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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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