Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ellison on STUDIO 360

I was delighted to find that Kurt Anderson interviewed Harlan Ellison, who recently reached seventy-four years of age, for his public radio show Studio 360. This interview coincides with the DVD release of the film about Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which I have not seen yet but hope to soon. At the site, you can get the podcast of the radio version of the show, but that one is an abridged version. What you really want to hear is Anderson’s full, hour-long interview with Ellison, which you can also download or stream on the site. They cover a lot of topics, including the film, and Ellison reads some passages from “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “Jefty is Five.”

I’m glad to see that Ellison is getting some fresh attention. He is one of the all time towering giants of American literature. I can say that to a crowd of spec fic-oriented readers, like the followers of the blog, and you’d all probably say, “Well, yeah. Of course. What else is new?” It’s a strange but true fact, however, that Ellison’s work is widely ignored by academics (could it be because of his association with “genre” fiction? No! Really?). I am, by education, a literature student, and I spent much of my academic life in both high school and college trying to alert English profs as to what they are missing out on when I would select Ellison’s work as the subject of a number of critical essays and research papers. Like Ellison himself states in this interview, I considered him to be the natural kin and heir to writers like Poe and Kafka and Borges. But never once did I see a glimmer of recognition in the eyes of any of my teachers nor a scintilla of respect offered forth after I had alerted them to the abysmal gaps in their knowledge of the American short story. This was particularly disappointing to me during the college years, since I attended an otherwise super-brainy liberal arts school and had high hopes that there’d be some cool lit profs there. I’d heard they existed on some campuses, but apparently not the one I was on. As it happened, I think I might even have been the only student there who knew much about Ellison. Hardly anyone seemed to be into spec fic at all. I was the only one writing it in the fiction writing seminars that I took during my senior year...and I think that was a lot of the reason why my work was generally regarded as the worst of the lot while other writers' tiny tales of thinly veiled campus current events and personal foibles passed muster as fine literary fiction.

A thing perhaps less well know among spec fic readers is the fact that Ellison has also always been a compelling essayist, and he continues with this even now. I highly recommend some of his older collections such as The Harlan Ellison Hornbook and An Edge in My Voice (there are others--I just happen have those two books on my shelf). While the topics are pretty old now—since they deal mostly with events that were current in 1970s and early 1980s and were written mostly as newspaper columns back in the day—they still make for some great, entertaining reading today.

Also of some interest to sf fans would be the 5/23 installment of Studio 360 in which Anderson talks about the Klingon language with linguist Arika Okrent (which I heard, when listening to the podcast, as “Erica Okrand,” virtually the same name as Marc Okrand, the developer of the language). She published a new book about invented languages and has herself a good command of Klingon. They also discuss some other invented languages such as the elf tongue from Tolkien's universe and how it was used in the film, and also Esperanto. One gets to hear a little clip of William Shatner speaking in that language in the bizarre 1965 film Incubus.

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Anonymous said...

""Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman" is my all time favorite Ellison story (not to mention one of my favorite stories of all time, period).

Strangely enough, I actually ran across that story for the first time in an old Modern Literature omnibus used in my uncle's lit class back in the 70's or early 80's. So there was a time when he was taught by at least a handful of academics. But that was an odd book which had a definite 70's counter-culture feel, it also had the words to several late Beetles' songs in there under "poetry."

Anonymous said...

If nothing else, Ellison needs to be better reconized as having the greatest TITLES in all of literature. In addition to "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" I am also quite fond of "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Quite evocative, even before you read the actual stories.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah, TJ, some Ellison stories certainly do show up occasionally in "literary" anthologies which indicates that he's certainly not entirely unknown among academic types. He even had a story selected for the sometimes fairly stodgy BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES volume a few years ago. But it's always struck me as strange, however, that so many teachers/profs who deal in contemporary American lit seem to remain clueless. Even English teachers who might include some lightly-genre selections--say a famous Ray Bradbury story, for example--never seem to present any Ellison.

Derek, I concur with you on the brilliance of his titles, too. He's come up with a lot of winners in that department. A couple other less well known stories whose titles I really dig are "Count the Clock that Tells the Time" and "The Other Eye of Polyphemus," both of which appear in the collection SHATTERDAY. That particular volume was sort of a life-changer for me when I checked it out from the library and read it when I was in high school. I had a specific, bright moment where I realized that there was a lot more to fiction and its writing than I had previously imagined and that the scope and scale of what could be done even in the short form was limitless. Just last year, I found a hardback copy of SHATTERDAY at the used book shop and snatched it up, spending the last few bucks I had available that week. Couldn't pass up finally owning my own copy.

Unknown said...

I've actually seen the documentary Dreams w/ Sharp Teeth and it's absolutely fascinating. Ellison is a wild man. He's foulmouthed, loudmouthed, but brilliant and hilarious to see at work.

Brian Barker said...

Concerning Arika Okrent's new book.

In today's world, I think that the choice, realistically, for the future global language lies between English and Esperanto rather than an untried project.

It's unfortunate, however, that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

After a short period of 121 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA factbook. It is the 17th most used language in Wikipedia, and in use by Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

Native Esperanto speakers,(people who have used the language from birth), include George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

Further arguments can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Christopher Fletcher said...

Brian, I wouldn't presume to know, since I am no expert on Esperanto, but I think the chance of its adoption as a universal language is just about zero. Also (again, I'm no expert) but I have read criticism of it as not being particularly "universal" for native speakers of non-Indo-Europeans languages since it has so many grammatical likenesses and cognate vocabulary with Romance languages. So it seems kind of familiar to Europeans but much less so to Chinese or Arabs. But I think the real problem with the adoption of a universal language (unless it is English) is that 95 percent of native English speakers simply will not learn it. They won't even learn any naturally-occurring foreign languages in any great numbers. Brits and Americans especially just plain can't stand the concept as a rule and, as the rulers of the world, just won't cooperate. I don't know as much about Aussies and Canadians, but I suspect they are probably a lot like Americans in that regard. So maybe that will change when some non-English speaking people take over the planet. But not likely anytime soon.

Also, I'm not sure there's any real screaming need for a universal language anyway. I could see the value of such increasing someday if we have some kind huge interstellar civilization in the far future and some way needs to be adopted to manage that. But I guess it's not our worry in our time.


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