27 May 2013

with all due respect to mr. ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of the few writers who can make me cringe and admire him at the same time. Admire, because he's a master prose writer and an incredibly articulate speaker. Cringe, because sometimes, as much as I appreciate whatever argument he's making, ultimately I just can't agree with it.

Today I found this example on Twitter (an irony in itself):



I can agree with Ellison about not wanting the video clip included on the DVD for free. There's a tangible product, a clear line from content to supply and distribution, and so on. I can also see that he shouldn't have to go out and buy a copy of the DVD his work has been included on. The "oh, but you'll get publicity" line is just that — a line.

The part where I can't agree with him is when he starts attacking "amateurs" for making "professional" writers' business more difficult.

What Ellison seems to think of as a "professional" writer is someone who does nothing but write and publish. That is, someone who doesn't have a day job doing something else. Never mind that celebrated authors like William Carlos Williams made their income from day jobs. Never mind that families and circumstances can put up barriers that are impossible to break through. You've got to do it his way, or not do it at all.

Well, we all make our choices, although Ellison seems oblivious to how harshly different the consequences of the same choices can be for different people. Perhaps he needs to read what another professional writer, Virginia Woolf, described in her essay "Shakespeare's Sister." It was written in 1929, but a lot of what it has to say is just as true today.

And that's where the internet Ellison despises so much comes in. For the first time since the commonplace book was, well, commonplace, people can compose, distribute, and engage in content that is created by amateurs on an everyday basis. No longer do you have to hang out at the right café with the right clique and sleep with the right people (yes, plural, and if you've ever dealt with an artist's clique you'll know it's true) just to get five minutes in on open mic night. You can garner an international audience from the comfort of your own living room.

Sturgeon's Law says the vast majority of that amateur content will be dreck, and no doubt it is. But that still leaves an awful lot of excellent amateur writers.

The other thing is that the line between amateur and professional is and always has been blurry, which may well also make Ellison uncomfortable. Are you still an amateur if you've only had one book published (like Harper Lee)? What if you're massively rich, and bankroll yourself, but everything you publish loses money? What if virtually nothing you write gets published, or even finished, like Kafka?

And, because I'd like to stop writing this before I go into full rant mode, here's Monty Python making a few points for me:

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