Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon, 1975.
Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.
Typical of the late Harlan Ellison to describe his vocation in terms of difficulty and struggle even when his prolific output made writing seem effortless. When my colleagues at Savoy Books published a Savoy issue of New Worlds magazine in 1979 one of the features they ran was an introduction by Michael Moorcock to an Ellison story collection. (They also published two books of Ellison’s around this time.) A copy of the magazine was duly sent to the subject of the essay since Ellison always liked to keep track of his print appearances. The back page of that particular issue is blank but for a few words in bold type from singer PJ Proby: “I am an artist; and should be exempt from shit.” Ellison cut this slogan from the magazine then glued it to his typewriter, no doubt transferring it to later models since it was still visible in the 2008 Ellison documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth.
My first encounter with Ellison’s work was also my first encounter with what became labelled the new wave of science fiction, via a reprint of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream in a book in the school library. I was only about 12 or 13 at the time, and found Ellison’s story so shocking and disturbing that it overpowered everything else in the collection. The only other story that made an equivalent impression at the time was The Colour Out of Space by HP Lovecraft, so it’s perhaps fitting that Ellison gave my work a favourable mention in his introduction to the huge Centipede Press collection of Lovecraft artwork, A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by HP Lovecraft. I still haven’t got over that one. After the initial encounter, the Ellison-edited Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions were just as important for me as the paperback reprints of stories from the Moorcock-edited New Worlds: a handful of books that showed science fiction to be a literary form of limitless possibilities, as opposed to the stereotype of space adventure and future technology. The Ellison and Moorcock anthologies led me to William Burroughs, James Joyce and all points beyond; they also soured for me the preoccupation with space adventure and future technology which persists today.
My final connection with Ellison replayed his compliment in a small way, when editor Jill Roberts and I took extra care with the typesetting of Jeffty is Five for The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2. Ellison was the only author I’ve encountered in the digital age whose corrections were still handwritten comments on printed sheets; these had to be faxed to San Francisco then scanned and emailed to me (to this day I still don’t know why the oft-reprinted story required so many adjustments). It was awkward but amusingly so, a benign taste of a legendary bloody-mindedness and insistence on precision.
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