Preaching to the Quire

08/11/98 (Guest Ranter: K.C. Locke)

For those among you who might not know, a quire is twenty-four sheets of paper. Takes twenty of 'em to make a ream. Apropos of nothing, it might also interest you to know that ten reams make up a bale.

So the title of this pot of bile and venom is a play on words, see: the actual colloquialism is "Preaching to the choir," and means to rant and rave to those who already know and are on your side. As I have it, "Preaching to the quire": to rant and rave to the page, with very little expectation that it will ever get any farther. Having insulted my tiny readership, I will now get down to it.

Whether I am or not, I think of myself as a pretty good friend of Harlan Ellison. He's a super guy - very supportive of new writers, interesting, interested, voluble, intelligent, with a vast array of facts and information at his mental fingertips. He has had me to his home for lunch, and continues to accept my calls, when he's not under a deadline or three, or otherwise very busy. He's a good guy.

This, mind you, is in addition to being a very, very talented writer who has won his weight in awards: Nebulas, Hugos, Edgars, the Bram Stoker Award, awards from the Writers Guild of America - west for best teleplays (teleplays, incidentally, that were never produced as written). Even a Silver Pen award for journalism from P.E.N. He's very proud of that one, and justifiably so: while he considers himself a professional in all respects, he doesn't claim any special leanings toward talent in journalism. To him, it was quite a reward for what was, to him, another series of columns relentlessly and thanklessly telling the truth.

Isn't that strange? Here, Harlan Ellison has been in the writing business for over forty years, now. He started selling in '55, '56, and hasn't looked back. He's been praised by Dorothy Parker. He has given us such collections as Gentleman Junkie and other tales of the hung-up generation, Ellison Wonderland, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, Deathbird Stories, Shatterday, Angry Candy and his latest, Slippage. He has produced such novels as Spider Kiss and The Juvies. And he has written a number of books of non-fiction, such as the excellent Memos From Purgatory, The Glass Teat (and its companion piece, The Other Glass Teat) and An Edge In My Voice. He's even had a story selected for The Best American Short Stories, from Slippage, "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore". And, as mentioned, awards all along the way.

He marched with Dr. King to Selma, Alabama. His work in the Glass Teat books got him squelched by Spiro T. Agnew, when he was already on Tricky Dick's "enemies" list. He's currently campaigning (again) to save two hundred acres of watershed land that back up to his neighborhood. He wrote, according to TV Guide, one of the one hundred most-watched episodes of television (Star Trek's "City On the Edge of Forever," one of the teleplays mentioned among the foregoing awards).

So the man's been around the block. He's done stuff. He's been called the 20th Century Lewis Carroll. He's one writin' son-of-a-bitch. White Wolf Publishing is issuing the Edgeworks series, a collection of his backlist, at a rate of two volumes a year - you don't believe me, go read for yourself. Harlan Ellison can write!!

So, if you're anything like me (and God help you, if that's the case), you're wondering "Where is he?"

Well, he's at his home in Sherman Oaks, California, writing, taking care of business. Where he's not is the Books Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle. He was, briefly; but not anymore.

What happened was this:

Once upon a time, there was a Books editor who called Harlan Ellison and claimed he was a fan. He said he wanted Ellison to review books for the SF Chronicle. Harlan had no problem with that - but he has a set of rules. He's been doing this for a long time, remember. He's a writer - if he's going to write for you, he thinks you should publish what he writes. He's not one of those cranks who thinks every comma is golden - he just wants what he writes to make it to the page. He insists that he get a look at the copy before it goes to press. Reasonable or not, them's the rules. The guy swears, on his Tante Sarah, all this shall be done. Hey - he's a fan, remember? So he knows what the rules are, and must have been prepared to adhere to them or he would never have called, right?

Harlan never saw copy. He wrote a helluva review for a helluva book - and the goniff cut it by two-thirds, then homogenized it so that, presumably, it would be more palatable to the average reader. Which is to say, he trimmed it to the length "required," and dumbed it down to nice-nice so everyone would say, "Ooh, what a lovely book," and the Chronic would have the pleasure of being able to announce that they had Harlan Ellison, the esteemed, award-winning, etcetera, working a by-line for them.

There might be alternate views on the matter, but that's what it cuts down to. There are a number of newspapers - such as the L.A. Times and, now, the San Francisco Chronicle - for whom Ellison refuses to write, because of such treatment. And he's the difficult one.

 Now, don't misunderstand me: Harlan's a chum, and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him, did he ask and it were within my feeble powers to achieve; but he didn't put me up to this. The sounds of fury and grave disappointment in his voice on the phone could, would and should have been heard coming from any caring literary craftsman. I'm making a fuss because a fuss needs to be made.

About a year ago, I had an essay published in San Francisco FRONTIERS. It was inspired by another article I had recently read concerning the practice of "bare-backing," or deliberately unsafe sex, usually with one partner's sero-status in the positive. I was mystified, frustrated, saddened and furious, so I wrote and submitted this essay. Got a call from Lauren Hauptmann, the editor-in-chief. She wanted it, at nine cents per word. Great! Did I get a look at the copy? No - but I'm new, and no one knows me, so I ain't disposed to make a scene over it. Besides, I was assured by Ms. Hauptmann that she's real good at what she does, that's why they hired her. Okay - I trust her to do right by me on this important issue.

Well, I got done. Look, I didn't expect to make a whole bunch of new friends with the essay; it was fierce, it was written to make people angry, to make people uncomfortable, to pull their nose-hairs and get their attention so they would look at what the hell was going on. It was supposed to be an inflammatory piece of writing. I knew that - what I did not know was that Ms. Hauptmann would carve out the pieces that portrayed me as a compassionate, caring person who was making this big schtuss because he didn't want anyone else to get sick, who didn't want any more people to have to face the wasting and the death. What I sounded like, after her capable ministrations, was a thoughtless tub-pounder who finally had a platform to mouth-off about something. And I got some really hateful mail over it, but not for the reasons I should have got it, and never was afforded the opportunity to reply.

How is it that editors get this notion that they are the Masters of the Revolution? That they alone can put the high-shine on another writer's piece of work? That we should just shut up and take our lousy nine-cents-per-word (which, actually, isn't that lousy, on the beginner's pay scale), whether the scribe in question is the renowned Harlan Ellison or whatsizname, that Locke kid?

Busy? Yes, they are. Working with writers? They should be, but rarely are. Somehow, rather than delegating such scut work to underlings, they are so wrapped up in concern over the advertising layouts and assorted whatnot, they can't, don't or won't take time to do their job with the honor and integrity that their position demands.

Or is it that they have so little time or talent for writing themselves that they take it upon themselves to act out their sense of creativity on the product of another's sweat and toil? Are they martinets, drunk on their own sense of power? Are they simply in too lofty a position to give a good goddamn about what they're doing to a writer's credibility by cocking up their work and leaving the writer's name on the leftover, byproduct muck?

Is it really just a case of "Getting the issue out?"

I'll tell you a story; true story: last summer, during the onslaught of movie blockbusters, I read a review in the Chroniclexaminer (they really are the same paper, both Hearst papers, and both edited and published by the same guy) that just sent me through the ceiling. A review for, of all things, Batman & Robin. Now it wasn't a timeless classic, certainly; I found plenty to gripe about, both as a moviegoer and a "Batman" fan. But I read this review, and all I get is six bloody columns of "I hate it; it stinks; it's a piece of dreck you should never see," yadda-yadda and, furthermore, yadda.

This is a review? I think not. I rush to my typewriter and dash off a hot letter to editor and publisher (of both papers, remember) Lee J. Guittar, announcing my state of dudgeon at this offensive piece of sloppy, slip-shod tripe advertised as a film review. I refresh his memory of what such things are supposed to be by telling him what I expect from them - which is that the very purpose of criticism is to discuss the good and bad as equitably as possible, so that film-makers can make better movies and audiences can demand better movies, because eventually they will know the difference.

To my delight and surprise, I received a response! Typed and signed by Mr. Guittar himself! Nifty as that experience was, both surprise and delight swiftly caught the last train to Boot Hill as I read his response. Very indulgently (not to say patronizingly; heaven forfend!), Mr. Guittar wrote of how we could get together like chums and discuss the purpose of criticism far into the fog-enshrouded San Francisco night, but: his idea of the critic's job was strictly limited to helping people decide how to spend their entertainment dollars.

I didn't bother with a reply. Clearly, his response was merely a matter of polite form, along the lines of writing "Thank You" notes for birthday presents and bar mitzvah gifts. And, while it was nearly cheering to know that someone in charge had actually read my missive (he even quoted it!), I didn't really want to discover just how thoroughly even this, the last bastion of cultural troublemakers, was enslaved by the Almighty Dollar.

Why do I continue to be surprised when writers get shat upon? Whether its Lauren Hauptmann at the helm of her limited-readership rag, or the meretricious miscreants at the Hearst Paper(s) in what is often thought of as the Last Outpost of Liberal Activism, that's what's happening. Yet no writers are willing to go to the wall over it. When, precisely, did it become more important to sell more newspapers than to do the work with integrity, honor and attention to one's craft? When did newspapers cave to the ghoulish interests of a semi-literate public; not only cave, mind you, but actually support the status quo by not demanding more of their readership? How is it that newspapers relate the news almost begrudgingly, and offer no challenges? They've been bending public opinion practically since the invention of the alphabet - why do they insist on bending it down? And if editors have so little taste for what the writers give them, why not dispense with the writers entirely and do the fucking job themselves?

My money says it's because they can't.

Addendum from Doc
t has been brought to my attention that the Chronic and the Extort-, er, Examiner are *not*, in fact, the same newspaper. Never mind that, inch for column inch, they read the same, weigh the same, taste the same, and are equally poor substitutes for toilet tissue -- they are very, very different. One is a De Young publication (The Chronic) and the other is brought to us by the pixies at Hearst (The Extortionist). So they happen to join forces every Sunday -- they are different papers. Honest. I'm sorry I deceived anyone on the matter; that was mean and small of me. And if you will kindly add this as an afterword to the piece, I'm sure that all parties will be satisfied. Those who aren't remain as welcome as ever to kiss my pale, fuzzy ass.

Doc Locke, Webderland's most prolific reviewer, invites you to visit him at Mesmeratronics, Inc.

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