Journal Entry

Thursday, August 31, 2006

What I Told Harlan Ellison

Cross-posted from Harlan Ellison's board:



I bet you can appreciate how I felt at the Hugos. I bet if you were in the audience and someone grabbed the breast of your friend and teacher -- and she soldiered on so as not to spoil the coming triumphs of the winners -- and then her assaulter got an award and an ovation and no one said a word...

I'd like to think you wouldn't be one to laugh it off. That you wouldn't be one of the posters now in the SFWA lounge saying "oh please, it was nothing" or "these PC types always overreact, can't we have a little fun" or (a thinly veiled version of)"it's not like she's young and pretty" or "well they kissed later", ie she must have asked for it, or "let's talk about something *important*."

I'd like to think that if it was your friend humilated onstage -- attacked, not as a writer, but as a woman -- you'd also spend the next week or so in a vengeful boil.

Now you've apologized. I appreciate that you did. I appreciate that you aren't trying to villify Connie. And the apology seems to have been mostly accepted, in this forum, among your fans, as sincere.

But beyond this forum, its tone has worked against it. You express doubt -- maybe even incredulity -- that Connie could have been offended. You talk about "political correctness" (as if you were Rush Limbaugh, for God's sake), which reads like you think people are overreacting. You characterize the apology as "puckish". You are "glad to have transcended our expectations". And you seem to imply that, as a holy fool, childish and irreverent, you are beyond the rules -- that if Connie was offended, you are sorry, but that having offended her is an anomalous, surprising, and bewildering occurence.

And nowhere do you say "I will never do anything like this again". It reads like you reserve the right, as a politically incorrect creature, to trespass and then apologize.

To those who don't know and trust you already, the apology comes across as either mocking and defiant, or simply not taking the matter seriously, like, "hee hee, what's the big deal?"

Here's the context: it seems that a lot of men -- particularly, to hell women my age tell it, older, powerful men -- in science fiction feel like women's bodies are fair game. Whether it's for a gag, a thrill, or a "sit down and shut the fuck up, bitch", this kind of thing goes on beyond the Hugo stage. A lot.

As it does in the wider world. A friend of mine who attended the Hugos had just been tit-grabbed by a stranger riding by on a bicycle in the street outside the Hugos the night before. Just for a minute of fun, because she was a woman, he brought her to tears of rage. For her, you grabbing Connie -- and Connie's first horrified reaction before she covered beautifully and went on with the show -- was the same damn thing, and the message was: you're not safe anywhere.

As long as the sincerity of your apology is in question outside the circle of your fans, it aids and abets the guys who think women just can't take a joke.

Here's the other thing. Nobody thinks it was about sex. Nobody thinks you did it for a cheap thrill. But there exists a very plausible interpretation that it was vengeful. Connie had just made fun of you about The Last Dangerous Visions, which got a horrified, gleeful "oooo" from the audience. You grumbled that she'd gotten the title of "Jefty" wrong. The duct tape, the hammer, swallowing the microphone... sure, it was comedy, but it also reads like an escalating duel. We couldn't tell how well you were taking the joke.

And since we know that Connie was furious; and we know you know her and should understand her reactions; and I for one honestly can't imnagine Connie reacting to the proposal of "hey, Connie, I know, then I'll grab your tit!" with "Great idea, Harlan, that'll slay 'em!" ... the interpretation that it was an angry joke is hard to shake off.

Not that it wasn't *also* tomfoolery gone too far. But that it had a kernel of "ok, shut the fuck up already."

That's how it played. And that's an abuse of power. It's far *worse* than Bush's massage of Merkel. That you were being Bush -- operating under a goofy, smug assumption that grabbing a woman is all in good fun -- is the best-case scenario. That you were trying to punish and silence Connie is the worst.

I mean, I don't know you. If you didn't know the guy in question, what would you think?

In some sense, I don't care about your motive. The public perception is what fills abusers with vindication and pride, and pisses me off. I don't care if you say "yes, there was some of that, and I am ashamed" or "God, I know it could look like that, but..." I just care that you take a stand.

Am I saying you can't be funny? I don't know. Connie, pissed off as she was, was pretty damn funny about it at breakfast. Maybe you can be funny.

But the current level of apology is not cutting it for me. Mind, I'm not worried about Connie. For one thing, Connie's no victim, and for another, that's between you and her.

No, I'm talking about the atmosphere in science fiction. We applauded a sexual assault at the Hugos, and now the web is full of folks saying "what's the big deal? get over it". I don't think I need to tell you that that is fucked up.

I wonder what Octavia Butler would say.

Take a stand, Harlan. Apologize for real.


Posted by benrosen at August 31, 2006 03:50 PM | Up to blog

Oh, Ben, thank you. As usual, you're wonderful and articulate in exactly the right ways.

Posted by: Susan Groppi at August 31, 2006 06:01 PM

Ben, thank you. I was so angry at myself, after the fact, for not booing the man off the stage. I posted about what on Earth kept us all from that over on my blog. I wish that those of us in the audience had handled it differently.

Posted by: Deanna Hoak at August 31, 2006 08:30 PM

One of the things good writers do is say the things that need to be said in the way they need to be said. This is a good piece of writing, Ben.

Posted by: Greg van Eekhout at August 31, 2006 08:33 PM

Shine on, man.

Posted by: Christopher at August 31, 2006 09:09 PM

Thanks, Ben.

Posted by: SarahP at August 31, 2006 09:36 PM

Well stated and bravely done, Ben.

Posted by: Paul Melko at August 31, 2006 09:44 PM

Oh, Ben. You are the bestest. Thank you.

Posted by: elizabeth bear at August 31, 2006 11:47 PM

Well said, Ben. Thanks for speaking up.

Posted by: Eugene at September 1, 2006 12:34 AM

But the current level of apology is not cutting it for me. Mind, I'm not worried about Connie. For one thing, Connie's no victim, and for another, that's between you and her.

No, I'm talking about the atmosphere in science fiction. We applauded a sexual assault at the Hugos, and now the web is full of folks saying "what's the big deal? get over it". I don't think I need to tell you that that is fucked up.

That's it. That is exactly what I was trying (and failing) to say. Thank you.

Posted by: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan at September 1, 2006 04:35 AM

Well said. *loffs the ben*

Posted by: chance at September 1, 2006 08:18 AM

Looks like your comment has been deleted.

Posted by: ed at September 1, 2006 10:02 AM

Well said, Ben. You rawk.

Posted by: Jason Erik Lundberg at September 1, 2006 10:04 AM

Ben: Yes. 1000 times yes.

Posted by: Tempest at September 1, 2006 11:35 AM


Posted by: James Stevens-Arce at September 1, 2006 12:27 PM

My detailed response in my journal -- I have a somewhat more conflicted response, though essentially in agreement with Ben:

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at September 1, 2006 12:30 PM

You're a credit to the species, my friend. Eloquent, perfectly stated, and heart-felt. If Harlan had responded to you with 'You're right, Ben. Again, I'm sorry, and it won't happen again'. This could have all gone away.

Posted by: Stephanie Dray at September 1, 2006 12:56 PM


Nicely said.

I have a friend who has had a "bad touch" experience with an individual in the pantheon and I'm glad to see you taking a stand.

There is no excuse for this form of behavior.

I just hope Mr. Ellison steps up and offers a sincere apology to not only Connie Willis, but to the community he represents.

He may not like the fact that there are people that look up to him, but he has a responsibility around his public actions.

Thanks for standing in the breach on this one.

Posted by: John A. Pitts at September 1, 2006 01:27 PM

thank you.

eloquent, and it gives me hope for the future.

Posted by: netter at September 1, 2006 08:41 PM

Thanks, Ben.

Am I cowardly for saying I'm so glad I wasn't there?

Posted by: Diane Turnshek at September 1, 2006 09:55 PM

Ed, my comment is still there, it's just gotten scrolled to the next page.

I'm sad about his response.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 1, 2006 10:27 PM

Diane--how would that be cowardly?

Posted by: Em Tersoff at September 1, 2006 11:03 PM

Well, I was going to post the following on Ellison's forum, but it seems to be closed down. So I'll post it here:

As a fairly neutral observer of the discussion of Harlan's actions at the Hugos, I'd like to make a comment regarding the sentiment of "he's apologized so let it go."

I believe that apologies are not meant to be inoculation against criticism, but rather acceptance of it. To have it otherwise dilutes the value of apologies—they become a self-interested way of closing the issue.

Posted by: Ethan at September 2, 2006 12:12 PM

Sadly, Harlan's subsequent response to complaints on his forum strongly supports the vengeful reading:

"...after playing straight man to Connie's very frequently demeaning public jackanapery toward me -- including treating me with considerable disrespect at the Grand Master Awards Weekend, where she put a chair down in front of her lectern as Master of Ceremonies, and made me sit there like a naughty child throughout her long "roast" of my life and career -- for more than 25 years, without once complaining, whaddays think, Mark, am I even a leetle bit entitled to think that Connie likes to play, and geez ain't it sad that as long as SHE sets the rules for play, and I'm the village idiot, she's cool ... but gawd forbid I change the rules and play MY way for a change ..."

Posted by: BenBurgis at September 2, 2006 06:52 PM

Oh, what words of profound wisdom from a wizened rebel. Distant quasars gleam in his eyes, and the music of the cosmic background radiation reverberates in his voice.

Ah, science fiction... the literature of limitless vision, of minds unafraid to plunge into infinity -- and beyond! -- dedicated to the exploration of the unknown, to making contact with other civilizations in the universe, determined to join the galactic community of worlds, to break the very shackles of Time itself...

... and groping women's breasts.

Sometimes I get sick of being human. Sometimes I wish I was something other than a descendant of apes. Reading Ellison's reply is one of those moments.

Posted by: A.R.Yngve at September 5, 2006 03:57 AM

Video of the grope:

Posted by: at September 5, 2006 06:15 PM

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