What, the picture isn’t reason enough for you? Alright then. Let’s try the anecdotal thousand words.
Artist as iconoclast is a trope that dates back to probably the first time a caveman took a burned stick to a rock and could devise no answer to the “what is it? question — grunted, obviously — better than a dismissive sniff. An artist is ultimately an observer — of people, places, actions, everything — and it’s not a far hop from looking straight on at someone/something to looking down upon it. At best this can result in an early and lonely voice of dissent against some of the worst tendencies of humanity, from simple cultural and intellectual stagnation to those dangerous points where the “common view” of society morphs into hatred and justifications for atrocity. At worst this capability to for distant observation can become contempt, and itself become the justification for those same worst human traits. It’s not a coincidence that artists were the earliest critics of the Third Reich and composed an inordinate amount of its leadership.
The tolerance for iconoclasm amongst the artistic community in human societies has varied widely with time and place, and despite what many a Facebook philosopher might opine cynicism is not interchangeable with intellectual worth. Philosophers and artists of all stripes have produced timelessly optimistic work that only the foolish hold in contempt. Witness the bright colors and perfectly formed human forms of most Renaissance era art, or the ‘government as capable protector of natural rights’ philosophies of early liberals. Even R.E.M., a band whose output is notoriously minor key, displayed not an ounce of irony in naming one of their early album’s “Life’s Rich Pageant”, and a later song “Shiny Happy People”. But there’s a counterpoint to all of this, a responsibility by society to recognize and respect the tendency of its artists to wallow in the darkness, and the best capture this in their work. The Renaissance had Caravaggio‘s negative space and tortured forms, and the aforementioned R.E.M. album has the mournful “The Flowers of Guatemala” smack dab in the middle of all the major chords and rapid tempos. Also, “Shiny Happy People” features guest vocals by both female singer’s from the B52’s, whose shrill, contorted vocals shall surely feature prominently in the rise of dread lord C’thulu from the waters of R’lyeh.
Frightening times arise — C’thulu like — when society becomes deaf to the outsider’s perspective, valuing only the bright, the cheery, and the comfortable. We’re living in one of those times now. The world comes to the average American in the form of a personalized stream, a pill of concentrated information hand packed by algorithms who vet it only to insure maximum marketable impact upon the viewer. Perceived negativity is profoundly out of fashion. It’s times like these where the iconoclastic role of the artist is elevated to a duty, to be the doctor explaining to an ungrateful patient that their daily dose of information delivered via a smiley face printed vitamin is in fact a poison pill.
And it is there, in the curmudgeon’s chair I have just laid out for him, where we we find Harlan Ellison, America’s greatest living artist.
Not America’s greatest living writer, a point he himself is quick to make and that I’m more likely to dispute than he is. He is a great writer, to be sure. In a hypothetical hellscape of a world where literary talent is measured entirely in heavy-handed Romeo and Juliet metaphors and how worn the entry for “sparkle” is in an author’s thesaurus, today’s crop of popular authors would still, as a group, display less talent in the breadth of their entire catalogs than Ellison did in a single run on sentence about jelly beans in his short story “”Repent Harlequin!”, said the Ticktockman”, a sentence which it is probably now becoming clear to you I am paying direct homage to. Jelly beans!
In all seriouness, go read that story. It’s short, not even 4500 words. It’s not his best, but it gives a great impression of why he’s great, both as a writer and an artist of the definition I’m using.
I love that story. It’s angry, yet funny; bitter, yet sweet in its way. That’s not a bad definition of the man himself. Ellison is about as old school a writer as American literature has right now, with a career spanning over 60 years, and in that time he has hurled invective in every format you can possibly imagine: long, short, teleplays, essays, fiction, non-fiction, even YouTube videos of late. God help us if he ever decides to bother with Twitter.
Ellison is famous as a profoundly cynical writer. His short story collections bear titles like “Approaching Oblivion”, “The Deadly Streets”, and “Stalking the Nightmare”. Of the millions of words I’ve read by tens of thousands of authors, no one has ever arranged the same twenty-six letters in a way so chilling as he did in his short story, “Knox”. His worlds contain an endless string of fascist government/corporate controllers, antagonists who often emerge victorious, and the sort of dark-souled protagonists more often associated with Southern lit than science fiction.
Many would claim the author is the darkest soul of all. Ellison is well known to be difficult to work with, and he’s litigious as all hell. There’s an informal maxim in the publishing world that “you’re not anybody until Harlan Ellison has sued you.” If he’s a genius — a label I consider irrefutable in no less measure than many find it a nice way of saying ‘asshole’ — than he’s the mad kind, the sort of person so utterly convinced of his gifts that he won’t tolerate in the most minuscule way those who don’t. His ego is massive, his temper legendary, and he’s not shy about wielding his prodigious intellect and vocabulary as twin razors, slicing to tatters those he feels have wronged him.
I love Ellison, along with the majority of his work, though certainly not all of it. Many of his short stories seem to have no real interest in readability, and at his worst he can be practically nonsensical, writing from the perspective of narrators who can, charitably, be called disembodied consciousnesses more than true character. You often get a sense reading Ellison that he’s writing for himself, not an audience. He certainly doesn’t write down. He’s one of those authors who, in the course of a single collection of short stories, can have you saying , “I could do that,” through one story, followed by “How the hell could anyone do that?” with the next. If all American writers are working in either imitation of or opposition to the sparse, elegant prose of Hemingway, than Ellison gleefully dances between the most extreme poles of both, flipping the rest of us double birds all the while. This is a man who might overwrite one passage, underwrite another, and never seems to give a fig how you feel about it either way.
One of the most difficult skills to learn as a writer — and this is worse the more naturally talented you are — is not to let your skill for observing mankind curdle into contempt. Cynicism is a key component in the artistic toolbox, but try to build a house with only one tool and all you’ll end up with is a whole lot of walls. It’s a balancing act, putting to paper what’s inside of you that’s demanding to come out while simultaneously respecting your audience enough not to make it a screed. Art is about expression, and if the only person we’re expressing to is ourselves then sentences become leaner, nothing more than a shorthand to stir the sense memory of the emotional state we were in at the time we wrote them. That’s called journaling. Writing, real writing, is for an audience, and a good writer is a fool to simply assume that an audience will be able to keep up with him if he’s racing along at full speed, red lining his mental engine from introductory sentence to closing. If he’s a good writer than he is, by definition, exceptional; if his audience shares the full breadth of his gifts, should they not be doing his job?
It can be frustrating for the writer. It can feel as if you’re deliberately slowing yourself. Too easily, it can become resentment.
And that’s why Harlan Ellison is America’s greatest artist. You read his work and, love it or hate it, you get the sense that he is firing on all cylinders the entire time, and whether you keep up or not, he doesn’t much care. He’s breaking some of the hardest rules you had to learn, indulging in naked, oppressive cynicism and using big, thesaurus reaching words to do it, and for whatever reason he’s allowed to do it.
Why does he get to do it and not I? you might ask yourself, and it’s a worthy question. The best answer, the only real answer, is because he’s Harlan Ellison. He started doing this a hell of a long time before you did and, for whatever reason, he found success at it. Ellison is as predictably curmudgeonly as the monsoon season is wet; the people who publish him, hire him, or consult him, know he’ll be hard to work with, know there’s a fair chance of some kind of litigation. They also know he’ll do the work, and he’ll put his everything into it. They know what they’ll get from Ellison, and there’s a kind of value in that.
Perhaps then it’s Ellison’s role to be the observer of other observers, the guy who pisses us off by doing what he wants and getting paid for it. Maybe he’s there to keep us honest, the last, mad-eyed gunslinger standing between us and the desert of hypocrisy. Maybe he’s just a lucky asshole.
Whatever else he is, he’s a genius; even when he sucks at being a writer, he’s always great at being a genius.
Now maybe I’ll get lucky, and he’ll sue me for slander.