There’s an old bit of wisdom that says, roughly paraphrased, if you pick up a snake and it bites you, it’s not the snake’s fault.
My wife is an avid science fiction reader, but she’s never been to an SF convention. When her favorite SF author Harlan Ellison was announced as the guest of honor for local convention MadCon, she decided to make that her first convention experience. We signed up for the con, including the guest of honor banquet and speech.
The banquet was scheduled for 7-9, including Mr. Ellison’s after-dinner speech. To allow enough leeway, we told the sitter we’d be back by 10:30. We were lucky enough to sit with Onion writer John Krewson, which made the evening even more entertaining.
Now, for those of you who don’t know about Ellison, he’s legendary for both his writing and his cantankerousness (see this recent interview). I’d never met him before, but the stories that preceded him made him sound a lot like the devil, in the sense that you were better off if he didn’t know you existed. Just the day before the banquet, at a local bookstore signing, he snatched a cell phone from a fan who had been filming him and stomped on it. He’s that sort of extreme personality.
Mr. Ellison did not begin his remarks until about 9. Keep in mind he’s both legendary and elderly, and wasn’t even sure earlier in the week that he’d be able to show up. I certainly don’t begrudge him taking his time and enjoying what he says will be his last convention. Hell, I got a backpat from him for being the only person in the room* who knew the source of his “Phlegm Snopes” joke. But he rambled, went off on tangents, and abused people at will (usually to their delight) until we realized he wasn’t going to finish before we had to leave. Still, this was Harlan Ellison, my wife’s favorite author; it seemed impossibly rude to just get up and walk out in the middle of his speech.
Then he made it easy for us.
He abruptly stopped, pointed at my wife and said “You. You’re making me nervous.” He added (I’m paraphrasing) that he could read body language, could tell she need to leave and that she should just go ahead and do so. She told him it was due to the babysitter, and he joked that we should bring the kids the next day so he could make them cry. Left with no other graceful choice, we departed as quickly as possible. The crowd applauded and sang us out with “Aloha ʻOe,” which I suppose is better than the chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
We laughed about this on the way home. After all, if this truly is his last convention, we may be the last people he chases from a room. It certainly gave us a great story. Still, when she asked how I’d feel if Bruce Springsteen (one of my heroes) had done the same thing, I got a glimpse of how she really felt.
I don’t talk about my wife much online, but she’s a very intelligent woman, at least 20% smarter than me. She’s also a person of immense dignity. I certainly don’t think I should’ve made a scene, or engaged Mr. Ellison in any way, since the evening was all about him, not us. But I’m sad for her. She has a vast collection of Ellison books, and knows his work intimately. I can only imagine how it feels to be publicly dismissed by him.
This is not an indictment of Mr. Ellison. He is who he is, and that persona is well known. We bought the tickets; in effect, we picked up the snake. That it bit us is unfortunate, but not really the snake’s fault.
I want to give a special-shout out to the fan (I’m sorry I don’t recall your name) who said how disappointed she was to learn I wasn’t on any panels at the con. I was disappointed, too (being on panels is why I go to these things), but she made up for it. Fans, if you ever doubt a kind word to someone whose work you admire matters, let me assure you, it does.
Well…it does to most of us.
*It was a room full of scholars and writers, too. Come on, people, no matter what genre you work in, you should know Faulkner. I’m just sayin’.