(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.