Ranking Harlan as a short story writer

General discussions of interest to readers and fans of Harlan Ellison.

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JohnPacer
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Postby JohnPacer » Fri May 19, 2006 2:09 am

Barber said, "Kind of funny that in this age of MTV and Internet shortening of attention spans, it's the short form of fiction that's being hit harder than the novel."

That doesn't mean people actually read novels anymore. People buy them to lay on their coffee table so people think that they "read" and are "intellectual." Same goes for those with Escher or Mucha prints hanging on their walls.

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Rudiger Treehorn
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Postby Rudiger Treehorn » Fri May 19, 2006 5:21 am

"Evening Primrose." That and "...Beelzy" are the Collier stories to start with, IMHO.

With Dahl, The Best of Roald Dahl is a fine sampler -- and it contains almost every story from his best collection, Kiss Kiss.

Borges is a joy. If you haven't read him, I'd suggest all of The Dictionary of Imaginary Beings, all of Ficciones and/or all of Labyrinths. The latter two share a number of stories in common.

There are several collected Garcia Marquez volumes. He does take getting used to, and if you have problems with the short stories, start instead with the short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold before moving on to 100 Years of Solitude or The Autumn of the Patriarch.

I'll assume you all know Kafka and Poe and Bradbury and Leiber and Ellison and Sturgeon well. I think Leiber -- more than even Sturgeon or Ellison -- is the greatest Generalist on my list, a master of all the genres he wrote in. "A Pail of Air" is great hard sf, "Gonna Roll the Bones" great fantasy, "The Black Gondolier" great horror, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series great sword and sorcery, and so on, and so forth.

Poe's "William Wilson" and "The Man of the Crowd" stand out as pieces that cast forward, way forward, to the sorts of concerns Kafka and Borges would be working through decades later.

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Postby Eric Martin » Fri May 19, 2006 5:22 am

>People buy them to lay on their coffee table so people think that they "read" and are "intellectual." <

????

I don't think so. If you hang around people who do this, you're in a minority.

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Postby markabaddon » Fri May 19, 2006 6:49 am

DVG, I like your list, you have a couple of people on there that I did not think people would include, like Thomas Ligotti and Shirley Jackson.

He is still fairly early in his career, but I think Neil Gaiman's name probably should be on this list, as he has written some amazing stories in a short period of time.

Another author I love, who primarily does novels, but has a wonderful book of short stories called Bible Stories for Adults (Frank, you would love it) is James Morrow. Brilliant satirist.

Speaking of satirist (or possibly a satyr), what about Oscar Wilde. In some ways he is similar to Ellison (only some ways) in that he was a writer who wrote in many genres, and was also an accomplished essayist. Additionally, he wrote dialogue better than damn near anyone else.

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Jan
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Postby Jan » Fri May 19, 2006 10:23 am

I'm not sure if quantity is being properly taken into account here. For example, there is no doubt, that Kafka and Poe were great writers, but their number of great stories is small when compared to prolific writers such as Ellison. I think if people would list their favorite stories, it would turn out that the number of stories by Sturgeon, Ellison, Bradbury would be greater than those listed under Marquez, Borges, even Leiber (discounting the interconnected fantasy stories). (My theory.)

I would add Heinlein, Pohl, C.L. Moore, Dino Buzzati, E.T.A. Hoffmann,Orwell, and Sheckley to those lists, but I'm sure we're each missing some important ones and that Harlan would freak out if he saw this thread and found out how little we know.

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Postby Tony Rabig » Fri May 19, 2006 11:20 am

Jan said "I'm sure we're each missing some important ones..."

Well, that's what happens when we get into Top Ten lists. To name a few important omissions from the comments so far:

Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Barry Malzberg, James Tiptree, Kornbluth, Damon Knight, Charles Beaumont, Jack Finney (mentioned in passing when I added my two-cents-cheer for Collier), Gerald Kersh, Henry Kuttner, Richard Matheson, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Ramsey Campbell, Frederik Pohl, Fredric Brown, Saki, J. G. Ballard. Top of my head and I'm sure I'm missing some important ones (Kipling, anyone?). And that's not even looking at mystery and suspense (though some of these, notably Kersh and Brown, did a lot of short fiction in both f/sf & mystery/suspense).

There may be more money for the writer in (and more general notice taken of) novels, but so much of the memorable work of the fantasy/sf/horror genres has been in the short forms. For myself, I read short fiction by most of the above writers before I picked up their novels, and I doubt I'm unique. How many of us were introduced to sf and learned to love reading short stories not in the classrooms but in copies of Judith Merril's annual year's best collections in the library? Or Boucher's 2-vol Treasury of Great Science Fiction? Or the Healy & McComas Adventures in Time and Space? Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural? All found regularly in libraries -- you may not find Knight's Orbit anthologies, or Carr's Universe series, or the current crop of year's best anthologies, but you can usually find one or more of these earlier books there and any of them has enough good material to drive you quietly mad and leave you hungry for more.

How in the name of Cthulhu could anyone make a Top Ten list and actually limit it to ten?

Bests,
--tr

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Postby Tony Rabig » Fri May 19, 2006 11:28 am

Oops. Brain dead today. Blew right by Jan's previous mention of Pohl while typing that last post. Sorry about that.
--tr

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Postby Jan » Fri May 19, 2006 12:48 pm

Me too, I wrote Orwell, when I meant Wells.

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Top Tenn

Postby Steve Evil » Fri May 19, 2006 1:27 pm

From what I can gather, there was a time when it was easier to make a living as a writer. Back before TV, when there was a large short fiction market, and the publications needed stories to meet consumer demand.
Who publishes short fiction now? The list is so short, the competition is so fierce, it must be damn near impossible to break through. . .

(this may of course be harkneing back to mythical golden age - for writers, not necessarily for readers)

My experience in short fiction is mainly limited to sf, most of whom have been mentioned already. When it comes to short pieces that can be read in one or two sittings that just make me go "Wow yeah!" at the end, I'd have to put Poe at the top, followed (in Radnom order) by Bradbury, Ellison, Lovecraft, Assimov, Vonnegut, Kafka, Collier, Edmund Hamilon,

and, for the occasional Side Effect, Woody Allen.


(Shit! Forgot William Tenn! Funny he makes eleven on the list. . .)

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Postby Jim Davis » Fri May 19, 2006 1:47 pm

Some favorite SF/F/Horror/Suspense short-story writers (I'm not even going to try to rank them):

1) Harlan, of course.
2) Isaac Bashevis Singer
3) Flannery O'Connor
4) Robert Aickman
5) Isak Dinesen
6) Paul Bowles
7) Thedore Sturgeon
8) James Tiptree. Jr./Alice Sheldon
9) Ramsey Campbell
10) R.A. Lafferty
11) Bernard Malamud
12) Ray Bradbury
13) Edgar Allan Poe
14) Dennis Etchison
15) Nathaniel Hawthorne
16) Henry James

There are others I'm forgetting, I'm sure, but those are the ones that stand out.
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Postby Jim Davis » Fri May 19, 2006 1:48 pm

I have no fucking idea why there's an emoticon for Tiptree. (Did I type it in accidentally?)
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"His plan therefore was not to refuse admission to the idea, but to keep it at bay until his mind was ready to receive it. Then let it in and pulverise it. Obliterate the bastard."--Samuel Beckett

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Rudiger Treehorn
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Postby Rudiger Treehorn » Fri May 19, 2006 3:49 pm

Well, we all know how much James Tiptree loved the emoticon...

Jan has an interesting theory here that we should run with. The person who writes the most short stories is the best. I think this is a good way to eliminate subjectivity and opinion from such an important critical enterprise.

Now, a completely different top ten list in exactly the same vein as my first one:

1. Henry James
2. Arthur Machen
3. Lord Dunsany
4. Robert Bloch
5. Donald Barthelme
6. Clark Ashton Smith
7. Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Robert Heinlein
9. John Varley
10. Ursula LeGuin

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Postby Duane » Fri May 19, 2006 4:33 pm

The emoticon for 8) is expressed by the number 8 followed by ). Watch those errant keystrokes, ladies!!

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Rudiger Treehorn
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Postby Rudiger Treehorn » Sat May 20, 2006 6:15 am

I was a little short with Jan Hammer there, for which I apologize.

I think in an extreme case -- a writer with almost no output versus a writer with a large and varied output in terms of quality, writer B trumps writer A. In the cases of the writers Jan notes above, though, their outputs are not small and the stories are almost all of a very high quality. Thus, Garcia Marquez and Borges and Kafka are all better story writers than Harlan, an assessment I'm pretty sure Harlan would agree with.

I think there might be cases, especially in sf and fantasy, where you'd run into some thorny and fun-to-argue comparisons between writers with vast outputs of extremely variable quality, writers with 'hot streaks' of extraordinary excellence vs. writers of a steady, high-quality output, and a number of other comparisons.

For instance, I'd rank Stanley Weinbaum very highly, mainly on the strength of two stories -- "A Martian Odyssey" and "Valley of Dreams." But his career is a short one because of his 'leave-taking' of short sf and his subsequent early death. But I'd rank Niven higher, even though I don't think Niven ever wrote a story as good as the above two.

Tom Reamy is in the same boat as Weinbaum. Cordwainer Smith is also in a similar boat because of the relatively small number of stories he wrote. I'd account him a far better prosesmith than Heinlein, but I'd give Heinlein the edge in terms of consistent quality over a large body of work and because Heinlein's best stories are almost as good as Smith's best, and because there are far more of them spanning a broader range of genres ("The Man Who Travelled in Elephants" and "Our Fair City" and "Magic, Inc." are great fantasy stories, for instance).

In a different case, John Varley is hard to rate because his early output (up until the early 1980's) is so spectacular, while his later stuff, still very good, doesn't quite hit the same heights.

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Postby Jan » Sat May 20, 2006 9:01 am

I haven't read any Marquez stories, but personally, although I prefer Borge's style, I don't think Borges' LIBRARY or THE IMMORTAL are significantly better than Harlan's JEFFY or I HAVE NO MOUTH. In their own way they're all better than all the others, they're about equal to me. Those writers' output of great stories is also about the same, I believe (I'm not a Borges expert).

We should also not underestimate Harlan simply because he's in awe of Borges, Kersh etc. They all write/wrote their own brand of stuff, and some like those better than these, other haven't discovered that one etc.

It's not unusual that dead writers are put on a pedestal (they may deserve it), while the living are still so close to us, especially right here in the case of Harlan. I've discovered this to be true a number of times.

What you're sort of proposing, Rudiger, is judging the writers based on an imaginative exam scenario: Putting them all in adjacent rooms with a pile of blank paper and a pen/typewriter and then judging what they come out with.

The only way to compensate for the greatness of talent and of single achievements is to take quantity somewhat into account. Listing greatness (which is only potential) itself is easy: we would only need to rank the single best stories of each writer, and in your case, Weinbaum would probably be on top. By not even having had him on your list, you ARE taking quantity into account and need not have parodied my message the same day that Eric accused me of being hostile. :-)

Jan Hammer


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