On Dreaming With Sharp Teeth

I really like Harlan Ellison.

I’ve liked him for as long as I can remember reading which is not exactly true as, at that time, I was reading The Interestellar Pig and The Chronicles of Narnia and books of myths and anything else that caught my interest in the intermediate school library.

BUT as far back as I can recall searching out books and authors completely on my own, I remember Harlan Ellison.  Partly this is because of his titles: The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and ‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman.

I’ve had trouble sharing this love in the past because, to be specific, Ellison is one of my favorite authors but not one of my favorite writers.  His personality, his creativity, his versatility, his hisness is what brings me back to him again and again.  I don’t mean to suggest that he’s not an amazing writer, because he is, but to say that his voice (that ineffable trait all beginning writers are encouraged to discover in themselves) is so strong that it overpowers all else.  It’s why I love all of his criticism, but know that when entering into an Ellison story, I might, actually, be left unaffected.

Well, if you have had the same problem, I have the answer to all your prayers.

Dreams With Sharp Teeth cover

Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a documentary about Harlan Ellison.  It is wonderful.  Also, Harlan Ellison is wonderful.  Go, now, and watch them both. (Unless you plan on stalking Ellison.  If you do, be warned, he will probably kick your ass. (That should be a story.  In fact, I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t already written “Harlan Ellison will Kick Your Ass”.))

I tagged this documentary on Netflix because I have a fascination with Ellison and also because I wanted to infect Megan with that fascination.  Ellison ends up acting every once in a while and those times I’ve recognized him onscreen I’ve found my attention fixed, regardless of the quality of the show.

Ellison is magnetic.  He burns with intensity that, I imagine, I might find dangerous if I was in the same room.  Why?  Ellison seems like one of those people who might do anything at any time – he’s not crazy and therefore unpredictable, but he doesn’t hold himself to society’s standards of proper behavior.  The documentary contains footage from a talk he gave at a college along with two other authors (one being Neil Gaiman) and, at one point, in response to a question by a relatively clueness questioner, Ellison comes down off the stage and confronts the kid directly.  In this case, the confrontation wasn’t one of anger, but of learning: essentially, he was trying to drill through the kid’s head the fact of the kid’s own importance.

Younger Harlan

Look at that man.

His stare is burning letters into the page.  He doesn’t even have to type!

You can see some of his attractiveness in this picture – in the documentary, there are scenes from the 70s of interviews where Ellison’s utter confidence and self-assuredness are overpowering.  This is a person who attracts the eye with almost everything he does.

(Megan agreed, by the way.)

At a point late in the documentary, Ellison reveals the cost he pays for his intensity: a near constant anger.

And, no, this isn’t the anger of the purely angry, those people who hate themselves and the world and whose anger is born out of frustration for what they’ve done with their lives or, more exactly, failed to do.  No, Harlan Ellison’s anger is born from his inability to stop caring.

And, boy, does that sound like a load of BS when typed out.  But in the documentary it is clear that Harlan finds injustice to be a punch in the gut and a lack of basic respect for others a slap in the face, and Ellison is not one to take violence of any kind lightly.  He believes inherently in the dignity of people and is upset when people fail to uphold that dignity, either their own or others.

It is this anger – this attempt to rectify the injustices of the world – that has driven his writing, both critical and creative.  It is this intensity that has carried him – no, that he has carried into old age.

Older Harlan

One last thought: Ellison is very clear about writing being a job and being paid fairly for that job.

Only recently have I been thinking more and more along those lines.  I’ve been prioritizing those magazines and websites that pay contributors rather than just providing free copies or publicity.  This is important, you might imagine, if I want to survive on my writing at some point.

(This is complicated somewhat by the conflict between literary and commercial writing culture.  Literary magazines traditionally don’t pay, though that lack of pay doesn’t necessarily tie in to a lack of quality.  Writers who learn to write through academia end up seeing literary magazines as true publishing, while those who start later in life and approach it through commercial means – reading bestsellers and deciding they can do that, too – end up only focusing on paying publishers and the New York scene.)

Ellison ties being paid fairly into every aspect of a writer’s life: appearances, expert opinions, writing reviews, etc.  And one could say that now, at this point in his career (and for many years previous), he can afford to.  In doing so, you’d be ignoring all those years that Ellison wrote for a living, pumping out stories for pulp magazines and writing novels with the rage and range of a forest fire.

But all that’s actually beside the point.

The main point Harlan is making is that writers tend not to value themselves or their work for what it is clearly worth.  And those who do value themselves and their work – like Harlan – are undercut by those who are giving their work away for free in the hope that “exposure” will land them better gigs in the future or in the belief that exposure is enough.

For me, more and more, exposure is not enough.

p.s. yes, sometimes exposure is worth it.  being published in the paris review or other high-quality literary magazines is worth more than the money, and being anthologized in the pushcart prizes holds a similar cache.  overall, though, payment means that the publisher is taking a risk on you and, in theory, means that they are publishing higher quality work or, at least, work they think the public will buy (which, as you know, is not the same thing).

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2 Responses to On Dreaming With Sharp Teeth

  1. Sean Wills says:

    I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the only one of Ellison stories I’ve read is ‘Repent, Harlequin’ – and I stumbled across that in a random SF anthology before I even knew who Ellison was.

    This post has definitely gotten me interested in him. I always find it fascinating to get a look at well-known authors ‘behind the scenes’, so I may well check out that documentary.

  2. Andrew says:

    Sean, it’s a great documentary whether or not you like Ellison. My girlfriend was reminding me today that he does a bit in the film that complains about how “Repent, Harlequin” is the story that everyone knows, and he doesn’t consider it really worthy of the fame it’s garnered (at least compared to his other work).

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