Harlan Ellison Speaks Out on Writing and the Internet

David Lawrence loves blogging and the Internet. He calls it ?Citizens Publishing,? which I think means (a) anybody can say anything and (b) immediately publish it on the Internet where (c) everybody can read it for free.

I interviewed writer Harlan Ellison in the May issue of Writer?s Digest, and he had this to say about writing and the Internet (not specifically blogging):

?Vast hordes of semi- or untalented amateurs festoon the Internet with their ungrammatical, puerile trash, and they think because this ?vanity? publication gets seen by a few people, that they are ?writers.? Horse puckey!

?That isn?t being published; that?s the fanzine press. And there are fewer and fewer real venues for a professional writer nowadays to make a decent living at the craft. Half the world is illiterate, and the other half treads water in the gravy of hubris secretly knowing they can write, if only they had the spare time.

?The Internet has destroyed the use of the library, it has destroyed the use of the dictionary, and as a result people don?t speak as well, because when you go looking up a word in a dictionary, you pass fifty other words that stick in your head and you find other serendipitous stuff, and you just become a better, more literate, smarter and more well-rounded person.?

Writers, publishers, bloggers — is Harlan right? Or out of touch?


556 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison Speaks Out on Writing and the Internet

  • I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, “The medium is the message?” That’s essentially what makes email different from memos/interdepartmental mail and “just pickin’ up the phone.” It’s all about mode.

    Apply the same logic to blogs. Sure, it’s a lot like Maslow’s hammer looking for a nail, but there are a lot of nails out there.

    Want to see the retarded-side erm…, most inappropriate use of the medium? Check out http://www.micheleagnew.com. It’s about a woman who’s perfected the art of blogging to promote her cult of personality for the sole purpose of increasing the number (quantity, not quality) of comments she gets per posting. It reminds me of what happened with the CB Radio in the ’70s. Remember those days?

  • Great interview, Bob!

    Harlan has earned his right to be a cantankerous dinosaur. His talent can still be expressed through a typewriter, though I don’t know why he isn’t using a quill pen.

    Like too many others, he didn’t make the cut when it came to technology that involves electricity or computers. His lack of confront on things of this century can be forgiven, but his attitude toward the internet seems more like sour grapes. There are highly successful writers using the internet every day and they are using blogs to promote their books!

    Citizen publishing is to publishing as the Gutenberg press was to Monastic copiers, just another way to get the word out to the public. The medium does not determine the quality of the writer, but it does determine who shall be heard. Harlan evidently has trouble with others being heard. Pity…

    This blogging medium may go the way of CB radio, but I rather doubt it, because there is no way at present of bloggers cutting your communication. Blogs can carry every inspired, insipid, or provocative message that any other communication medium can carry, but you will not be bothered unless you search for their messages.

    I believe that more communication, not less, is the answer to many problems. Technology that facilitates open and uninterrupted communication will succeed.

    I think that we have barely scratched the surface, but what do I know? I’m older than Ellison, just not stuck in yesteryear.

  • I can’t reply with some brilliant answer, but I do have to agree with Mr. Ellison that writing is much more then putting a bunch of badly spelled words on a paper or publishing on the internet. Yet, I alo know I have read a few things from those same uneducated and semi-literate writers which touched my heart or caused me to speak up about something I had previously been silent about. No, they were not properly written. They were not created byt an educated person, yet they spoke loud and clear to me and for me at that moment in time. One thing which Mr. Ellison seems to have forgotten to mention was that if we don’t like what we see we don’t have to buy it or read it..but isn’t it great that we all can say it outloud?

  • In search of: The Perfect Blog
    I was going to write about the wonders of XML and the start of my new class at RIT, but when blogs become news, well… that’s news. Microsoft is ready to blunder charge into the Web log “business” (it’s a…

  • “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” — A.J. Liebling

    I don’t see how email and blogs encouraging more people to write and read is a detriment to writing or reading. Perhaps a lot more people who don’t write well are now writing more frequently, but A) that should help them write better and B) don’t read their blog if it doesn’t interest you. If it’s dross about their personal life, the target audience is probably their friends and family.

    The blogosphere is a perfect meritocracy. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, not a lot of people will read your blog.

    On the other hand, putting tools in the hands of everyday people that lets them express their insights to the world is a good thing, in my book. A lot of experts in their fields and otherwise informed, passionate or opinionated people are sharing their knowledge and insights who otherwise wouldn’t have had a voice. It’s fair to say 99% of blogs are bad, but that still leaves 1% of several million — many thousands — that are very well written indeed.

    Besides, getting published is certainly no guarantee of high quality. There are many dreadful books in the library, and most newspapers in the country are virtually unreadable. Not to mention accuracy (e.g., Jayson Blair, Jack Kelly, Janet Cooke, Mike Barnicle, etc.).

    Blog readers obviously need to exercise some caution (i.e., don’t believe everything you read on the Internet), but most bloggers are pretty transparent and you can see quickly what you are getting from them as regards their point of view, politics, level of credibility and expertise and so on.

    If you don’t like what you see, you’re free to move on, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the Internet, much less blogs, for the deterioration of writing or reading in America. Frankly, I bet well all spend a lot more time both writing and reading since the advent of email and the Web, and I don’t see any way that it’s a bad thing.

  • If people are worried about good words being lost in a sea of bad ones, think about how the uncheck-ed out Tolsoties must feel in Harlan’s cherished libraries.
    There’s this famous old saying – he who smelt it dealt it. It seems human nature – as soon as people reach a market, they try getting a drawbridge installed.
    BTW Good story about the demand for good quality writing, and companies apparently seeing an ROI in Blogs http://www.insideblogging.com/blog/

  • Although I love Ellison’s work I think he’s off the mark on a few important issues. Consider the following:

    — More people are buying books today (the Internet age) than in any other time in history.
    — Dan Brown’s (The Da Vinci Code) first real success was as the bestselling author of an e-book.
    — There are more literate people in the world today than ever before.

    I could go on and on. My point is, the Internet may have influenced a change in the way people read and writer’s publish. But rather than diminishing the writing as a profession, I believe it is creating a renaissance.

  • I must agree with Mr. Slaunwhite, and I’ll offer additional insight for those who will humor me. Mr. Ellison seems very committed to his prejudice, so I don’t assume I will see a response via the internet from him directly, but for those of you interested in further exploring this topic I would encourage you to email me directly at oceanrain@gmail.com, as I do not check this site regularly.
    Where to begin… The essential issue here is one of fundamental importance: That of the methods of expression available to everyman, and therefore by extension the freedom of expression itself. He who would condemn a person for stating his opinion online, would likewise condemn him for expressing it in the town square. That is called censorship and at the risk of seeming judgmental, is a stain on the whole tapestry of human interaction. The essence of free expression- truly, in part, the essence of freedom itself- is that it must exist for all people alike, or it cannot exist at all.
    I daresay Mr. Ellison has revealed a sort of intellectual egotism in his judgemental generalization of inexperienced authors of internet material. However, he has presented a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of a little-recognized facet of knowledge itself: that while more impressive given the social standards of our time, it is of quite inferior accuracy and applicability to instinct. Most of the genuine wisdom conferred to me through language over the course of my life has been granted by children and the most ineloquent of adults. It is not in the ostentatious or grandiloquent that we find the timeless truths, but in simple gestures and words. Judge not, Mr. Ellison. Men of no lesser talent and genius than yourself have likely expressed a similar prejudice toward your work. To refer to All the Lies that are my Life as ‘puerile trash’ would be no more accurate (in my humble opinion) than to refer to Walden Pond or the sermons of R.W. Emerson similarly. Nor would it be any more accurate to describe any of my own bullsh*t little blogs that way. Suspend judgment for a moment and realize that I am not comparing Mr. Ellison (and certainly not myself!) to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Rather I am asserting the fact that talent is subjective- beauty in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. Neither myself, nor Mr. Ellison are authorities on the validity of another person’s authorship.
    As for the issue of internet authorship somehow detracting from literary talent on the whole, now THAT is ‘horse pucky’! I won’t bother to justify it with further comment. Even in those cases where grammatical or technical error is rampant, an inability to extract the message is a failure of the reader as truly as the author. To demand perfect spelling, grammer and the like to the point of discrediting an authors opinion, or moreover his god-given right to express it, is nothing short of pretentious ignorance. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh, but I believe it to be true. Long story short: Mr. Ellison: Lighten up. If you don’t want to read it, don’t. I was happy to find your opinion here on the internet, and forthwith to disagree with it, but it doesn’t make you wrong for having it expressed in this medium. Suspending judgement is the key to wisdom.

  • Great article, Bob. And it is also a great site. I read plenty of your books, and I must say thank you for sharing so many good advice. I learned a lot and it helped me in my business. Happy holiday to you and your family.

  • To: Steve Slaunwhite
    You forgot the most simple fact when dealing with rates- you have to account for the increase in popolation. You cannot just say that more people are engaging in something than ever before, because there are more people in the world. You have to give numbers in percentages. Once you do this, you will see there there is NOT an increase. There are more people buying books simply becuase there are more people!

  • Writing is different today.
    Not better, not worse. But fit for consumption by those absorbing it.

    I don’t have time to read, look up, interpret, and re-read sentences becuase the author chooses to use big ‘literary’ words in their copy.

    I write like I speak, sure that may be un-educated and in ‘lay-person’ language, but that is the same level as the people I am talking too, and how they talk back to me.

    Communication is improved by this leveled ‘language playing field’. Both parties have a common understanding and ideas, concepts and ‘calls to action’ create results.

    websitePROFITS: Profit Boosting Tips in 37 words or less!

  • Mr. Ellison is correct to point out that the internet encourages certain types of laziness, making us less likely to resort to library research, when even today well over 99% of written information is off-line. The internet is a good tool, but if it’s used to the exclusion of off-line research it can limit us. I found his example of the dictionary to be useful, and find the same is true when searching other reference works.

    I am far from convinced that the blogosphere or any other aspect of internet publishing is meritocratic. First, promoting a website depends on things such as advertising and SEO which are not necessarily related to quality of content. Secondly, any work of quality in some specialization may not be palatable to a mass audience, so there is the additional difficulty of making your content known to your particular niche of potential readers. Right now, the Internet has no equivalent of the Dewey decimal system or any other principle for organizing content, save that which is implicit in search engine algorithms. Until more intelligent search is developed, this problem will remain.

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