

     as my way of saying thankyou for your patience up till now.”

                               (signed) Harlan Ellison

 

 

 

August 1980.  An eye-witness account:

————————————

 

During a visit to New York I went to a party where Harlan Ellison was

present.  (This is one of the very few occasions when I have been in the

same room with him, although we have never actually been introduced.)  A

large number of writers, including myself and Mr Ellison, were sitting

around chatting about this and that.  Suddenly one of the others said, “How

are you getting on with TLDV, Harlan?”

     “I just delivered it!” he cried.  “I handed it in this afternoon!

It’s over!”

     Amid squeals of delighted scepticism, raspberry noises and general

hilarity, Mr Ellison managed to look hurt and indignant.

     “Listen, you guys,” he said.  “This time I really did.”

     He launched into some complicated story about how he had had to get a

cab to take him and the oversize box to the airport.

     “It’s OK, Harlan,” somebody said.  “We understand.  But you don’t have

to bullshit us.  We won’t tell the fans.”

     Mr Ellison look chastened, but relaxed a little.  He then explained

that although he hadn’t, you know, actually _delivered_ the manuscript, the

delay was a mere technicality.  As soon as he got back to Los Angeles he

would be setting aside a whole month to write the introductions, and …

     Everyone cheered up.  The status quo had been restored.

     A few days later, at the worldcon in Boston, I heard part of a long

and colourful speech Mr Ellison gave about his life and works.  During

this, a question from the floor raised the same subject.

     While the laughter rang out, Mr Ellison lowered his head in mock

modesty.  As the laughter died he raised a clenched fist and shook it in

triumph.

     “I was in New York last week,” he declared.  “And I handed it in!

IT’S DONE!”

     The whole place erupted with cheers.  Mr Ellison trotted happily to

and fro across the stage.  People stood up: it became a standing ovation.

     Then I noticed that some of the people who had been at the same party

as me, and who had heard the reluctant truth from Mr Ellison’s own lips,

were also clapping and cheering …

     I left the auditorium, bemused by all this.  As I went through the

doors I heard Mr Ellison begin his entertaining story about getting his

oversized box into the cab.

 

 

So Ellison lied. Again and again. And though some contributors were able to get their stories back, most were left in limbo, contractually obliged to not publish them elsewhere. Sure, he gave them the opportunity to take their ball and go home, but he sweet-talked them with promises of fat royalty checks. In essence he preyed on their trust and hopes. “Pay the writer,” Harlan Ellison says, then you can fuck them over.

 

Harlan Ellison is a titan in the SF field, and it’s easy for people to dismiss his deception. But the fact remains: Harlan Ellison is a bastard who lied to his contributors, held their work hostage, and broke multiple promises.

 

Is that anyway to treat a writer?

 

I guess if you’re Harlan Ellison it is!

 

As long as you pay them for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sad Case of The Eye of Argon

Bad writing, like shit, happens. It’s a fact of life. For every Hemingway there are a million Nick Paciones. In our “see something say something” society, encouraged by sites like Amazon, every Tom, Dick, and Harry feels impelled to fart out their opinion. And, let’s face it, things can get brutal. Writers, however, are more sensitive, right? They might gag at wretched prose just like everyone else, but they know what goes into writing, they know what it’s like to have a dream, and many of them also know what it’s like to have someone mock that dream. They’re more empathetic.

 

Yeah. Okay.

 

In 1970, a sixteen-year-old literary hopeful and SF/F fan from Arkansas named Jim Theis published a fantasy novelette in OSFAN (the journal of the Ozark SF Society). Titled The Eye of Argon and following the adventures of the Ecordian barbarian Grignr, the novelette was, admittedly, very poorly written; SF critic David Langford said that Theis was a “Malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it.”

 

A poorly written fan story in the 1970s had little chance of doing anything but dying a quiet, undignified death.

 

But with The Eye of Argon, fate intervened in the form of science fiction author Thomas N. Scortia, who, having gotten hold of a copy, sent it to his friend, science fiction writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. From David Langford’s website http://ansible.uk/writing/argon-timeline.html:

 

SF author Thomas N. Scortia loves the rich badness of “Argon” so much that he sends a copy for amusement to fellow-writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: “Dear Quinn, Here is an example of FINE writing that we might all enjoy. This must be a nom de plume of L.S. de Camp. – Tom.” (Annotation preserved on Darrell Schweitzer’s photocopy.) Yarbro is not only entertained but shows the story around and loans it out on request. The last page has gone astray, though, and since the Yarbro Codex is the source of all later recopyings and retypings in fandom prior to 2005, the ending has “always” been missing. Does Grignr the barbarian survive his death struggle with the blob monster whose first devilish move is to “slooze up his leg” and begin sucking, with many a “hiss of hideous pucker”? It is a mystery. Nevertheless, Tom Whitmore and Stephen Goldin work assiduously to spread the story’s fame. It becomes a fannish institution. At some stage Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s then husband Don Simpson makes a particularly careful transcription of the text, checked against the original to ensure all typos and mispunctuation are preserved. The “Transcriber’s note” describes his high-minded purpose:

But as a labor of love for those whose 3rd-generation copies have now suscummed to the bitter vicissitudes of time and entropy, worn away by the ravages of countelss re-readings before entralled audiances, yet who have found that the the heady flavor of its stylistic paragraphs has seeped into their soul and still grips it with a fervid grasp, I dedicate this readable version of the inimitable The Eye of Argon.

(The pathetic spelling in the passage above is straight from Langford’s site).

 

Yarbro says:

 

Tom Scortia sent me the fanzine pages as a kind of shared amusement, since both of us tended to look for poor use of language in stories. Don Simpson and I were still married then, and one of our entertainments was reading aloud to each other. This work was such a mish-mash that we took turns reading it to each other until we could stand no more…

About two weeks after the story arrived, we had a dinner party, mainly for MWA (Mystery Writers of America) and book dealer friends, and Joe Gores got to talking about some of the really hideous language misuse he had seen in recent anthology submissions and had brought along a few of the most egregious. I mentioned I had something that put his examples in the shade, and brought out “The Eye of Argon.” It was a huge hit. [Locus reviewer] Tom Whitmore asked if he could make a copy of it, and I loaned it to him, and readings of it started to become a hideous entertainment. I never typed out a copy of it, but I am afraid I did start the ball rolling

 

Yarbro passed the story around. Before long, fans and authors at SF conventions had turned reading The Eye of Argon aloud into a party game of sorts: A copy would be passed around a group, with each member taking a turn. When they laughed, their turn was over.

 

Interviewed on the radio in 1984, Theis was understandably upset, claiming that he was “hurt” and would never write again. Eighteen years later, he died at the age of 48, having kept his vow.

 

In a nutshell: A 16-year-old boy with a dream of writing fantasy fiction (but admittedly lacking the skill) wrote a novelette. Some asshole got ahold of it, thought “Hey, my friends, who are just as terrible at this whole humanity thing as I am, would love to make fun of this.” He sent it to Yarbro. Yarbro and her dick-head buddies, who regularly gathered to mock work that writers had submitted to their projects, loved it so much that they ran screaming to fandom as a whole. “Hey, look at this!” The fans thought it was tops, too, so they turned reading this kid’s story into a fucking party game.

 

As a writer, that whole scenario disturbs me. See, I expect at least a modicum of professionalism during the whole submission process. Read my story, don’t like it, don’t accept it (alternately, like it, accept it). I’m not sending it so you and your snotty elitist friends can sit around and mock it while you sip wine and eat little finger sandwiches; I’m sending it because I believe in your project and your capabilities (including your professionalism) as an editor. I think what you’re doing is tops and I’d like to be a part of it.

 

Anytime any writer anywhere submits anything, it’s an act of trust. Yarbro and co. violated the trust of countless writers by making sport of their work. “I say, Cunningham, have you seen this Eye of Argon business? Simply dreadful!” How many writers wound up on the menu at chez Yarbro? How many “meetings” did this cabal of sadists hold wherein they happily supped upon the shattered dreams of bad writers? I can see reading a work so terrible that you chuckle, but calling all your piece of shit friends over to take turns wiping your asses with it? Come on. That’s fucked up. Imagine it’s your work that’s being laughed at. Imagine you, all bright-eyed and hopeful, sending a short story off to a publisher only to have it not only rejected but passed around the bull-pen for everyone’s “amusement.” Not that you’d know. But that, the not knowing you’re a complete laughingstock would be worse, in my opinion, than if the editors had simply mocked you in the rejection letter.

 

Look, I know there are those who’d say I don’t know what it’s like, I’m a writer not an editor, so I’m biased.

 

Or something.

 

Well, I am an editor. See, in 2012, I edited an anthology for a crappy Podunk little publishing house. I had, like, twelve submissions total. Of those twelve, maybe two or three were worth anything. The rest blew. Because I had to deliver a product to the publisher, however, I was forced to accept all of it.

 

With the exception of one story.

 

I can’t remember the title or the name of the author, but suffice it to say, the story was bad. Mainly on a mechanical level. I mean, I honestly think that this author knew nothing about punctuation, formatting, etc. I tried to make it presentable, but it was like lifting a thousand pound weight after breaking both your arms in a freak masturbation accident. I finally said screw it and rejected it.

 

And that was that.

 

I don’t whip this story out when I’m feeling down and poke fun at it. Why would I? I consider myself a professional, if not in stature than at least in bearing. I’m also a fairly compassionate guy. I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a writer for years. I had a dream, you see, and I know how I would have felt as a sixteen-year-old if a bunch of so-called “professionals” turned my story into a side-splitting party game. I would have been hurt. I would have been angry. I would have been devastated.

 

I just don’t have the heart to do that to someone else. I’m a lot of things, but soulless isn’t one of them.

 

As for the fans…well, I suppose I can give you a pass: Playing Dungeons and Dragons and whacking off to Star Trek slash-fic, one tends to develop abnormally, so mocking a kid for being bad at something seems natural for you. Just remember poor Jim Theis the next time you start pissing and moaning about the jocks who used to give you swirlies in high school. You’re a hypocrite and no better than they are. In fact, you’re worse, because you should know better.

 

 

 

 

Free Fiction Monday: WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING????

I wrote this little gem for submission to an SF humor ‘zine. They rejected it. I can’t say I blame them, it isn’t my best work, however, I have to admit: I chuckled a few times during the composition process, so I guess I’ll call it a success.

 

***

 

Captain T.J. Foster plopped heavily down into his chair on the bridge and sighed. “I’m getting to old for this,” he said.

He and his crew had just passed three days on a barren planet beyond the known rim of the galaxy. They were drawn by distress calls from someone called “Barbara.” Instead of a lone survivor, they found a tribe of women with two vaginas apiece.

And, man, were they randy! Foster was buried so deep in pussy he could barely move.

“You’re fine, Captain,” Johnny Milk said. Sitting at the radio rig, Johnny looked like a kid, even though was going on thirty-five. It’s my boyish face, he said, grinning.

“Tell that to my second-in-command.”

“I’m right here, sir,” Debbie Johnson said from behind him. She must have just come on the bridge.

“Not you,” Foster said, looking at his crotch.

“I’m glad you had fun,” Debbie said, slapping a folder onto Foster’s lap. “Status report.”

Foster opened it. He was just starting to read when Debbie screamed.

Starting, Foster looked up just in time to see something scuttle across the control panel below the window (you’re looking nice today, Venus, wink-wink).

“What is it?” he asked, standing.

The thing dropped onto the floor and starting coming toward him. It was large, the size of a small kitten, with six long, scraping legs.

“Spider!” Foster screamed, jumping onto his chair. He threw the folder at it; papers went wild.

It still came.

It wasn’t a spider.

“What the fuck is that thing?” Foster wailed.

Johnny was standing now. “Holy shit.”

The spider disappeared under the chair. Screaming, Foster leapt off the chair and landed next to Debbie, who was frozen.

“Captain…” Johnny started, but screamed.

When Foster looked, he saw another one of the things on Johnny’s shoulder, just chilling like he paid rent. Debbie screamed. Foster screamed. Pointed. Spun in mindless terror, kicking his legs like a river dancer. Johnny pushed the thing off and fell to the floor.

“WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT???” Foster wailed, falling to his knees. “IT’S SO GROSS!!!”

The first thing was still under the chair, watching. The second, having fallen onto its back, rolled over and started coming at them.

Foster jumped up and crashed into Johnny. “Move, bitch,” Foster cried, shoving Johnny out of the way and running for the door.

Outside the bridge, Foster waited for Debbie and Johnny before slamming the door and locking it.

“Oh, my God,” Foster sighed, falling back against the wall. “That was scary.”

“Don’t look now, Captain, but things just got scarier,” Johnny said.

Foster glanced to his left. A hundred more of the spider-things dotted the hall.

“OH NO!!!!” Foster screamed. He pushed away from the wall and fled in the opposite direction.

“Captain!” Debbie screamed.

Foster turned a corner and stopped. They were everywhere, bulbous brown horrors with black eyes.

Foster looked left, right. There was no escape.

Except…

A spider dropped from the ceiling onto his shoulder. “Fuck this!”

Foster opened the airlock door and leapt into space.

***

 

Debbie and Johnny watched as Captain Foster floated by the window, his head swelling like a bag full of pulp. When it popped, they looked away.

“Nice prank, asshole,” Debbie said, slapping Johnny’s chest.

“I thought he’d know they were holograms!”