Harlan Ellison's "Apology": Sorry I Rubbed You the Wrong Way

(I’ll be away for the next few days at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. If anyone else will be there and wants to meet up, drop me a line. As far as I know, Harlan Ellison won’t be there.)

Dora has written a great post on the subject of Ellison’s behavior at the Hugo Awards. If you haven’t read it already, stop reading this and go read that one first.

She linked to Ellison’s apology, which was the sort of non-apology I’ve gotten used to hearing from public figures when they don’t understand that they did anything wrong.

Would you believe that, having left the Hugo ceremonies immediately after my part in it, while it was still in progress … and having left the hall entirely … yet having been around later that night for Keith Kato’s traditional chili party … and having taken off next morning for return home … and not having the internet facility to open “journalfen” (or whatever it is), I was unaware of any problem proceeding from my intendedly-childlike grabbing of Connie Willis’s left breast, as she was exhorting me to behave.

Shorter HE: the opinion of you peons doesn’t count.

Note the introductory phrase, “Would you believe…,” suggesting that the reasonable reader would be surprised that he hadn’t heard about it. I believe this is being used ironically – i.e., that he thinks it’s eminently believable that one could avoid hearing about this because the complainers are out on the fringe. I can understand alternative interpretations here, though.

Note , however, the name-dropping (though I hadn’t heard of Keith Kato before, a quick Google suggests that he hosts invitation-only afterparties at a lot of conventions. In other words, to be at that party is to be important. Further note Ellison’s putting JournalFen in scare quotes and follows it a dismissive parenthetical. And finally, note that Ellison attributes the “problem” to a single source (JournalFen – i.e., Fandom Wank, which I hadn’t actually checked to find out about this).

Finally, there’s the contextualizing of the incident as a joke. Because Willis was telling him to “behave,” he groped her. Of course, the age old rule about jokes applies: if you have to explain ‘em, they ain’t funny.

Nonetheless, despite my only becoming aware of this brouhaha right this moment (12 noon LA time, Tuesday the 29th), three days after the digital spasm that seems to be in uproar …YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!!

Emphasis, despite the capslock abuse, still seems to be on how long it took him to find out about it. Absolutely right about what? He hasn’t said yet.

IT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN’S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go ‘way over the line in terms of invasion of someone’s personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst. When George W. Bush massaged the back of the neck of that female foreign dignitary, we were all justly appalled.

What’s interesting here is not that he “gets it,” to the extent he does (though his reasons seem very male-centric – it’s bad because the behavior is crude, or because you can be sued for it); what’s interesting is that he’s talking in generalities, and when he brings up an example it’s someone else (and the woman is reduced to “female foreign dignitary”).

Finally, he gets around to talking about the incident:

For me to grab Connie’s breast is inexcusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.

I agree wholeheartedly.

“Gauche”? He didn’t break wind on stage, he groped somebody. That’s like slugging somebody and then apologizing for your bad manners.

I’ve called Connie. Haven’t heard back from her yet. Maybe I never will.

Implication: If Connie Willis doesn’t complain, neither should you.

This doesn’t work for me for a few reasons. For one, this wasn’t private behavior; it was on stage. More importantly, Ms. Willis is situated differently from other people commenting on the issue; she potentially has more to lose from a backlash from Harlan’s fans than a random blogger like me does. (Though on the other hand, I could use the publicity if I ever finish my novel.)

So. What now, folks?

Implication: it’s your problem, not mine.

It’s not as if I haven’t been a politically incorrect creature in the past. But apparently, Lynne, my 72 years of indefensible, gauche (yet for the most part classy), horrifying, jaw-dropping, sophomoric, sometimes imbecile behavior hasn’t–till now–reached your level of outrage.

Shorter HE: What are you, retarded? I’m the goddamn Harlan. And if you haven’t complained before, you can’t now.

I tend not to bother paying much attention to the personal lives of writers, so I’m not sure what else he’s been up to. I’ve heard about the Penny Arcade kerfuffle; I’m sure there are other incidents where he pissed people off, and it seems from this “apology” that he regards this as merely another of those times. This is orders of magnitude larger than that, and invokes privilege and institutional power in ways that other arguments don’t.

I’m glad, at last, to have transcended your expectations. I stand naked and defenseless before your absolutely correct chiding.

Shorter HE: I’m an asshole; what are you going to do about it?

The “I’m an asshole” defense, though, isn’t one. Never has been. It’s simultaneously an assertion of power (“I can act like this, and you still have to deal with me”) and a desertion of responsibility (“I’m just this way. Can’t be helped”).

With genuine thanks for the post, and celestial affection, I remain, puckishly,

Yr. pal, Harlan

Shorter HE: Ain’t I a stinker?

Funny, while I remember Puck (both the Shakespearean version and the Gargoyles version) being a trickster, I don’t remember him sexually assaulting anybody.

P.S. You have my permission to repost this reply anywhere you choose, on journalfen, at SFWA, on every blog in the universe, and even as graffiti on the Great Wall of China.

Implication: it doesn’t matter what you do; it can’t affect me.

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12 Responses to Harlan Ellison's "Apology": Sorry I Rubbed You the Wrong Way

  1. Darth Sidhe says:

    It’s irritating when people like this just don’t get that what they did isn’t bad because it reflects badly on them, it’s bad because it invades someone else’s rights/privacy/space. But then again, when you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s appropriate to grope anyone who hasn’t given you permission — and in front of an audience no less, as if you believe your actions are so right that a huge mass of witnesses won’t reproach you for it! — it is, in fact, all about you…

  2. tekanji says:

    One day he’s going to regret all of this, especially since his own words condemn him worse than any third party interpretation of his actions ever could.

  3. Sailorman says:

    I am a bit confused how one can parse this:

    IT IS UNCONSCIONABLE FOR A MAN TO GRAB A WOMAN’S BREAST WITHOUT HER EXPLICIT PERMISSION. To do otherwise is to go ‘way over the line in terms of invasion of someone’s personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst….
    For me to grab Connie’s breast is inexcusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive to any observers or those who heard of it later.

    and get this:

    She linked to Ellison’s apology, which was the sort of non-apology I’ve gotten used to hearing from public figures when they don’t understand that they did anything wrong. (emphasis mine)

    Non-apology?

    What’s interesting to me is that this post uses the tactic of “what you said is ___, but what you REALLY MEANT is ____.” That gets used all the time against feminists, often in the “what you REALLY mean is that you hate men/want men castrated/are a lesbian/etc etc.” SO I’m surprised you’re using it as well. I might also note that when one is dealing with an author who (even if he’s an asshole) is capable of expressing what he means fairly well. So I figure that if he said something, well, that’s what he meant.

  4. Great job on breaking down Ellison’s implicit message. I do think that, if one is as objective as possible, parts of Ellison’s “apology” can be seen as sincere and not sarcastic. However, this can only excuse some of the writing; taken as a whole, it’s indefensible.

  5. tekanji says:

    Sailorman: You’re acting as if that part of the apology is the only part that’s there. You do realize that if Ellis’ apology was just that line, people would be treating this situation much differently, don’t you? But context is just as important as the singular things people say. Jeff isn’t pulling these other quotes from random time in Ellis’ life — he isn’t even pulling from subsequent posts that Ellis made on the matter! — these are all from the same post.

    It should also be noted that, after saying all that, Ellis went on to say this [emphasis mine]:

    On a more serious note: if, in fact, Connie (or Courtney, or Cordelia) were/are/might in any way be offended by this latest demonstration of give’n’take jackanapery between Connie and Harlan (now in its longest-run on Broadway), you may all rest assured I will apologize vehemently, will crawl to Colorado through broken glass and steaming embers, and beg her (their) forgiveness. I need no one to prompt me.

    By saying what’s essentially “if she was offended, then I’ll apologize,” I think it makes it very clear that what he said above, despite the part about him seeming to fess up, was, in fact, not an apology. Furthermore, I suggest you check out this post, where he makes it further clear that he in no way, shape, or form believes that he did something wrong.

  6. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » Ellison digs himself deeper into the hole

  7. jfpbookworm says:

    Sailorman: by “non-apology”, I meant the sort of statement made to the general public that, while nominally expressing regret, comes across as hollow because they don’t regret their actions, or don’t feel they did anything wrong, or don’t want to admit to it; that it’s being made only because other people expect it. And that’s how his statement comes across to me.

    The bit you quoted, which indeed is the closest thing to an apology in the statement, has a few curious properties: First, it is phrased entirely in the passive voice (of “mistakes were made” fame). It’s phrased in general principles, and only touches upon Ellison’s actual action. Compare this to the description of George W. Bush’s inappropriate action (which you elided), which is phrased in the active voice.

    Second, it contains no actual statement of remorse. Ellison’s grope may be “inexcusable, indefensible, gauche, and properly offensive,” (again, gauche?!) but there’s no indication that he’s actually sorry. Rather, he goes on to take pride in “72 years of indefensible, gauche (yet for the most part classy), horrifying, jaw-dropping, sophomoric, sometimes imbecile behavior.”

    Third, it’s bracketed by the sentences “YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT!!!” and “I agree wholeheartedly.” This puts the “apology” in a context of an external demand, something that we fans are *making* him do rather than something that is originating from him.

  8. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » What To Do When You Screw Up

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  10. Pingback: Official Shrub.com Blog » Blog Archive » Apolygys

  11. Bubba says:

    Ray Palmer, undeserving target of Harlan Ellison’s meanness for many years, is laughing somewhere.

    Ellison has largely made himself a pseudo-celebrity by his outrageous actions. As many older writers and fans remember (but do they DARE to speak?) Ellison intentionally recruited fans to harass and ridicule an aging and already crippled Palmer at SCIFI Conventions in the 60s and early 70s, intentionally distorted and took out of context what the man said, and did everything he could to ruin him. Palmer, of course, was the one-time editor of Amazing Stories who started the whole “Shaver Mystery” rolling. In addition to being a legendary force in early scifi and fantasy publishing, he was a kind-hearted gent who loved the fans and also committed the Harlan-ordained ’sin’ of having an interest in exploring the paranormal, UFOs, and other strange phenomena.

    Yep, Palmer is laughing somewhere, and given Ellison’s history, it’s probably a lot more pleasant somewhere than Harlan will end up–despite all the ass-kissing from pros and fans alike.

    -Bubba

  12. Bubba says:

    Forgot to mention–In one harassing incident, Harlan’s stooges caused Palmer, already elderly and crippled, to fall and hurt himself when he was cornered in an elevator at a convention.

    Despicable, but everyone pretends not to remember, and kisses his ass.

    -Bubba

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