Tuesday, May 19, 2015

When Lafferty Insulted Harlan


Raymond Aloysius Lafferty put his wrinkled hand on my left forearm and said to me, "Ellison... you are the imp of Satan."

Ever wondered what it would take to insult Harlan Ellison with impunity? We are, after all, talking about a man who is a master of vituperation, someone famously disinclined to suffer fools gladly, a fellow who, as all the old gaffers and geezers at Stratford-on-Avon agreed when asked about the character of the late, sainted Bill Shakespeare, might best be characterized as "a fast man with a comeback." There are many, many stories in the collective folklore of Fandom about people who by word or act raised up his wrath against them -- too many, perhaps, for they tend to obscure the very real brilliance of his fiction -- and with the exception of two or three that smell suspiciously like repurposed urban legends to me, Harlan comes off second in none of them.

But first, I should explain that the above italicized sentence is the opening of Ellison's introduction to the second volume of the collected stories of R. A. Lafferty, a beautiful and pricey tome which y-hight The Man with the Aura, published with (I am certain) justifiable pride by Centipede Press. So you don't have to take my word for it that Lafferty offered deathly insult to someone whose many talents include a particular talent for the discursive essay. Of which the introduction in question is an excellent example.

So am I ready to explain the second sentence of this essay -- my first, after Ellison's -- yet? No. For there must be a word or two about Lafferty himself, the forgotten giant from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lafferty wrote like no one ever did before him, and though attempts to pastiche his style were plenteous back in the day, to my ear not a one of them truly succeeded. He came to prominence during the New Wave days, which was ironic for he was a hidebound conservative and mossbacked reactionary in all the ways that sub specie aeternitatis are of no importance at all. He faded to all but nothing (in terms of literary visibility) two decades later.

But in the early 1970s, all the writers you admire most thought he was the cat's pajamas. If I tried to explain why, we'd be here all day and still I'd be no closer to the horizon than I was when we started it. Let's just say he was the single most original writer science fiction has ever seen. This and five bucks, as they say, will get you a grande mochaccino at Starbucks, the sprinkle of cinnamon optional. When the gentlemanly business of publishing was bought up by multinationals and computerized, it was discovered that while Lafferty was beloved of God and the literati, to the masses he was tref. Nothing. He simply didn't have the numbers.

But at the time he insulted Ellison, Lafferty was at the height of his prestige. Not that that mattered. To those who care, really care about words, sales figures are nothing. All that matters is the art. And Lafferty had art coming out the yingyang.

I'm not going to give away the conclusion of Ellison's intro. He put a lot into it, buyers of this book are going to want to read it with pleasure and no spoilers, and I'm not about to step on his punchline.  But I don't think it gives anything away to say that if you want to insult Harland Ellison and get away with it, it's the simplest thing in the world:

You just need to have earned enough of his respect to pull it off.

The uncommonly well-made book was issued in an edition of 300 and costs $45. Those who need this book know who they are. They, and the merely curious, can find Centipede's page on it here

Above: Was I trying to pull off an imitation of Harlan Ellison's famously inimitable style here? No, I was not. But I was trying my hand at the discursive essay. This stuff is harder to pull of than it looks -- and I never for a moment thought it looked easy at all.



TheOFloinn said...

Lafferty is da man.

Unknown said...


Bruce said...

The Centipede Press editions are pricey, but if any readers here want them, cough up the dough now. Once they sell out, prices on the collectors market skyrocket.

I'm grateful to presently be in a spot financially where I can afford to buy CP's Lafferty volumes as they come out, rather than having to let them pass by like I did with the Chris Drumm chapbooks a few decades ago.

Also, Centipede Press publishes some really gorgeous books. (I bought their Harry Morris art retrospective, too.)

Hugh Sacristan said...

I thought his first name was Raphael...

Michael Swanwick said...

You're right, Hugh. It looks like Harlan made a mistake and somehow it wasn't caught in production. These things, alas, happen more frequently than anybody would like.