#11 - Valerie: A True Memoir

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AlexKrislov
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Postby AlexKrislov » Mon Apr 25, 2005 4:59 pm

Barney -- still hurts that much, huh? Damn, that's too bad. Real mobility is something we all take for granted, until a shredder takes a bite out of us. Hope it heals as swiftly as possible.

Jon -- I certainly don't mean to imply that I'm standing above Rich on some basic cultural level. Hell, I may be reacting viscerally myself. Y'see, by me, a lot of the "Ellison don' like dem womenfolk!" arguments grow out of the era we were all living through when they started. It was the heyday of feminism. And make no mistake, that was a good thing. Harlan won a lot of respect for his support of feminism. But at the same time, when a new cultural identity was being forged for women, there was also a new awareness of the old identity, and how stultifying and, yes, often hateful that identity could be. And as a result, well, some folks saw it everywhere.

As Jim points out so well, "Valerie" isn't about all women, or even a lot of women. It's about one particular woman and, hey, she's a bitch. They do exist, you know, and are often hard to trap in the wild.

To call a piece about a single woman an example of misogeny is to debase the term--unless the author makes an implicit argument that the bad qualities of the subject are a result of her being a woman.

And Harlan doesn't do that, does he?

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Postby Duane » Mon Apr 25, 2005 6:22 pm

If Harlan is such a misogynist, why is a topless Valerie posing IN FRONT of the trampoline in the photo and not JUMPING UP AND DOWN on it?

Preferably in a miniskirt.

While Harlan soaks her with a garden hose.

Is Harlan naked and wearing a Napoleon hat? One's imagination can only soar so high.

rich

Postby rich » Mon Apr 25, 2005 7:24 pm

AlexKrislov wrote:As Jim points out so well, "Valerie" isn't about all women, or even a lot of women. It's about one particular woman and, hey, she's a bitch.

Yes, Harlan's essay is about a pariticular woman in his life, but he circles that back with some words that some of the women in his life caused him to be the way he is. Go back and read that quote I posted from the end of the essay.

Now Ellison's inclusion of those females towards the end of the essay may be nothing more than to impart some type of universal justification for what he's written, but the fact is he wrote it. Harlan's gotten good words for his work with women's rights and the introductions that are in The Essential Ellison indicate that Harlan is a friend to all women, furry animals, and Jews for Jesus. BUT, the essay "Valerie" belies those words.

I deliberately picked this essay as a way to open up the discussion on Ellison's work and whether there is misogyny in that work or not. It was broached by Eric in "Prowler..." and he was immediately and promptly trashed with very few of us actually bothering to critically look at the work itself. I picked "Valerie" because I honestly think this is a hateful piece of work and it appears to me that this essay COULD be used as proof for any accusation of misogyny in Ellison's work.

Barney and Alex are correct that one essay does not a career make or validate a blanket assertion of misogyny in Ellison's output, but that shouldn't mean the topic is forbidden or shouldn't be discussed. I'm not implying that anyone is forbidding that we not talk about this subject, but it's clear from the asides to Eric that we seem to be straying from the subject at hand and implicitly saying that anyone who brings up the word misogyny in Ellison's work is a friend of Eric's and doesn't know what he's talking about. Since we all know how Harlan feels about Eric, well, good luck getting a good seat in the Pavilion. And for the record, I consider myself a friend of Eric's.

Now if Barney and Alex are saying what Jim says, that yes, it's not exactly a top ten, but this one essay does not prove anything other than Harlan really really disliked Valerie enough to write about her so what else is there to say? Let's move on.

Okey dokey. Let's move on. I mean, I certainly don't want to take up too much bandwidth with discussing something that everyone agrees isn't his best work---how many times can someone say they didn't like something and how many ways do we really need to say that?---, but I do think we should take the bad with the good and not willingly ignore those aspects of Harlan Ellison's work that may make us uncomfortable.

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Postby AlexKrislov » Mon Apr 25, 2005 7:47 pm

Rich, be assured that I'm not saying the topic is forbidden or jumping onto some "looka, looka, I don't like Eric!" bandwagon. I was commenting on your message, primarily, which I did think worthy of response. I didn't even read the thread about Harlan's old Ripper story until afterward. Frankly, that's not one of my favorites; it never sang to me. Nor did that particular Bob Bloch story. This, despite my raging hard-on for Dangerous Visions generally, and my enormous collections of the work of both men.

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Postby Jon Stover » Mon Apr 25, 2005 8:38 pm

You know, the funny thing is I did kick this off with a mention of "Valerie" as off-hand being the one thing I could think of that might be misogynistic or sexist of Harlan's, in an email to rich, natch. In a later email, I noted that I thought it was something else but that I still found it vile, all my experience with evil people notwithstanding. So now I've re-read it again for the second time in two days, Hornbook edition with two topless shots for the price of admission and...

I still think it's vile. I don't think Harlan's vile and I don't think "Valerie" can be used to bop other Ellison essays and stories over the head with, but I do find it an ugly piece of work. It's not the fact that Harlan presents himself as a schmuck, and tells us again and again that he's acting badly or foolishly as he describes himself acting badly and foolishly that makes the essay curdle like a Cement Mixer in my mouth but without the sweet, sweet booze that makes a Cement Mixer liveable.

Here's what my revulsion for "Valerie" boils down to:

The combination of Harlan's self-fashioning as a manipulated horndog in the essay with the essay's existence as a means of revenge. If Barney wants an itemized list, I suppose I could whip one up from the essay, but my point is there's something jarringly, nastily UnEllison-like in this mewl of hard-done-by-ness and 'Gosh, I'm only human and can be manipulated' done up as a work of writerly revenge. If the piece were filled with honest virtriol or rage, it would be fine because it would be directly about revenge. But it isn't direct.

As is, it smacks of dishonesty and manipulation. As I'm incapable of reading HE's mind, I can't speak to why that is, but as I can generally read my own mind (cobwebs and all), I can say that my gut reaction is that I feel like I'm being conned by the essay.

That doesn't mean I think the events didn't happen. It means that this is the one essay of Harlan's where I feel like I'm supposed to feel sorry for someone as he (or HE) gets his vengeance in print. And it leaves a bad taste. And because of that feeling, I feel like I'm being conned -- and that feeling of being conned ends up extending outwards to other essays of Harlan's for a time after re-reading "Valerie," assessing whether the reactions I've had to those essays have actually been earned or whether I'm being conned again -- whether I've been asked, as "Valerie" asks me, to feel sorry for the poor guy, to nod as he details his mistakes while he's in the act of publically hitting the object of his wrath with a (metaphorical) baseball bat disguised as a sympathy card for himself.

All this doesn't mean that I've had some image of Harlan demolished by three photos and one essay. I don't have him on a pedestal. But there is a certain level of trust I have with the rest of Harlan's work, the feeling, derived simply from reading his stories and his essays, that he's not trying to fuck with me as a reader -- that, to paraphrase Theodore Dreiser, he isn't truckling. He's telling the truth. "Valerie," though -- "Valerie" truckles. It wants to move me as cheaply around the board as pornography or a sentimental love song. And with that manipulativeness attached to this itemized mewl built for revenge and sympathy -- well, I think it's vile, and hopefully I've explained that reasonably well enough.

But I don't think it's misogynistic.

Cheers, Jon

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Postby P.A. Berman » Mon Apr 25, 2005 8:39 pm

I think everyone has had themselves a Valerie or two, either as lovers, or friends, or family members-- someone who you trust when you know you shouldn't, and then when they take you for a ride, you feel chewed up and spit out. I don't think that is a gender-specific scenario, and only in the context of some of HE's other works does a pattern of disturbing portrayals of women emerge.

Here are the things that bother me about "Valerie: A True Memoir":

1. That Harlan fails to recognize his role in his own fuck-over. Either he truly knew her as a person or he didn't. If he knew her, then somewhere not too far inside he knew she was baaaad news and suppressed that knowledge because she was beautiful or charming or a great lay or all of the above. In that case, he's being disingenuous as hell when he claims victimhood. If he didn't know her that well, then why agree to have her move in? Why give her such intimate access? I don't know about you, but I don't want people I don't really know to live in my house and sleep in my bed. It's a bad idea. Again, you have to look in the mirror for the person who is ultimately responsible for the fuckover.

2. That he's still getting his revenge all these years later. Not to compare pains, but I've been fucked over much worse than Valerie fucked over Harlan. Muuuch worse, emotionally, monetarily, etc. But there comes a time when you have to let that shit go, because you give the person power if you continue to feed that anger and place that blame. Valerie, if she's still alive, is probably a wrinkled old lady now, not that gamine vixen of the photo. Let it go, man, lest you seem like a bitter, vindictive crank who grinds an axe until it's a scalpel and continues to hack away.

3. There could be a case made that Harlan has some dark feelings towards women. I could make a list of stories that have made me feel that way, but maybe that would be better in a separate thread (I tried to open a separate thread about this once, but it was discouraged at the time). In that context, one might think that Harlan failed to take responsibility for his dark feelings and blamed the women, and vented some of that darkness out in his writing. I don't think that makes him a misogynist. Everyone has dark feelings about the opposite gender, to one degree or other. Some are darker than others, and Harlan admittedly has a more checkered past with women than most. At least he's venting it in his writing, which is a healthy outlet, rather than in a less creative, constructive way. It's just tough to read sometimes, especially when it's as gratingly rendered as it is in this essay.

PAB

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Postby Jim Davis » Mon Apr 25, 2005 9:14 pm

I'm not sure what else I can add to the thread that hasn't already been said, either by myself or others. I still think accusing "Valerie" of being misogynistic is a bit much, though it's certainly spiteful in many ways, and possibly sexist in others. To me, misogyny involves a visceral hatred of women as a whole, and though "Valerie" demonstrates many unfortunate lapses of judgement and character on Harlan's part, I don't think the essay rises (or descends) to that level.

That said, I really hope Harlan finds this thread, and chimes in with his five cents. Did he pick "Valerie" for The Essential Ellison, and would he un-choose it if he could? The misogyny tag aside, does he find any of our criticisms valid? And what the fuck is his problem with Pearl Bailey?

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Postby Harlan Ellison » Mon Apr 25, 2005 11:07 pm

I'm not getting into this with you people. The piece was written truthfully, immediately after the events therein recounted transpired...it WAS a weekly column, you know...sans any time-lapse for the disingenuousness of which I stand accused. All details and emotions were enumerated.

But there IS one little kitten-toy I'm goinng to take away from you, Rich.

And it is this:

When "Valerie" was first reprinted, the readership of the book (apparently unable to distinguish non- from actual-fiction) included many people who didn't "understand the story." They thought, since it was a collection, that it was yet another piece of dreamed-up fiction. I had to explain it was a TRUE STORY many times. So for the first reprint, I removed the simple title "Valerie" and changed it to "Valerie: a true story." And they STILL didn't get it. So the next time I changed it to "Valerie: a Memoir." Still didn't get the message across. So finally, I called it--as a sort of ball peen hammer across the goat's snout--"Valerie: a TRUE memoir."

That's why, in another book, I had to label the non-fiction
SCENES FROM THE REAL WORLD
because there are a lot of slovenly readers out there.

So you can put away your mail-order doctorate of psychology on THAT one, sweetie; and go back to the real sins I've committed. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Harlan Ellison

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Postby AlexKrislov » Tue Apr 26, 2005 10:50 am

Harlan's message reminded me of something I'd meant to add to my comments, but forgot to.

When I first read Valerie, it was in the L.A. Freep. It was split into two or three parts in Harlan's weekly column. Three, I'm fairly sure. And it worked not just as a column, but as a cliffhanger. You wanted to know what would happen next. It had an immediacy that you might not feel when you read it in a book, with all three parts cozily nestled together. Waiting for the next part was fun--like any good serial can be. It played into the feeling that this had just happened, and even gave a sense that it was happening as you waited for the next part.

Yeah, it's a memoir, but that word plays against that sense of immediacy that Harlan achieved in the piece. Try to read it like a serial, and see if it doesn't work better for you. I bet it will.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Apr 26, 2005 11:37 am

Alex: I doubt it, though you are right that it would seem much less harsh if the piece were written close to the time of the incident. When it's anthologized in a 50 year retrospective, it takes on a very spiteful cast. Add to that the picture, which was unnecessary, especially considering she is an old woman now, and it makes Harlan look like a person who holds a grudge for ever and ever, beyond the point of reason.

I'm not saying Valerie wasn't an awful person who was terrible to him, but in the big scheme of things, what she did to him was a pretty standard sort of fuck-over, IMO not worthy of the massive, long-term hurt and internal deadness he ascribes to it. It makes me want to shake him and say, "Snap out of it already! You trusted a bad egg, but you opened yourself up to it. Time to let it go."

I also think Harlan misses the lesson of the incident and doesn't seem to recognize how bad it makes him look. It's that he either needed to think harder and with the correct head when deciding to get involved with women, or that he has a masochistic streak when it comes to choosing mates. I am happy for him that he has been able to find Susan and has recovered from a lifetime of bad choices, but that's what Valerie was-- a bad choice made by a man who should have and could have known better. It reminds me of that story the Indian chief tells in Natural Born Killers-- he knew she was a snake when he picked her up, as indicated in the quote from the essay provided by Jim, so why blame the snake for being the snake? Blame the person who blithely ignores the rattle for what were undoubtedly less than noble reasons.

PAB

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Postby Jon Stover » Tue Apr 26, 2005 3:48 pm

Duane wrote:If Harlan is such a misogynist, why is a topless Valerie posing IN FRONT of the trampoline in the photo and not JUMPING UP AND DOWN on it?

Given the content of the essay(s), I've always assumed that was her diaphragm she was posed in front of.

TTFN, Jon

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Postby Guest » Tue Apr 26, 2005 6:56 pm

It was neither a trampoline nor a diaphragm. It was a canvas "sunning circle" to lie upon when sunbathing in the back yard; and I still own it. She was lying on it one afternoon, not long after we'd met, bare to the waist, when a photographer friend of mine stopped by to ask me if he could use the house for a shoot in a week or two, and she suggested to him that he take some photos "so Harlan will have something to remember me by."

I did indeed remember her.

The photos are hardly porn. They are barely cheesecake. They were (and remain) no more prurient than any photo study of a nude by Andre de Dienes or Bunny Yeager or Helmut Newton. Your "shock" and revulsion ring as falsely as Claude Rains's protestations in "Casablanca" when he avers that he is "shocked, shocked I tell you, that there is gambling here at Rick's Place." Your fulminations sound like the whited sepulcher bleats of rural boobs, stuck in the '50s, those whose minds are perpetually in the gutter. There are any number of photos in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON, including photos of me as a child, my mother, my father, others. These were the only photos I had of Valerie, they are absolutely appropriate and, despite all your 35-year-later bullshit assumptions as to why this, and why that, and how could he this or that...the simple reason I included them was so the reader could see what she looked like. This was a character study. Of me, of her, of one iconic act of betrayal and sociopathic behavior. It is neither mean nor grudgeful.

Most of what all of you, including Barney, but excepting Alex and his wife, have said about this piece, is jejeune and retroanalysis. It is crap.

And, of course, not one of you savants even considered that I didn't pick the items to go into the ESSENTIAL, though you pillory me as if I had. The contents for all three editions were selected free of my input by those who edited the book, all the way back to the late Richard Delap (who was gay, and not misogynist). You don't like the memoir, peachykeen. I did not know you when I wrote it, I barely know you now, and your opinion of the piece is your own business.

MY part of the business is slapping back at you when you seek to go beyond the written word and try to analyze my motivations from a three decade-plus blind where you squat waiting for ducks to bumble into your gunsights.

It is not duck season.

Harlan Ellison

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Postby P.A. Berman » Tue Apr 26, 2005 7:40 pm

The problem, Harlan, is when you publish, it's ALWAYS duck season. Our jejune interpretations represent those of the majority of your readers, I'd imagine, which must suck for you. Is your writing so obtuse that none of us can get the correct interpretation? If all your readers are the obtuse ones, then why publish at all, doomed to misinterpretation as your writing is? Or is the only appropriate interpretation the one that agrees with yours? Because that's not how it works, more's the pity.

PAB

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Postby rich » Tue Apr 26, 2005 7:51 pm

"It is neither mean nor grudgeful."

With all due respect (and that is sincere whether you believe it or not), I'm of the opinion that it is mean and grudgeful.

So there it is.

But three things and my beating of this dead horse is done.

1) You may think our "analysis" is crap and can dismiss it as you have, but I think the "analysis" that Alex and his wife did is crap, too. Funny how their glowing praise of a half-ass column depicting a "day in the life" is the only one that isn't "crap" in your opinion. Then again, I'm not much of a literary critic, shit, I don't even get paid for my opinion, and I certainly couldn't afford a mail-order degree in criticism since I spent all my money on this half-ass psychology doctorate.

2) This "savant", knowing the author is notorious for his pedantic editing skills of his own work and notorious for the control he has over his own work, assumed that the author had some say in what was in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON. I was wrong.

3) No one's duck hunting. At least I don't think we were. The bad should be analyzed as well as the good and ALL are opinions, given weight through interpretation of a collective understanding of the author's work. We're not looking for the author's agreement of our interpretation (rather, I'm not), but I am trying to find out what the author is trying to say and why the author is saying it.

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Postby akojen » Tue Apr 26, 2005 8:31 pm

Eeek, and here I was getting ready to post in favor of Valerie. Um, the essay, not the person. Must be my masochistic nature coming out. I'm guessing that I'm just waaaay tougher to offend.

Our jejune interpretations represent those of the majority of your readers, I'd imagine, which must suck for you.

Uh, five out of two hundred fifteen do not a majority make. And I would hazard to guess that more than two hundred fifteen people buy Harlan's work. Otherwise Ellison Wonderland would be considerably smaller. And in a really crappy neighborhood.

No reason to post my li'l essay now. I think Alex and Harlan covered the salient points. So am I one of Harlan's tools now, or just an asskisser? Sheesh.

amy


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