My Harlan Ellison Story

October 20th, 2011

(This is the first in a series of entries about visiting writers I’ve encountered at the University of Kansas back in the 1970s, when I was working on my M.A. in English, and was still quite undecided about what to do with the rest of my life, whether to pursue an uncertain future as a writer, or maybe a more traditional career as a teacher engaged in academic research and scholarship.)

Although I had read a great many science fiction novels when I was still in high school in Manila, I did not encounter the work of James Gunn until years later, when I was a student in the English Department at the University of Kansas, where Gunn was actually one of two faculty members who taught creative writing (the other one was Edgar Wolfe).  I quickly read most of Gunn’s books, which he preferred to call “speculative fiction” instead of “science fiction.”  And, to this day, one of my favorite novels is Kampus, his Kafkaesque novel about what campus unrest would be like in the near future, a novel which I also taught regularly in a class about depictions of life in academia, alongside other, more canonical works like Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Changing Places by David Lodge, etc.

Living amongst many colleagues who were Doubting Thomases, disdainful of anything which smacked of genre writing, in which science fiction was held with the same disregard as historical romances, James Gunn tried his best to bring some respect and legitimacy to the world of speculative fiction. To that end, he brought to the campus some of the hot, young writers who were making names for themselves not just in books, but in the movies as well.

One of the hot, young writers Gunn brought to KU was Harlan Ellison, whose apocalyptic short story “A Boy and His Dog” had just been made into a movie, an underground hit, a cult favorite among the hip and the restless.  I was lucky to get a seat in the classroom where Ellison was giving a lecture. When he strode into the room energetically, for some reason I thought he looked like a younger Groucho Marx, minus the hat, the glasses, the moustache, the cigar.  Maybe it was just his grin, the gleam in his eye, the promise of unpredictability.

Actually, I don’t remember much about what Harlan Ellison said that day, in the formal part of his presentation. What I remember is what happened afterwards, during the Q&A, when one of undergraduate creative writing majors raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, “Mr. Ellison, can you give us some advice on how to get our stories published?”

“That’s simple,” Ellison smiled. “Where would you like to get published?”

“I don’t know,” the acolyte fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.  “Maybe Playboy…or Esquire…or The New Yorker.”

“Well, it makes no difference where you want to get published,” Ellison grinned. “All you need to do is go buy some recent issues of your magazine of choice, read all the stories that are published in them, then sit down and write one just like them.”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s the same editor who has been deciding what stories to publish in the magazine.. Those are the kind of stories he likes. So sit down and write one just like the ones he likes, and chances are he’ll like yours, too.  That’s how you’ll get published, sonny.”

“B-b-b-but…isn’t that like…selling out?”

“You didn’t ask me about artistic integrity,” he grinned again, his eyes gleaming. “You asked me for advice on how to get your story published.”

There was dead silence in the room.  The students felt betrayed.  Now they have to look elsewhere for another Moses to lead them out of the wilderness of creative writing classes.  To this day, one hears the same arguments being tossed around by MFA students—Isn’t this writer too commercial? Hasn’t that writer sold out? Aren’t we all just better off writing things which we can admire and discuss endlessly in our workshops, never mind if our stories never get published in any magazine anyone recognizes?

But, back to Harlan Ellison. I thought it then, and I think it now.  He told it like it is, and for that I admire him. He’s been laughing all the way to the bank, right from the very beginning, when he was writing for such TV shows as The Loretta Young Show, Ripcord, Burke’s Law, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, The Flying Nun, etc. And now, it’s my understanding that, after nearly four decades of being an underground cult favorite,  A Boy and His Dog is finally going big-time. It’s in pre-production, being remade as an animated feature, due out in major theaters in 2012.

Quite fortuitously, James Gunn is also still around.  Although he retired many years ago, Gunn still shows up daily in his English Department office in Wescoe Hall at the University of Kansas, as hale and hearty as one can expect for a gentleman his age.  Maybe it’s time Gunn invites Harlan Ellison back for another campus visit, once more to share his craft and craftiness with our MFA students.


10 Responses to “My Harlan Ellison Story”

  1. Mary Davidsonon 20 Oct 2011 at 1:15 pm

    One of the faculty members delegated to escorting Harlan Ellison around came into the English Department office to tell us that Ellison “needs a woman.”
    I responded that “a woman” did not fall into the category of an umbrella or some other reasonable request. An older secretary (long considered prim by me) said that if he needs “a woman,” he should consult a taxi-driver.

  2. Paulon 20 Oct 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Great story, Mary. I hadn’t heard that one before.

  3. Paulon 20 Oct 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Here’s a note from James Gunn himself, which he sent directly to my email account:
    “Thanks for the thoughtful words, Paul. I wish I could invite Harlan back once more, but he hasn’t been well—in fact, he says he’s dying, but that may be just Harlan hyperbole. He didn’t make it to Seattle to accept his Hall-of-Fame award.”

  4. Paulon 20 Oct 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Here’s another note, sent directly to my email account by Richard Hardin:
    “Paul–Your last sentence might be thought to fit the rhetoric of what the rhetoric books used to call “the pious hope.” I however know you’re being ironic…. Didn’t Ellison wear shades in the classroom?”

  5. Paulon 20 Oct 2011 at 3:11 pm

    And still another one sent directly to my email account, from Ken Willard, one of my former playwriting students, who is himself now teaching at a high school in Kansas City, KS. Ken writes:
    “One of my favorite stories is his ‘Paladin of the Lost Hour.’ It’s one of the few stories that the kids like and somewhat understand. Besides, I may be wrong, but I believe the “Twilight Zone” screen adaptation is the last performance by Danny Kaye. Then again, I might be wrong.”

  6. Paulon 20 Oct 2011 at 3:16 pm

    You’re right, Ken. I just checked IMDb. Danny Kaye did appear in 1985 in The Twilight Zone adaptation of “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” but it wasn’t his final television appearance. His last appearance was in The Cosby Show’s “The Dentist” in 1986.

  7. Jeffon 21 Oct 2011 at 11:48 am

    Wonderful story as usual. Your words read so smoothly. The comments are a delight. Thank you.

  8. Ben Smithon 23 Oct 2011 at 9:06 pm


    Old Harlan is still very much in the right. It is the same sentiment expressed by Dr. Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote for any reason but money.”

    I have that quote scrawled on a post-it attached to the wall near my desk. Artistry is not what makes a writer anymore. In fact, I doubt if it ever made a writer…

    Write 20 years the shit you waded through before dabbling in the nectar of the gods that readers may find refreshing.

  9. Paulon 24 Oct 2011 at 7:33 am

    And this, also sent directly to my email account, from Alan Newton, a former playwriting student who is now the Dean of Faculty of the Global Leader Program at Bugil Academy in Korea: “Nice story, Paul. I met him once, too, in a crowd. When I was an undergraduate, a local bookstore brought him in to write a story in one hour, based on a single sentence prompt provided by the university president. I don’t remember what the prompt or story was about, but I remember that when he finished, Ellison looked rather annoyed and stated, “Never let an academic have anything to do with creativity.”

  10. Paulon 30 Oct 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Another one from Mary Davidson, who was a lecturer in the English Department for many years:

    “Actually, a KU student who could have written a story ‘just like’ a New Yorker story at that time would have been incredibly talented. Most of the New Yorker stories were very upper-class, adultery-in-Connecticut stories.”

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