On Harlan Ellison, and Behaving Badly

Harlan Ellison passed away yesterday. He was quite a well-known science fiction author, but I don’t think I’ve personally read any of his work. Why not? Because the first time I was really made aware of him was when I watched him in person as he groped the breast of Connie Willis, a writer whose work I had read and admired. This wasn’t done in the corner of some late night party. It was done in the middle of the Hugo awards ceremony, the sci-fi/fantasy equivalent of the Oscars. Here’s video of it:

I recognized his name at the time, but I just sat and watched him make an ass out of himself in the middle of the awards ceremony, and then casually sexually assault a woman on stage. I get that he may have been “trying to be funny.” I just found him tiresome, and I was shocked more people didn’t object at the time to what he had done. Perhaps they didn’t because they thought it was scripted (it wasn’t). Or because he was who he was. (So what?)

In most cases, I try to separate the art from the artist, recognizing that the relationship I have to a book or a movie or a performance isn’t the same as a relationship to the creator of that thing. I know someone can be a failure as a human and still make fantastic art. In fact, sometimes it’s the people who are messed up the most who can somehow create the most interesting things. (Connected? Not sure. That’s a thought for a different time.)

But as I read all the eulogies about Ellison in the wake of his passing, I found myself unable to really separate the art from the actions I had personally witnessed. I don’t know Connie Willis, and I haven’t read a ton of her books. This was a single incident, 12 years ago, but it stuck with me. And as I thought on it further, I found a pattern in me. When I’ve personally had something happen to me or in my presence, I do a pretty bad job at forgiving and forgetting. It sticks with me.

I’ve interacted with editors personally, watching how they treat other people. I’ve met several authors over the years, some of them really nice and gregarious, some of them standoffish, and some of them brusque and harsh. Those personal interactions stay with me much longer than anything I read about people or hear about them. Something to keep in mind as I interact with people at signings myself. Personal connections can go a long way toward making fans or not.

I’m not angry at people who are Harlan Ellison fans. I still believe in separating the art from the artist when you can. But after thinking this through, I also can understand where people are coming from when they’re unable to do that. When they can’t look past the actions of the person in question to be able to enjoy the work that person created.


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