A Lesson from Ellison on Writer and Reader Entitlement

All a writer has is time and a portion of talent. Answering queries from readers eats away at the former, thus disallowing full use of the latter. I continue to beseech my readers not to burden me with this sort of personal need, but every day I receive a dozen items that demand my response. Yours is one of them. My wife advises me that you are a HERC member, and thus are deserving of attention, but I cannot conceal my annoyance at having to depart from deadline work to satisfy your curiosity. Please don’t do this to me again.

Harlan Ellison, in a letter to me, 1989.

With the “readers, do not use me as Google” fight that Chelsea Cain is going through, let me bring back the time I used Harlan Ellison as the library, and was rightly scolded for it.
I haven’t read the entire flood of responses to Ms. Cain’s plea to not be asked the order of her books again and again. She might’ve used a different tone, or simply ignored the questions (though that might be even more rude, don’t you think?) I left one response, when someone said that readers “paid her salary.” My response was, “Our taxes also pay a cop’s salary, but you wouldn’t ask a cop to shine your shoes.” And I’ll stand by that. I love Martin Scorsese’s movies, but I don’t expect him to answer my questions about what order they’re in. Her website lists the books by the date they were published. isn’t that enough? It may have been smarter to link to that on her FB page and pin it to the top, but even that might have been taken the wrong way.

I love the fact that on social media, I can converse with writers I have never met, but I do not feel entitled to a response. It seems like the writers further along in their careers have more time to chat- I talk with Joyce Carol Oates about her cats, Lawrence Block about New York. Those starting out (like myself) tend to be ebullient and thrilled to have fans to talk to; however, those in the middle, on their fifth or so book, seem to be the ones most burdened by their work, as writing has become a career dependent upon deadlines.

Have some empathy for them- writing may not be physically demanding, but I’ll tell you, it is mentally and emotionally draining for many. Answering questions on social media can be a joy, or it can be another full time job that is *not required* for a career to flourish. Many writers ignore it completely and seem to do just fine.

If you enjoyed a book, the writer did her job already. The rest is gravy. If she answers some questions or chats, that’s great. The same goes for writers- if a reader read your work, her job is done. It would be awesome if she told her friends, or he posted a review, but you’re not entitled to it, or “owed” anything, and asking your “minions” to be your Google, Consumer Reports, and so on is rather demeaning, in my opinion. Social media does serve a purpose as a search engine of a sort, but don’t abuse it.

There are cocky writers out there, and demanding readers who expect “fan service” (even Shakespeare brought back Falstaff for that one fan who sported a crown and could have him flayed alive if she wanted) but in the end no one is served by either.
Be excellent to each other. We can’t exist without the other, but we can be online pen pals without anyone expecting smoochprints on their tuchis. Can’t we?

The letter from Harlan Ellison was showcased at Letters of Note.

For writers and readers: http://justfuckinggoogleit.com/


Writing to Harlan Ellison

5 thoughts on “A Lesson from Ellison on Writer and Reader Entitlement

  1. This writer’s sounds like a tool, to be honest. And a policeman is different than a writer. We NEED policeman or society goes to hell. We don’t NEED writer’s; we like having them around, but we don’t NEED them. I understand the letter is from 1989, but an author nowadays should have a number of form response regarding information like the order of their books and simply send that.

    • Why? Plenty of writers do fine without any interaction. He didn’t welcome letters, he in fact asked not to be written to. I ignored it. Why am I entitled to his time? Even nice guy Neil Gaiman says “writers are not your bitch” (terms I wouldn’t use but a sentiment I understand). We are no longer with a great story. We want to be friend with the creator’ as if they owe us for loving their work. And we don’t NEED writers? Name one civilization without a culture that you’d want to live in. Just because writing is devalued doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

  2. Ah, Harlan being Harlan. I don’t mind when people write me, and my keyboard, remarkably enough, has a delete key. Still, I can see where the justfuckinggoogleit link may come in handy…

    • Well, you’re gracious. Harlan was incredibly gracious in person, but on stage or when writing about himself, seems like he was putting on a schtick (imagine that?). He doesn’t make his email address public like you do, but anyone can drop by harlanellison.com and drop a note in the forums, and he always replies. We chatted about this old letter when Letters of Note published it a few years ago.

Comments are closed.