Prime Palaver #8

Eric Flint

April 26, 2002

 

     I got a letter recently from a supporter of the Library in which, among other things, he stated his intention to boycott the writings of Harlan Ellison in retaliation for Ellison's stance on the issues involved with online copyright protection.

     It was a very nice letter, overall, but that portion of it had me muttering unkind words. Since I've singled out Harlan Ellison for criticism in my various essays here, I decided I should also make clear publicly my attitude toward "boycotting" Ellison's writings.

 

     I'll start by being my usual crude and impolite self, and then move on to analyze the issues involved.

     My gut reaction is: Grow up, dammit.

     You're going to refuse to read Ellison's writings because of a stance he took on a public issue?

     Fine. I urge you to do the following also:

     1. Boycott Homer. We don't know much about Homer himself — effectively nothing, except what we can deduce from his epics. But it's blindingly obvious, from the epics alone, that the man was a public relations toady for the ancient Greek aristocracy, who were a rapacious and brutal pack of barbarians. I'd call him a PR "hack" except... well, it's impossible to call the Iliad and the Odyssey "hack" stories. Whatever were Homer's motives, the works themselves are literary masterpieces.

     1. Boycott Shakespeare. The man was a shill for the Tudor dynasty in England.

     3. Boycott Dostoyevsky. The man was a reactionary obscurantist and an apologist for Tsarism. (Not to mention a compulsive gambler.)

     [3a. And while you're at it, boycott Alexander Solzhenitsyn. See reasoning above. He's as much of a reactionary obscurantist apologist for Tsarism as Dostoyevsky ever was — and without the excuse of being a compulsive gambler.]

     4. Boycott...

 

     How far do you want me to go, people? I can pretty much guarantee that before I finished this ridiculous exercise in muddling politics with literature, that I'd be advocating a boycott of 90% of world literature. Probably 99%.

     Then, of course, I'd have to move on to music.

     Boycott Wagner!

     Oh, for damn sure. The man was a rabid anti-Semite and had utterly vile personal morals. (He did, too. Read a biography of him.)

     Mutter. Why do I feel like I'm back in a sandbox...?

 

     As it happens, I generally detest the music of Richard Wagner and I gleefully take the opportunity to satirize that composer and his music in my own writings, whenever I get the chance. See, for instance, my short story "The Thief and the Roller Derby Queen" in The Chick is in the Mail, edited by Esther Friesner; or my novel Forward the Mage; or...

     Any chance I get, trust me. I also dote on the music of Giuseppe Verdi — who, unlike Wagner, was a very admirable man in his own life, and something of a personal hero of mine. (That also, by the way, finds its way into my writings. The character of "the Big Banjo" in The Philosophical Strangler and Forward the Mage is a thinly-disguised Verdi — and the nickname itself comes from Wagner, who once sneered that Verdi used an orchestra "like a big banjo.")

     On the other hand...

     I own — and have listened to — every one of Wagner's operas. I even like Tannhauser, and, for that matter, bits and pieces of Tristan and Isolde and the Ring of the Nibelungs cycle. (The "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde is a marvelous piece of music when you're in the mood for that sort of thing. Just make sure you don't read the libretto so you don't understand the grotesque mystical gibberish she's singing. If you understand German and can't avoid it... my sympathies.)

     Why? Because I'm interested in classical music and for me to refuse to listen to Wagner would just be childish. As it happens, I probably won't ever listen to a complete opera of his again. (Except Tannhauser.) I did so, found that by and large I detested the music about as much as I detested the man himself, and that was that.

     But to go back to my earlier list, although I find Dostoyevsky's politics genuinely repulsive, I am very fond of his fiction. I've read all of his major novels at least once, and many of them — The Brothers Karamasov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils — two or three times. And, unless I die prematurely, I'm sure I'll read them all again at least once before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

     Or, to move to American literature, I find the politics of Ernest Hemingway a lot more to my liking than the politics of William Faulkner. Yet, as a rule, I dislike the fiction of Hemingway — I find his obsession with issues of "manhood" boring ("c'mon, Ernie, I figured this stuff out by the time I was seventeen; grow up, willya?") — and I adore the fiction of William Faulkner.

     Literature is not politics. The only time I will refuse to read the fiction writings of someone whose political views I strongly disagree with is if their actual writings are simply a thinly-disguised veneer for their political program.

     To drive this all home, let me conclude this portion of my essay with a final appeal:

     For God's sake, whatever you do — boycott Eric Flint!

     Oh, fer sure.

     Right now, on this issue, I seem to be something of a hero to a lot of people. So what? I can guarantee you that on some other issue I'd infuriate a lot of you. I'm quite sure of it, because I've been infuriating people politically my whole adult life. I'm a socialist, just for starters — and not bashful about it, either.

     Of course, once you start boycotting me, you'll probably have to keep going. Just to deal with writers who publish through Baen and who have titles here in the Library:

     Those of you who are conservatives will have to boycott Mercedes Lackey.

     Those of you who are liberals will have to boycott John Ringo and David Weber. Probably David Drake too, although that gets a bit more complicated. (Screw it. Who needs complications? Boycott him too.)

     While you're at it, if you're anywhere left of center, boycott anything published by Baen Books because the publisher himself, Jim Baen, is almost as far to the right on the political spectrum as I am on the left.

 

     Are we having fun yet? Oh, but we've just started!

     Because... now that I think about it...

     Dave Weber and I will have to start boycotting each other. Which is going to be a tad tricky, since we collaborate so often. And, of course, everybody is going to have to boycott 1633, which we co-authored.

     What to do, what to do...

    

     Give it up, that's what you do.

     Literature — and popular fiction is no different, there's no Chinese wall separating the two — is not politics. A writer as a political figure and his or her fiction are not the same thing. Their political and social views will, of course, influence their writings. But the way that influence works its way through can get extremely complex, even contradictory. And since no political viewpoint — not even mine, as amazing as it may be — ever captures all of human reality, you will often discover that a writer whose expressed viewpoints on political matters seems stupid or offensive to you still has something to say in his fiction which strikes a chord.

 

     That's certainly true of Harlan Ellison.

     Ellison has been a major writer in science fiction for half a century now. That is not an accident, nor is it the product of a cynical public relations campaign. It is purely and simply due to the quality of his fiction. He's an excellent writer, and a very distinctive one, and if you've never read anything by him the loss is yours, not his.

     Nor — I've never met the man, but I can guarantee this — will Harlan Ellison be moved in the least by any threats of boycott.

     No serious writer ever is. Trust me on this one. Of the various writers who publish through Baen, the two who have probably the most pronounced and publicly-visible political identities are me and John Ringo — on the left and right, respectively. Periodically, both of us get letters or statements in public by someone who informs us they will henceforth refuse to buy our writings because something we said pissed them off.

     Whatever else John and I disagree about, on this subject we have exactly the same attitude:

     Boycott and be damned.

     Both John and I almost invariably go even further and add something to the effect of: "Please do! I like to think my readers can rise above petulance!" Actually, we're usually a lot less polite than that. And the words we use are far more likely to consist of four letters than four syllables.

     Harlan Ellison's response will be no different, believe me. And more power to him.

 

     Ellison has taken a public stance on this issue which I find rather abhorrent. And I find his posturing about it even more offensive.

     Ellison likes to portray himself as the plucky "little guy" standing up to "corporate interests." He probably even believes it. But the reality is the exact opposite. Harlan Ellison, consciously or otherwise, is serving as the front man for the very same corporate interests he claims to be opposing — and it's no accident that, once you strip away the "underdog" verbiage, his position dovetails so neatly with that taken by the movie and music recording industries who have been the driving force behind the recent spate of repressive legislation.

     And it goes further than that. One of the things this "champion of the underdog" has complained about publicly is that — gasp — you don't even need a credit card to set up an email account!

     Oh, swell. So now, apparently, he thinks every American citizen should be required to have a credit card to exercise such a simple and basic right as send and receive email...

     Gee, I bet Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank would love that state of affairs. Can we say: "40% interest"?

     Champion of the underdog, my foot. Whether he realizes it or not, Harlan Ellison is a mouthpiece for the same corporate interests he claims to be opposing. It's as simple as that.

    

     That's Ellison the public figure. Ellison the writer is something else again.

     If you've never read anything of his, I urge you to do so. You might very well discover you like his fiction. Lots of people do, including me. (Depending on my mood at the time, of course. There's a reason that the words "dark" and "edgy" so often appear in descriptions of Ellison's writings.)

     I will mention two volumes you might want to investigate:

     The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective. This is a very fat volume — about 1200 pages — which is available in a trade paperback edition for about $25. (I believe it's also available in hardcover.) It contains most of his best known stories.

     Or, if that price is too steep for you, try the following smaller collection of some of his best stories:

     Troublemakers, available in trade paperback for about $13.

 

     I'd recommend a mass market paperback also, for those who'd prefer still a cheaper "entry level" way of investigating Ellison's writings, but...

     There isn't any, to the best of my knowledge. Not a current in-print edition, anyway, consisting solely of his own stories. You might be able to find something at a used book store.

     And that simple fact leads me to the conclusion of this essay. There's an irony in all this, which is the following:

     Because of the kind of stories he writes — short fiction, not novels — Harlan Ellison doesn't "fit" all that well into the modern fiction market. Today, as opposed to several decades ago, the science fiction and fantasy market is entirely dominated by novels. As a result, with some few exceptions, publishers tend to be wary of producing collections of short stories in mass market format. Why? For the simple reason that, as a rule, they don't sell very well.

     So Harlan Ellison doesn't get much, any longer, in the way of public exposure for his short stories. Walk into almost any bookstore in the United States, and you will find very few (if any) volumes by Harlan Ellison on the shelves. Far fewer, in proportion to his reputation in science fiction, than any other major SF author I can think of.

     Ironically, therefore, Ellison would probably benefit more than any SF writer today from having an open attitude toward making free copies of his writings available online. Because that would give him the "entry level" exposure that he currently lacks almost entirely. It would allow a great many people who have heard of him — but never read anything of his — to find out whether they like his writings.

     And many of them would, believe me — and would then go out and buy one of his books. I'm quite certain that if Ellison put up a hefty chunk of his best-known writings for free on the internet, that all of his volumes in print would show a rapid — and rather dramatic — rise in sales.

     $25 for a trade paperback like The Essential Ellison is too steep a price for most people to be willing to pay just to find out if they like Ellison's writings. But if they already knew they liked his writings, then it's actually one hell of a good deal. 1200 pages of the writing of one of SF's most distinctive voices over the past half century is a bargain at $25.

     Which, of course, is why I bought it myself.

 

Eric Flint