Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, p.1Harlan Ellison
Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed
Essays by Harlan Ellison
For the other meanest,
shortest guy in town—
destroyer lawyer and
friend to the heart of
the flames, the unquenchable
HENRY W. HOLMES, JR.
A dagger (†) is used throughout the text to refer the reader to the editor’s notes on Notes.
You Don’t Know Me, I Don’t Know You
Harlan and Television Down the Rabbit-Hole to TV-Land
Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself
Rolling Dat Ole Debbil Electronic Stone
A Love Song to Jerry Falwell
The World of SF Science Fiction: Turning Reality Inside-Out
Defeating the Green Slime
How You Stupidly Blew $15 Million a Week, Avoided Having an Adenoid-Shaped Swimming Pool in Your Back Yard, Missed the Opportunity to Have a Mutually Destructive Love Affair with Clint Eastwood and/or Raquel Welch, and Otherwise Pissed Me Off
Fear Not Your Enemies
Face-Down in Gloria Swanson’s Swimming Pool
From Alabamy, with Hate
Profiles Leiber: A Few Too Few Words
Serita Rosenthal Ellison: A Eulogy
Voe Doe Dee Oh Doe
Robert Silverberg: An Appreciation
Cheap Thrills on the Road to Hell
True Love: Groping for the Holy Grail
INTRODUCTION BY MARTY CLARK
For the serious Ellison reader, there are few tasks more difficult than staying current with his nonfiction output. Harlan’s work appears all over the literary map, so that it is impossible to know where he will turn up next. This is also true of his fiction, but one can always count on the publication of a new fiction collection every few years to gather together those stories which one has missed. Until now, this has not been so of his essays. They have occasionally been included in other collections and, as with the four essays which appear in Harlan’s short story collection Stalking the Nightmare (Phantasia Press, 1982), have received raves. Also much in demand are The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat (Ace, 1983) which collected the columns of television criticism which Harlan wrote over a period of four years in the Los Angeles Free Press. However, Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed marks the first time that a book has been devoted exclusively to the best of his general essays. The twenty reprinted here are from such disparate sources as Video Review, Heavy Metal and the Saint Louis Literary Supplement.
Credit for suggesting this collection of Harlan’s nonfiction belongs to our publisher, Robert Reginald of Borgo Press, who approached Harlan with the opinion that “These Menckenisms deserve a permanent home; they’ve been undeservedly neglected by both readers and critics, who tend to focus on your more flamboyant short stories.”
At the time this book was proposed I had spent over two years with Harlan in the enviable position of personal secretary, administrative officer of his professional corporation, and occasional grammarian. Modesty compels me to point out that the opportunity entrusted to me in assembling this book derived in large measure from being in the right place at the right time. In addition to that qualification, I brought to the task of editing these essays other qualities, among them familiarity with Harlan and his work, and a great enthusiasm for the idea of making the essays available to a larger audience. I am also probably the only person ever to read straight through the entire body of Harlan’s nonfiction work (all twelve file drawers of it), a distinction which I do not expect to relinquish any time soon.
I was initially enthusiastic at the prospect of editing this collection of essays simply because I admired them and felt that they deserved to be read. It was only after I began research for the book that I came to appreciate how startlingly well-suited to Harlan’s talents the essay form is. I suspect that Harlan himself is unaware of the degree to which his gifts match the requirements of the essay. In point of fact, if the form did not exist, Harlan would have had to invent it. Fortunately, this was not necessary.
In the judgment of scholars, the essay was invented by 16th-century French nobleman Michel de Montaigne. His two volumes titled Essais (meaning “attempts, experiments, endeavors”) were the first to be identified as such, although of course “the word is late, though the thing be ancient.” As with all literary forms, the roots of the essay stretch back to antiquity; Harlan is one of the ablest contemporary practitioners in a form favored by such honored writers as Swift and Emerson and Thoreau. Today he shares the form with columnists and commentators as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ellen Goodman, Joan Didion and Sidney Harris, Shana Alexander and Tom Wolfe.
The 20th century has seen a broadening of the concept of the essay. Because of the huge circulation of periodicals (magazines such as Newsweek, Esquire, and the proliferating city magazines which publish essayists; newspapers which carry numerous syndicated columnists), the essay has become a major vehicle for the communication of ideas. Harlan is toiling in a literary form which is currently very popular, and therefore powerful.
As presently evolved, the essay is a short prose form which deals with a single subject. Although historically essays have ranged from the length of aphorisms to the extended essays of de Tocqueville, relative brevity characterizes modern essays. Harlan’s range from a length of less than one thousand words to a maximum, in this collection, of 9400 words.
Although each essay addresses only one subject, over the years hundreds of subjects have been the target of Harlan’s wandering reflections. He is conversant on nearly every subject one can think of, largely due to the fact that he is one of the most widely-read men alive. Harlan samples everything, and the input that can’t be had from reading, his peripatetic mind seeks from judicious viewing of thirty channels of cable television, faithful attendance at film screenings, and constant association with colleagues and friends who are similarly well-informed. Topics for his typewriter are limited only by his interests, which is to say, not limited at all. This collection includes essays on topics from gun control (“Fear Not Your Enemies”) to video dating (“True Love: Groping for the Holy Grail”).
Many of Harlan’s strengths as a writer are the salient characteristics of the essay form, in particular informality of structure, highly distinctive style, and a strong personal tone.
The essay is not a rigorous literary form. Its purpose is to stimulate and influence thought, rather than to educate or instruct. It accommodates, but does not require, the scholarly, philosophical approach such as that exercised by Francis Bacon. Consequently, it need not be exhaustive in its treatment of the subject. This suits Harlan quite well. He throws everything he has into the writing of a piece, rather like making a salad. On the other hand, he will ignore avenues of inquiry one might expect him to pursue. It simply does not please him to go down that road right now. (Interestingly, he will often expand on those subjects in later work; I’ve noted some of these in the text.) Such incompleteness would be a fault in a more didactic work, but is quite permissible within the essay form. By this I do not mean to suggest that Harlan is jarringly unsystematic in the presentation of his material; and in fact some of his shorter essays such as “Epiphany” and “Rolling Dat Ole Debbil Electronic Stone” are deceptively disciplined, tightly-wrapped little pieces. But the scattergun pyrotechnics of his mind are clearly at home in the freedom of the essay, which Samuel Johnson
It is Thomas Macaulay, however, who perhaps best expresses a consideration which I hope you will keep in mind as you enjoy this assortment of writings reprinted from a variety of sources. Macaulay himself resisted being reprinted for this reason:
The public judges, or ought to judge, indulgently of periodical works. They are not expected to be highly finished…The writer may blunder, he may contradict himself, he may break off in the middle of a story…All this is readily forgiven if there be a certain spirit and vivacity in his style. But as soon as he is reprinted, he challenges a comparison with all the most symmetrical and polished of human compositions.
As to style, excellence as an essayist leans heavily on a distinctive manner of expression, and there are few contemporary writers with as distinctive a style as Harlan’s. Tom Wolfe, perhaps, or William F. Buckley, Jr. are as readily recognized. Harlan’s style has always been high-profile; the discerning reader has no difficulty identifying an unattributed piece of his work. One marvels sometimes, re-reading a particularly striking passage, How did he do that? As Alexander Smith said of Montaigne and Bacon,
Not only is the thinking different, the manner of setting forth the thinking is different. We despair of reaching the thought, we despair equally of reaching the language.
Harlan’s virtuosity is inarguable, and his command of the material allows him to write for the sheer joy of self-expression, when he so chooses, without seeming self-indulgent. Notice the playfulness in “Stealing Tomorrow,” and in “Voe Doe Dee Oh Doe,” a genial soft-shoe of a sketch which appears effortless in Harlan’s hands, testifying to his artistic control. I defy anyone to read of “the sternwheeler spatterings of crazed hummingbirds” without smiling.
One important characteristic of a distinctive essay style is that it should resemble good conversation. Harlan is, of course, renowned as a conversationalist, and he is able to transfer that easy eloquence to the printed page. Perhaps not since Charles Lamb has an essayist employed such a rambling, conversational manner. This sometimes results in untidiness, for Harlan indulges in the delightful digressions which are common to both forms of expression, and such bypaths can lend a disjointed, patched-together quality. In this Harlan is apparently in the incomparable company of Montaigne, of whom Aldous Huxley said,
Free association artistically controlled—the paradoxical secret of his best essays. One damned thing after another, but in a sequence that in some almost miraculous way develops a theme and relates it to the rest of human experience.
Harlan’s mastery of free association is nowhere better demonstrated than in “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs!” As he remarks himself at the beginning, “It seems disjointed and jumps around like water on a griddle, but it all comes together, so be patient.”
Another characteristic vital to a distinctive essay style is charm. This came as a surprise to me, but the information certainly bolsters my assertion that the marriage between Harlan and the essay is a happy one, since Harlan has charm in abundance. Who can fail to be won by the self-effacement and wistful earnestness of “True Love,” or simply the sparkle of an intelligent mind at work? Harlan appeals to us, as he puts it, “huckleberrily.”
One could cite many other characteristics of Harlan’s distinctive style; I had, for instance, prepared a lengthy section on his use of anger as a stylistic signature for inclusion here. But these traits are well-recognized by any reader who is at all familiar with his work, and it is enough to say that each of them—the arrogance, the irreverence, the gutsy ferocity, the occasional posturing—contributes to the singularity of style which is so vital a part of his success as an essayist.
The third essential characteristic of the essay is a strong personal tone. The essay in prose has been compared to the lyric in poetry, in that it is an expression of subjective emotion. This is in perfectly good taste. Expressing as they do the writer’s personality with an immediacy not possible in fiction, essays allow us to know essayists as we know no other writers. Harlan’s work displays the colors of his passions and personality more vividly than almost any other essayist working today. As with all good essays, Harlan’s absolutely seem to be written to the person reading them; to read them is an intimate, personal, familiar experience, partly because of the conversational tone noted earlier. As a result, readers somehow feel invited into his life by the intimacy of his work—I mean this quite literally—and to the degree that this is true it is a problem in his personal life. Harlan’s essays have contributed to his becoming a legend. I use the word “legend” here with great care (Webster: “a notable person much talked about in his own time”) acknowledging Harlan’s concern that his charisma, some might say notoriety, may eclipse the seriousness of his work. I think this is unlikely. Other writers—George Bernard Shaw comes immediately to mind—have seen their wit and personalities become as famous as their work without compromise to their literary reputations.
In a recent conversation, Harlan remarked on having come to acknowledge the need to engage in cheap theatrics in order to get people’s attention. Since all Harlan cares about is posterity, he will do whatever is necessary to be remembered long enough to be accorded his rightful place in literature. As he says of Fritz Leiber (in “A Few Too Few Words”), time and posterity will say what has to be said for him. He has already been acknowledged by his contemporaries, having won numerous awards for his short fiction, and presently sharing the record for Writer’s Guild awards for work in television. Ironically, however, and at the risk of finding myself on the wrong side of a disagreement with Harlan, I venture to suggest that it may well be the strength and timelessness of his essays on which his reputation ultimately will rest. Harlan was the recipient of the 1982 Silver Pen award of American P.E.N., the politically-oriented association of professional writers, for a column which appeared in the Los Angeles Weekly. (It should be noted that in so doing, he edged out competitive entries from the best dailies in California.) I believe that this is but the first evidence of a growing awareness of his importance as a commentator.
As Baltasar Gracian says, “The sage has one advantage; he is immortal. If this is not his century, many others will be.”
It seems to me sometimes that Harlan considers his essays rather like stepchildren, and not the Serious Art of his fiction. I wish for all of us who admire his work and his message that he would allow himself to revel in his mastery of this powerful form in which he is so comfortable, and to acknowledge what he is, one of the most accomplished essayists of our time.
These essays, including the earliest, have been revised as little as possible so that their original flavor is preserved, and they represent faithfully who and where Harlan was at the time he wrote them. In several instances this has resulted in contradiction, and some material which is obviously dated. So be it.
The explanations a writer gives himself for having written any particular book are often not the real reasons why that book has been written. Honesty is not the issue. Understanding is. A man does not write one novel at a time or one play at a time or even one quatrain at a time. He is engaged in the long process of putting his whole life on paper. He is on a journey and he is reporting in: “This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today.”
—Irwin Shaw, 1964
YOU DON’T KNOW ME, I DON’T KNOW YOU
This essay appeared as the Introduction to the “Harlan Ellison Issue” of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1977. Written as introductory material, this essay references three of Harlan’s short fictions which are not to be found in this nonfiction collection. “Working with the Little People” is available in Strange Wine (Warner Books, 1979) and “Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage” and “Jeffty is Five” appear in Shatterday (Berkley Books, 1982)
When I wrote “The Place With No Name” for Ed Ferman, and he published it in F&SF in 1969, he rece
When I wrote “Basilisk” for F&SF in 1972, a story in which I attacked not just our continued criminal presence in Vietnam, but made it quite clear that I considered all you stay-at-home, support-the-war-effort VFW and Kiwanis assholes as vile a pack of killers as William Calley, Ed Ferman received threatening letters and more cancellations.
When I rewrote the Book of Genesis from the viewpoint of the Snake, in “The Deathbird,” in 1973, and suggested (as had dear sweet old Mark Twain) that if you really thought the universe was ruled by God, and you looked around at the state of the universe, you would be forced to the conclusion that God is a malign thug, all those good and tolerant Children of God and assorted other weirdos cancelled their subscriptions by the drove. Singular. I wasn’t that big a deal. Only one small drove.
“Croatoan” in 1975 was interpreted by Right to Life advocates as a pro-abortion story, and they cancelled; it was viewed as an anti-female story by some feminists, and they cancelled; it was viewed as an anti-abortion story by many liberals, and they cancelled. The fact that the story was concerned with the ethics of responsibility and was concerned with abortion and/or feminism only as much and in the same way as Moby Dick is concerned with Cetacean philosophy, seemed to escape everyone who wrote poor Ed Ferman and called him a miserable sonofabitch for continuing to publish that swine mother-fuckah Ellison, the toad of fantasy, the Antichrist of sf, the dark swimmer in the polluted sea of depraved reject mainstream fiction. I went and had a vasectomy.
Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed by Harlan Ellison / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes