Editor's Note: Fantasy and science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison passed away on June 28, 2018, at the age of 84. In this interview with Ellison, published in May 2004 in Writer's Digest, the firebrand writer discusses piracy during the rise of internet publishing, what it means to be a professional writer, and his trademark fearlessness.
A Firebrand at 69: A 2004 Interview with Harlan Ellison
The Washington Post has called Harlan Ellison "one of the great living American short-story writers," and the Los Angeles Times dubbed him the "20th century Lewis Carroll." In a career spanning more than half a century, he's written and/or edited 75 books; more than 1,700 stories, essays, articles and columns; two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures. Now he wants to write history—in court—with a lawsuit aimed at protecting authors and copyright laws.
Ellison's legal battle began in 2000, when his lawyers informed America Online (AOL) that one of its users, Stephen Robertson, had scanned some of Ellison's work and illegally posted it on an online newsgroup. While he settled out of court with Robertson, Ellison claims that AOL didn't act promptly enough in removing his work and is suing the Internet service provider for copyright infringement.
In 2002, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dealt a blow to Ellison when it ruled that AOL wasn't liable, by way of the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act. The law primarily creates a safe harbor for online service providers against copyright liability and litigation for hosting copyrighted files—as long as they take down copyrighted files quickly after being notified. Yet, the fiery Ellison is pressing on with his crusade to hold Internet service provides accountable and is appealing the court ruling. Ellison, a notorious firebrand, has plenty to say on the subject—and he doesn't care who he pisses off.
Writer's Digest (WD): When we first met in 1979, you were 45. Now you're 69. How are things different, as far as the writer is concerned, today versus back then?
Harlan Ellison (bemused): Ah, "back then." Way "back then" in the Mesozoic, right? Kiddo, it's not even 25 years. But that's part of the problem for writers, for establishing a career. Cultural amnesia due to television and the Internet. But, to answer your question directly, in terms of money, condition of work, and approbation, worse. Life is a lot harder for writers now.
WD: Well, do you directly blame it on the internet?
HE: Oh, I guess in substantial measure, I do. The slovenliness of thinking on the web. There is a culture of belief today that everything should be free. The internet is the glaring promoter of such slacker-gen "philosophy," and that goes to the core of my lawsuit.
People have been gulled into believing that everything should be free, and that if a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it. Meanwhile, vast hordes of semi- or untalented amateurs festoon the Internet with their ungrammatical, puerile trash, and they think because this "vanity" publication gets seen by a few people, that they are "writers." Horse puckey!
That isn't being published; that's the fanzine press. And there are fewer and fewer real venues for a professional writer nowadays to make a decent living at the craft.
WD: Would you go so far as to say the internet has destroyed the writing trade?
HE: I don't think that's going too far. When you destroy the basic philosophy, the parameters of a field of endeavor ... everything changes. You stand on the cusp of a gigantic paradigm shift, where nothing is of the same value.
I'll go to speak at a college, and I'll have some kid stand up and say, "Well, writers shouldn't be paid; they should put their stuff up; and if people like it they get paid for it." And I think: what the hell looneytune universe are you living in, kid? The question indicates a total lack of understanding of how Reality works. This kid's been living off mommy and daddy too long.
Or someone else will say you ought to be subsidized, and I say, well, the last time I looked, the Doge of Venice or the Pope wasn't laying out much green to keep the mortgage paid or food on the table of American storytellers. So until a wealthy and generous patron decides that I'm worth subsidizing, I'll have to scrabble in the beanfield just like everybody else.
These mooks don't think of writing as a craft or even as an occupation. They think it's some kind of dilettante behavior. Much like their own lives.
original spread from the 2004 issue of Writer's Digest
WD: Why don't writers "get no respect"?
HE: Because half the world is illiterate, or hasn't read a book since before Reagan introduced mediocrity as a college-level course; and the other half treads water in the gravy of hubris secretly knowing they can write, if only they had the spare time. I keep saying everybody deludes themselves that there are three things in this life they know they can do: They can drive a car more brilliantly than Fangio, and everybody else on the road is inept; they can screw like Don Juan and delight the g-spot every time; and they can write. Better than King, better than Dickens, better than Homer. When in fact these are three of the most difficult things in the world to do, and only a very few people do even one with grandeur, much less all three well.
WD: But this doesn't stop people from trying to get published, right?
HE: Are you kidding? Delusions this deeply-entrenched? A flamethrower couldn't deter the poor bastards! It's hard, if not impossible, to convince people who are amateurs, because all amateurs think that they secretly have the gifts of a Joyce Carroll Oates or a Joseph Conrad. And they don't. (Not to mention that their fantasy constructs include "secrets of writing" and cabals of writers and editors dedicated to keeping their breathless prose from seeing print.) In fact, it's the amateurs who make it hard for the professionals.
The amateurs are the ones who give their stories away, because they want to be recognized; and that's fine, I suppose, if they want to be patsies, but then when the time comes for a publisher to pay, the well has been poisoned, and the publisher says, "Well, everybody else gave us their story. Why do you want a fee?" And I say, Well, Cowboy, just because everybody else is a simp, jumped off the cliff, and paid you for the privilege, doesn't mean I'm going do it. I'm a pro, mudduhfugguh, and you can prey on the ignorance and hayseed naiveté of these hungry fish, but not me. Pay me!
WD: If you could go back in time and stop the Internet from being invented, would you do it?
HE: I would certainly do it if I were selfish, and I'm about as selfish as anybody is. But no, I wouldn't do it, because the good things that it does are things that are necessary. Doctors, for instance, have access to life-saving information that they wouldn't have otherwise. Locating lost kids is easier. Scientists can exchange information across the planet in moments, not years. It's the "chat-net" and all its endlessly babbling, trivial adjuncts that are idiocy-promoting.
So, no, I wouldn't kill off the Internet; I'd just like to maim the crap out of it. I think as people get pretty much the kind of government they deserve, I believe people get pretty much the kind of culture they deserve. If they allow themselves to be manipulated by advertising and by corporations, which are the true governments of the world these days, then they deserve all the madness and unease that eats at us daily. And if we go down to extinction faster, well that's okay too. The cockroaches will probably do a peachy job of running things. I won't be around to worry about it. I worry about the human race while I'm alive, and may, by yelling "the sky is falling" loud enough, manage to serve the commonweal, but the minute I'm dead, I'm not going to worry about it. I think I'm on safe ground with that position.
WD: Is it a plus that the Internet gives the average person better, faster access to information?
HE: What makes you think it's better information? The web is polluted top to bottom with lousy reprints of bad or inadequate, bogus or incorrect simulacra of untrustworthy "information." As for faster, well, just because there's an ocean of random data out there, it doesn't make the doofus who can't find what s/he needs in the Britannica—any more adept at finding what s/he needs in the internet swamp. The internet has destroyed the use of the library, it has destroyed the use of the dictionary, and as a result people don't speak as well, because when you go looking up a word in a dictionary, you pass fifty other words that stick in your head and you find other serendipitous stuff, and you just become a better, more literate, smarter and more well-rounded person.
WD: You still write your stories on a manual typewriter. Did you ever try using a PC?
HE: For fiction? Yeah, once. I was down with the flu. Deadline time. So my wife, Susan, showed me how to use a PC and I sat there in the bed, and I tried to write a mere column that I had to have out by day's end. Easy job on my Olympia. I gave it a good shot, I really did. And after about 45 minutes Susan came in just as I was lifting the damned thing above my head—and I was going to throw it against the wall—and she screamed, "Oh my god, it's a $10,000 computer! It belongs to Joe Straczynski, Joe loaned it to us! Don't do that, don't do that!" So I had to give it to her instead of bitch-slapping it to death.
I am just not that kind of a guy. I mean, look, there are some people who take to ice skates instantly. You know what I mean: never been on ice skates, puts on ice skates, bang, he's great. An Arctic Fred Astaire. Me, my ankles collapse, and I fall on my head. On the other hand, you put me out in the woods and I can find my way home in three seconds, because I have an absolutely infallible sense of direction. Not to mention I drive a car brilliantly, and I used to be spectacular at sex till my penis fell off.
There are things that I can do. I can repair any damn thing. Almost anything in the house goes bad, I can rewire it. I can plaster, I was a bricklayer. Yeah, there are a lot of things I can do. But I think it necessary, if one is to be an adult and have a mature and intelligent life, to understand the things that you cannot do and just say, okay that's it. Suck it up and move on.
I can't draw, for instance. I've art directed books, I've won art directors' awards, I can see it all in my head ... but I haven't got a fingernail's worth of drawing ability.
But I can write. I can write like a sonofabitch. That's what I do, and I know it, so I do it. I just do it.
WD: You have been known as a firebrand. Have you mellowed with age?
HE: Everybody tells me I'm mellower since I married Susan. They think that she has quieted me down.
And yet a week ago as we speak, well ... I live here in Los Angeles. There's a back road that leads up to where we live, here on a mountaintop. It's a fire road. A week ago, we were going down to dinner with some friends of ours, and suddenly here comes a guy driving backwards up this curving mountain road, doing about 35 miles an hour! Close to ran us off the cliff. That idiot phlegmwad!
I did a wheelie, and I ran the crazy sonofabitch down. I trapped him in a cul-de-sac to get his number and turn him over to the cops. And he gets out of his car; he's about 6' 4" and I'm 5'5" and he's in his 20s, and I'm this wretched hunchbacked crippled and senile 69 year old, who must've looked to be easy to intimidate.
So Gorgo comes storming up to me and he gets right up in my face, screaming how he's going to kill me. And I just whacked him one in the mouth, and back he stumbles, startled. He suddenly turns into the Cowardly Lion: "Why did you hit me? Sniff sniff."
And I said, as I was writing down his license plate number, "If you get any closer to me, I'm going to drive this fountain pen into your left eye." Got his information, and called the cops. I'm almost 70 and I'm in a street fight, for Chrissakes! Yeah, I'm mellower. I gotcher mellower. A good writer never gets mellower. Only crankier. As Bertolt Brecht said: "He who laughs has simply not heard the bad news."
Here I am teetering on the lip of the abyss, any moment to croak, and I'm suing AOL for allowing people to steal my stories and put them up on the Internet, and it's costing me virtually every penny I've got. All of my retirement money, such as it was ... you know, the nest egg ... $312,000 so far, and you're asking me "mellower"?
We're waiting for a finding to come down from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals up in San Francisco, and if it goes against me, well that's it—I'm out 312 Gs minimum, and in my twilight years, I guess I've got to start all over again and try and make enough money to live on. Probably have to go back to dancing for dimes on Wilshire Blvd.
WD: But basically, it sounds as if you still have no fear.
HE (assuming noble pose): I guess that's my curse. As Spider-Man says, "With great power comes great responsibility." (I like quoting from the classics.) Well, in my case, with fearlessness comes great stupidity. I'm just not afraid of things. There's nothing anybody could do to me that would make me afraid.
People do things out of fear; you know what I mean: they'll lose their job, their rep will be ruined, no one will love them, their family won't be able to eat, blah, blah, blah, and those are exactly the usual fears that society uses, and has always used, to keep you in line, to keep you doing things you don't want to do, to shame you into Political Correctness and conformity, in a job you don't like, in a relationship you can't stand, terrified that if you don't worship and think exactly as you're told, you'll go to Hell or, worse, never get that autographed photo of Jerry Falwell.
Cursed or blessed, I've never had those paralyzing fears. I've been on my own since I was a kid, on the road at age thirteen, and I bypassed all the early middle-class crap that programs us to be shivering, rationalizing, chickenhearts. I have no fears. Not a firebrand, just too lumpen to have fear. Bob Silverberg says of me: "Harlan isn't brave, he's just fearless." Which is absolutely true. You can't allow yourself to be frightened; not if you want the writing to have heat and reason and passion.
Robert W. Bly is a WD columnist and the author of more than 50 books including Secrets of a Freelance Writer: How to Make $85,000 a Year (Henry Holt). He may be reached online at www.selling-yourself.com or www.bly.com. This article appeared in the May 2004 issue of Writer's Digest.