Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Classic SF Gossip Mysteries: Harlan Ellison and Jack Vance

I find writer’s opinions of each other irresistibly interesting.  The debate witnessed by Bennet Langton between Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke over whether Homer or Virgil was the superior poet (Johnson championed Homer, Burke Virgil) must have been fascinating.  It was interesting to hear that Nabokov looked down on Saul Bellow as a mediocrity, and I was a little dismayed to learn that Heinlein didn’t like Johnson and Boswell.  (In a better world, all the writers I like would like each other, so it is always heartwarming to read Gene Wolfe’s praise of Burroughs and Vance’s praise of Wodehouse.)  Then there are the surprises, like reading Harlan Ellison’s praise in Angry Candy of L. Ron Hubbard, whom I feel people always malign because of his goofy religion. 

And then there are the mysteries, when a writer attacks another writer without naming his target, inviting those of us not in the know to puzzle over the reference.  Two such mysteries are on my mind today.

Case 1: Ellison and the Hendrix Scoffer or “Drop Dead Old Bag said the Hendrix Fan”

Last night, perusing the many free e-texts at Baen Books, I came across a charming passage in Harlan Ellison’s introduction to his collection, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World:  
There I was, down in Rio, at Hart Sprayger's dinner party, with all those glowing leading lights of sf, and Hart laid some Jimi Hendrix on the tape deck, and I was starting to groove behind it—having heard nothing since arriving in Rio but bad samba and worse bubble-gum music—and up walked the supposedly sharp wife of a science fiction "great," and she wrinkled her snout and said, "Oh, come on, you can't really like that noise?" I didn't answer. Why bother. She'll croak soon anyhow.

So, who is the SF “great” whom Ellison does not think is so great?  Heinlein comes to mind immediately as a great with a celebrated wife (Virginia Heinlein died in 2003, about 34 years after The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World was published) but that is just a guess.  Ellison praises Asimov, Simak, Pohl and Clarke in the same intro, so not any of them.  Ellison is a fan and supporter of A.E. Van Vogt, so not him.  Maybe Poul Anderson or Jack Williamson?  Googling around is not providing me many clues… if only I had a guest list of this Rio party.  

Case 2: Jack Vance and the Grey Lady or “Jack vs. the Jackass”

In July 2009 the New York Times printed a glowing article by Carlo Rotella about Jack Vance.  The article includes the line:
During our conversation he had already summarily dismissed several people, including two celebrated science-fiction writers I grew up reading, as a jackass or a show-off.    
On May 30, 2013, in the wake of Vance’s death, Carlo Rotella took to the pages of the New York Times again, to praise the great man anew.  He provided some additional clues to our mystery:
When I told him about a certain formerly notorious science-fiction writer who had thrown a tantrum on the phone when I called to interview him for the story, Vance said, “Why, he’s nothing but a showoff and a jackass.”
So, which celebrated writer or writers did Vance think were a showoff and/or a jackass?  Who was writing SF that Carlo Rotella (born in 1964) would have “grown up reading,” was alive in 2009, and might conceivably yell at a fellow writer over the phone?  Our prime suspect has to be Harlan Ellison, but again, this is just an educated guess, and why the “formerly” in front of notorious and the hint that there are two or more writers Vance is dismissive of?

So, while we have tentative prime suspects, these cases must remain open.  No doubt many people carry within their hearts the answer to the first mystery, Ellison among others at the Rio party, while only Carlo Rotella and his confidants, if any, know the truth about our second case.  With luck someday those with the knowledge I seek will stumble upon this blog post and then enlighten me via email (mporcius [AT] gmail [dot] com) or in the comments.    

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