The late Harlan Ellison, whose death at age 84 was announced on Thursday, was famously touchy about criticism. But no critic did as much damage to the writer’s reputation as he himself did. Despite having recieved many awards for his science fiction and fantasy stories, his reputation suffered, particularly toward the end of his life, from his mercurial and sometimes violent temper, which led to transgressive and criminal behavior. In 2006, he humiliated writer Connie Willis by groping her breast on stage during the Hugo Awards. Ellison claimed that the act was a joke and apologized, but it fit in with a larger pattern of boundary-crossing he boasted in other contexts.
In 1980, Ellison bragged about attacking ABC Television executive Adrian Samash sixteen years earlier for altering the script Ellison wrote for Vogage To the Bottom of the Sea. “I tagged him a good one right in the pudding trough and zappo! over he went… windmilling backwards, and fell down, hit the wall,” Ellison said. The encounter left Samash with a broken pelvis. In 1985 at the awards dinner of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Ellison punched fellow writer Charles Platt, who had criticized Ellison for a speech he felt was tasteless.
Ellison’s violence and sexual assault tainted his reputation while he was still alive; and now, they continue to raise questions about how to evaluate his work. In a measured obituary last week, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow struggled with how hard it was to balance the respect he felt for Ellison’s work and the loathing he had for some of Ellison’s actions.
“Confronting the very real foibles of the object of my hero-worship was the beginning of a very important, long-running lesson whose curriculum I’m still working through: the ability to separate artists from art and the ability to understand the sins of people who’ve done wonderful things,” Doctorow wrote. “These are two questions that have never been more salient in the age of #metoo, and I often ponder this journey I’ve gone through in my views on Ellison since my adolescence.”