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Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed

Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed

by Harlan Ellison

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Harlan Ellison—master essayist, gadfly, literary myth figure, and viewer of dark portent—has been, for the greater part of his life, a burr under the saddle of complacency. In this collection, his former assistant and confidante, Marty Clark, has culled from hundreds of rare and un‑reprinted works to select twenty wide‑ranging


Harlan Ellison—master essayist, gadfly, literary myth figure, and viewer of dark portent—has been, for the greater part of his life, a burr under the saddle of complacency. In this collection, his former assistant and confidante, Marty Clark, has culled from hundreds of rare and un‑reprinted works to select twenty wide‑ranging essays—nonfiction writings ranging from travelogue to media criticism, literary exploration to personal musing—that demonstrate why the monstre sacre of imaginative literature won the prestigious Silver Pen award from PEN International for his journalistic forays.

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Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed

The Harlan Ellison Collection

By Harlan Ellison


Copyright © 1984 The Kilimanjaro Corporation
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-0435-3



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 received many outraged letters and a number of cancellations of subscriptions. That was a story in which I toyed with the idea that Christ had had a homosexual liaison with Prometheus.

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-athome, 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.

So one day about a year ago, when I was late getting a story in to Ed—which is usually the case, I'm always Harlequin late, poor Ed—and I was on the long distance line trying to con and jolly him into extending my deadline by a few days, I said to him, "Ed, tell me something: why is it, when you run the kind of apparently troublemaking stories I write, and you keep getting so many subscription cancellations and rotten letters from these turkeys, why is it you keep running my work?"

And Ed (who is an even tougher sonofabitch than I am, though his gentle and gentlemanly manner covers it so well only Audrey knows it for sure) said, "Well, I'll tell you ... even if I didn't think they were good stories, which I do, I'd keep running your work and keep putting your name on the cover, because every time I run one of your stories I have twice as many people sign on as I do cancel."

I gotta confess he stopped me with that one.

I sat there grinning wryly. And shaking my head.

He could have buttered me, or he could have said, well, kiddo, someone has to publish your shit, or he could have just shrugged it off. But he didn't. He hit me right in my truth. And I flashed on that scene in the movie The Longest Yard where Burt Reynolds—in the words of the scenarist, Tracy Keenan Wynn—says, "You know what the trouble with my life has been? I'll tell you. I've got my shit together. I've always had my shit together. I just can't lift it."

So here comes chill, truthful Ed Ferman, about two years ago, saying to me, "Let's do a 'Harlan Ellison' issue of F&SF."

"What do I have to do to deserve it, Ed ... drop dead?"

"No, just write a story."

That seemed easy enough.

But, well, hell, I didn't get it done, so he did the Damon Knight issue first, and I can't beef about that; Damon's a good old boy and even though he thinks I disremember the pasts we shared, I like to see these venerable father-figures get an accolade from time to time. And finally my time has rolled around, much to the chagrin and annoyance of the turkeys.

But here comes Ed again, even after I'd said I wanted to do three stories for the issue, not just one, because Ray Bradbury had done two for his issue a few years ago, but nobody had ever done three, and I hoped that by doing three it would annoy that growing multitude that conceives of me as an arrogant, gauche loudmouth who never knows when to leave well enough alone ... but even so, here comes Ed suggesting I do an "introduction" to the issue, just like the anthologies and collections I put together. Occurs to me that Ed Ferman has a thick vein of suicidal behavior in him.

So I'm sitting here in Geo. Alec Effinger's apartment on Prytania Street in New Orleans, while Bev and George and gorgeous Susan are out hustling for beads and doubloons at the Rex parade, it's Mardi Gras and I'm inside writing words for Ed Ferman instead of having a helluva good time goofing off, and I'm wondering just how much truth Ed and you readers can handle in the honorable name of "upfront."

And I decide, screw it; let them have it all, because it's been a shitty few months and maybe just this once the clowns who are pissed off that Silverberg and Malzberg and Lupoff and Effinger and the rest of us don't want "sci-fi" on our books will get sufficiently doused with cold truth so they'll stop looking at those of us who write this stuff with that peculiar brand of tunnel vision that is half deification and half hatred.

(Now what the hell's he angry about? Every time I turn around that creep Ellison is shooting off his big mouth about some fancied crime or other. Can't open my morning paper or turn on the box without hearing that strident voice complaining about somedamnthing or other. What the devil does he have to be angry at? He makes a lot of money, he gets laid regularly, there are even people dumb enough to think he has some writing talent. And here he's got this whole bloody magazine devoted to feeding his twisted ego. You'd think he'd have enough grace just to say something short and polite and let his stories do the talking for him. But no, he's angry again! Now what?)

Angry? Heaven forbid, gentle readers. I wouldn't want to disturb your sleep.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of creative troublemaking, come with me to the October 4th, 1976 issue of Publishers Weekly, the "bible of the book industry." In the pages of PW one can gauge one's stature in the publishing world, assess one's worth with one's peer-group and, more importantly, with the plantation owners who keep us poor wretches laboring in their fields.

Let us glance at the cover of the October 4th, 1976 issue of PW, where we see a full-page ad for Sterling Hayden's first novel, Voyage. Putnam's has taken this ad, as they have the next ten pages, to announce their winter list. It's unveiling time for one of the major publishers, and they're stating for all the world to see the importance of their forthcoming titles. Go with me, then, on this voyage of status and hype.

I promise you it'll be worth the trip.

Now. We start with Sterling Hayden. He gets almost one hundred large-type words of thrilling copywriters' adrenaline, including announcements that Voyage is a full selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, paperback rights have been sold for more than a half-million dollars, there will be TV appearances by the author, as well as major national advertising, publicity & promotion, not to mention a 50,000 copy first printing. Add to all this a snappy perspective photo of the book itself and the fact that it's on the front cover of PW, and only the dullest among us can fail to perceive that this is a B*I*G B*O*O*K!!!

Well, okay. Hayden can write. Wanderer, back in 1963, his autobiography, was a smashing book. He deserves all this attention. No complaints.

Now we open the issue and plunge pell-mell into Putnam's winter list, in order of importance and (as Putnam's views it) saleability.

Pages 2 and 3 contain six books, three to a page ... still with full-cover photos of each book, titles set in large black, eye-catching type, each one with a dense block of promotional copy, and each one bearing the potent slug-line, "Major Advertising & Promotion." Among these books are a biography of Clark Gable, a "dazzling biography that reads like the most romantic novel," and a book of "startlingly intimate portraits" titled Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who? Each of these six is trumpeted as being the forerunner of a motion picture version or is to be accompanied by TV appearances by the author or is a full selection of this book club or that. Impressive.

Pages 4 and 5, another six. Each one to receive "Major Advertising & Promotion," another six full-cover photos, six more blocks of breathless advertising copy, and on and on.

Page 6. Six books on one page, but still with full-color photos, albeit smaller, of course. The titles say it all: Nine Moons Wasted by Marianne Lamont; This Other Eden by Marilyn Harris; Foxglove Summer by Naidra Grey; Sweet's Folly by Fiona Hill; and more hype copy. Page 7 has two more romances, one by Jean Plaidy and one by Claire Rayner, as well as a Jack Douglas book of funny "misadventures," whatever that means. Three on this page, each with "Major Advertising & Etcetera." Full cover photos. Lotta hype. Quotes.

Page 8 and page 9: six and six, including such well-promoted winners as Moon Signs by Sybil Leek; Sinister People, The Looking-Glass World of the Left-Hander; Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Victorian World; and a book of myths and heroes of the Viking Age. Each has a cover photo; each has a block of copy, each has its title in easily read heavy black headline type.

On page 9, four-fifths of the page is devoted to six titles, two westerns and four mysteries. Each one has a full cover photo, each one has a big bold title, each one has a block of promotional copy wherein the words spectacular, taut, exciting, delightful, gripping, intriguing and exciting new appear with the frequency of chocolate chips in a Famous Amos Cookie.

Now pay close attention.

At the bottom of page 9, positionally only the minutest fraction more important than the books on gardening and microwave cookery that live on page 10, are four titles in the bottom one-fifth of the page. These four books are labeled with a genre designation as no other books in this 54 book list have been ghettoized! The label, not to put too fine or obvious a point on it, is SCIENCE FICTION.

The four books are Spider Robinson's first novel, the new F.M. Busby and the new Poul Anderson and ...

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber.

There are no cover photos. There is no advertising hype. There is no explanatory copy block. The titles are small. No words like "exciting" or "taut" or even "spectacular." Just the title of the book, the author's name, the Library of Congress catalog number, date of publication and price.

Fritz Leiber's first novel in eight years, down at the very bottom of the next-to-last page of his publishers' seasonal trumpeting? Fritz Leiber, the finest fantasist in the world, a man whose work has influenced every writer of imaginative literature since the Thirties. Wonderful, magical Fritz Leiber, before whom Bradbury and Sturgeon and Norton and Goldman and Barth and Vonnegut bow, not to mention Robinson, Busby, Anderson and even yours truly, the maddest egomaniac of them all. Fritz Leiber, very likely the best of all of us, the man who has won more awards than anyone else in the genre, the man whose words have lifted this too-often wretched category to Olympian heights more times than anyone cares to mention. Fritz Leiber's first novel in eight years is buried at the bottom of Putnam's discard pile, secure in its 1200-copy library sale, without Major Advertising & Promotion and screw the old man!?!†

Fritz Leiber's first novel in eight years isn't as worthy of attention as the first novel of an actor, no matter how well it's written ... it isn't as important as Sybil Leek's astrological bullshit ... it isn't as important as a pair of westerns ... it isn't as important as a six-pack of insipid romantic novels ... ?

Why is that asshole Ellison angry?

Why does he insist "science fiction" be deleted from his books, and nowhere be permitted in advertising or promotion of what he writes? (Though God knows it's virtually impossible to stop half-witted collegiate reporters from slapping "sci-fi" into the headline when they interview him for college lectures.)

Ellison is angry, gentle readers, because Phyllis Schlafly has unlimited access to The Johnny Carson Show where her observations on Freedom vs. Equality are only slightly less illuminating than David Letterman's views about The Ethical Structure of the Universe and one of our finest young "sci-fi" writers can't fight off the medical collection agencies trying to collect from his last three major operations while he waits with happy thoughts about his fourth exploratory, coming up next month. The big mouth is angry because the bestseller lists include the mediocre dribblings of Leon Uris, Rod McKuen, Jacqueline Susann, Allen Drury and Harold Robbins, while another of our giants of "sci-fi" lives in a one-room apartment in a slum section of a major American city, sitting on the edge of his bed with his typewriter on a kitchen chair, his Hugos shoved away on a high shelf because he hasn't room for them in that cramped space where he exists in poverty.

You don't know me. You don't know any of us. You live in your little Utopia of dreams, not realizing that the men and women you totemize at conventions return, in too many cases, to lives of anonymity and financial deprivation. You are instantly on your guard against any of us promoting ourselves, "selling out" to make a decent living, without understanding that most of the terrific publishers whom you revere, still pay the biggest name authors little better than they did twenty-five years ago, when a loaf of bread was 13 cents and a cup of coffee was a nickel. You buy ripoff cassettes of the writers' speeches and readings, without understanding that you are contributing to the theft of annuities. You think it mercenary and bad taste when writers demand payment for their appearances at conventions. You think all of us live in crystal palaces, surrounded by slavish toadies who do our bidding for the glory of being in The Presence Magical.

And when one or another of us says, "Why, when I'm writing brilliant novels of deep human perceptivity, does Perry Rhodan sell millions of copies while my books go out of print?" and then opts out of the rat race, you bare your fangs and run white feather numbers on us. Traitor to the Cause! Quisling! Coward! Sour grapes!

You don't know me, and I don't know you.

I don't know any of you who write me letters and tell me either how my stories have altered your lives immeasurably or how my stories are sick and twisted and how I obviously hate women because I had a dog eat a girl in one of them.

How can you know people who refuse to permit your humanity? How can you relate to people who either see you as a monster whose works are created solely to shock and corrupt the Natural Order, or who deify you like the shade of Voltaire?

How can I know you, when you choose to read craziness into my words? When you think every story I write is an accurate and faithful representation of my life? When, if I write about homosexuality or drug addiction or venality or violence, you start your imbecilic rumor-mill that I'm gay, a junkie, greedy beyond rationality or a crazed killer?

Do I jest?


Excerpted from Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 1984 The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Harlan Ellison has been called “one of the great living American short story writers” by the Washington Post. In a career spanning more than fifty years, he has won more awards than any other living fantasist. Ellison has written or edited one hundred fourteen books; more than seventeen hundred stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns; two dozen teleplays; and a dozen motion pictures. He has won the Hugo Award eight and a half times (shared once); the Nebula Award three times; the Bram Stoker Award, presented by the Horror Writers Association, five times (including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996); the Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America twice; the Georges Melies Fantasy Film Award twice; and two Audie Awards (for the best in audio recordings); and he was awarded the Silver Pen for Journalism by PEN, the international writers’ union. He was presented with the first Living Legend Award by the International Horror Critics at the 1995 World Horror Convention. Ellison is the only author in Hollywood ever to win the Writers Guild of America award for Outstanding Teleplay (solo work) four times, most recently for “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” his Twilight Zone episode that was Danny Kaye’s final role, in 1987. In 2006, Ellison was awarded the prestigious title of Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the documentary chronicling his life and works, was released on DVD in May 2009.

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