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