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Posted 28 July:

  • Harlan Ellison follows-up on the Gene Wolfe / Odyssey Workshop debacle
Letter written and received Saturday, 26 July; Locus Online apologizes for the delay in posting

Dear Locus ,


     After posting my response here yesterday, my response to what I had read in Gene Wolfe's letter online to Locus, I undertook to call the two most concerned participants, Gene Wolfe and Jeanne Cavelos, both of whom are friends, the former a great writer and self-exiled visiting instructor at the New Hampshire writers' workshop created and run for the past eight years by the latter, an excellent editor, good writer, and steadfast advocate of teaching the craft. Righteous indignation fueled my actions but, as Tony Isabella has said, "Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved."

     This is what I learned. And, as usual, more is less, less is less, and less is more.

     In this matter, I now believe, there are no Villains; there are only Victims. The linchpin of the matter, however, is that some are more Victim than others. Let me pass on what I got from primary sources, in hopes the data will calm the bile tsunami.

     (Henceforward, for the sake of sanity, I will call Jeanne and Gene "Cavelos" and "Wolfe.")

     I called Wolfe first, to assert allegiance and blah blah blah. He was out running an errand, or somesuch, but I spoke to his wife, Rosemary, who had been at the Odyssey Workshop with him, at some length. She said she and Gene had received not only a letter of apology signed by the ENTIRE class, but had additionally received a separate letter from one of the students, a man whose name I do not know, but who has been described to me thus: "a very elderly man, 62, 65, somewhere in his early to middle sixties, who had had a serious heart condition, whose wife had died, who wanted to be a writer but has some serious and even noticeable 'relationship' problems with others, which have caused him confrontations and angst in the past."

     Rosemary didn't go into much more detail, and told me that when Gene returned, she would let him know I'd called; and if he wanted to elaborate, he would. Thus far, a day later, Gene Wolfe has not called back; but that doesn't trouble or surprise me. He's probably got his hands full with this thing at the moment, and it having become even more public, pursuant to his Locus Online letter, well, I don't really feel the need for a callback.

     But after I called Wolfe, I called Cavelos. At her home, though I knew yesterday was the final day of Odyssey and she'd most likely be at the workshop. Nonetheless, I was content that a message left on an answering machine would suffice, and that Cavelos would get back to me when convenient. Well, I reached her son, who was familiar with the situation, and he confirmed that Cavelos was with the students, and that last night was to be the "wrap party." I suggested (still based on the sparse data I'd gotten off the web, my first mistake) that he ask Cavelos to call me from the party, put me on the squawk-box, and I would take about ten minutes relaying to the tots what I — and the world at large apparently — thought of their behavior. I promised him it would be the high point of the evening. He said he'd convey the message to Jeanne. Righteous, but not wholly informed, indignation.

     Cavelos called back today, around noonish, LA time.

     She filled me in.

     Well, we had it right, but, well, we had it a little contextually wrong, as well.

     Remember a week or two ago, the elderly gentleman who ran his car through the crowd at the Santa Monica street market. Killed seven, injured ninety? Remember? And righteously furious people tried to drag the old man out of his car and beat him senseless, but were stopped by a foreign-born shopkeeper who pointed out he was, as they could see, a very old man, and to leave him alone. The old man caused a tragedy, but apparently he, too, was a victim. And is heartbroken at what he did.

     The parallels to what happened at The Odyssey Workshop will be obvious in a moment. I urge, as Cavelos requested, compassion and an evenhanded response to what may seem, at first, infamous ... as I precipitously said in my post yesterday.

     The facts, as related by Cavelos, gibe comfortably with the above-posted journal entry via Ms. Lincoln. The Elderly Gentleman had been critiqued the previous day by Wolfe. His work had been found wanting, and he got his back up, and his "emotional imbalance" asserted itself. So he wrote Wolfe that infamous and horrendous letter; on his own, with apparently no one else privy to it; and in it he unilaterally assumed spokespersonship for the entire class. And though, in fact, there were one or two others who had been tenderly affronted by Wolfe's professional assessments of their abilities, they had kept their mouths shut, and had said nothing to Wolfe or Cavelos, though they no doubt bruited it about to their gossipy classmates, one of whom was the Elderly Gentleman.

     Now, with a cockeyed preconception of what and how a no-nonsense writers' workshop is supposed to function, and fueled by a misplaced Zorro mien, the Elderly Gentleman appears early next morning at the workshop classroom, letter in scabbard. Ready to take cudgel in hand against the despotic Wolfe in the name of "all the others." Side-note: because Rosemary Wolfe was lumbered by a physical malaise — back, leg, joint, something — she could not climb stairs, so she and Wolfe had been billeted not at the site where the students were bunking (as had been the rigor when I taught at Odyssey), but somewhere across the campus in an otherwise unoccupied dorm.

     So, to ease Gene's and Rosemary's difficulties in getting cross-campus to the workshop, Cavelos picked them up and drove them. Thus, Cavelos and Wolfe arrived at the classroom early. Wolfe asked Cavelos if he could request a favor: would she hie herself to the university office and make a long distance business call for him? Cavelos had to check in at that office anyway, and she said she would make the call; and she took off, leaving Wolfe in the classroom, prior to the arrival of the students, most of whom were coming back from breakfast.

     Now, before anyone else surfaces, the Elderly Gentleman with Note manifests himself. (It is not clear in my gathering of these minutiae whether or not there were, at that moment of first contact, any other students in the room, but it seems it doesn't matter.) Unilaterally, he slips the rude and antagonistic letter to Wolfe, who reads it. Then, with the impression given in the letter (however ambiguously) that the Elderly Gentleman is the mouthpiece for the entire class, and that no one will come to class until Wolfe is gone, Gene and the Gentleman get into an oral confrontation. Loud, apparently, and disturbing to any early-arrival students who may (or may not) have been in the room. It is safe to say Wolfe was struck amidships, heartwise.

     So either way, if the room was otherwise empty or not, what apparently happened was that a student arriving at the moment of initial conflagration, stuck his head in the door, heard the brouhaha and the snarling, and withdrew instantly, thereafter advising any and all who were coming to the classroom that there was a shouting match going on inside between Wolfe and the Elderly Gentleman, and they would be best advised to stay out of there, out of the line of fire and embarrassment, and let the two men work it out themselves. Rational thinking, I'd say.

     But by so doing, that conscientious student brought about what seemed to Gene Wolfe to be exactly what the Elderly Gentleman had vouchsafed in the letter. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one came to class, and Wolfe thought the letter and the Elderly Gentleman were precisely as represented.

     So Wolfe, a class act and a non-violent man to the core, decided on the spot to leave. He went and did so. Now, without ANYONE knowing what had ACTUALLY transpired — which lets the rest of the class pretty much off the hook, it seems to me — Cavelos returns from the university office to sit in on what she expects to be Wolfe's penultimate day at the Odyssey, and finds the students sitting around stunned at what they believe to be an unwarranted, sudden, inexplicable self-exile by their beloved mentor. Properly, Cavelos freaks out, and goes to find Wolfe, to ascertain what the hell is going on.

     The specific logistics of this next are unclear to me, but again, I don't think it matters much. Jeanne Cavelos gets to the dorm across campus (or wherever it happened) and finds Wolfe and his wife already packed and loading the car. Or whatever. She tries to calm him and find out what went down, but Wolfe is so upset that he has firmly decided he doesn't want to embarrass Cavelos and the workshop's reputation any further, and since he now believes that the entire class resents and distrusts him, he will do no less than the Imperial Thing, and he will absent himself, with chagrin and regret.

     And so he does. Then word quickly leaks about Wolfe having left, possibly through the internet medium, the greatest backyard yenta gossip-thoroughfare ever conceived, as employed by one of the odyssey students, though we may never know, and who gives a damn anyway. Now Wolfe is moved to post his letter on Locus Online, and it shows up here, and I go ballistic, and I write my response, and it gets picked up and entered at the Locus site (or is that leukocyte?) where my vigilante zeal may have added to the lynch mob tenor of the imbroglio and turned it further into The Ox-Bow Incident than Jeanne or Gene or I would have wished.

     So I speak to Cavelos, and she tells me that she'd very much like to calm all this down, naturally, because in fact the class was horrified by what happened, they rushed to make their apologies known to Wolfe, and this can only redound to the detriment of a good workshop into which Cavelos has poured eight years of her life, with virtually no financial remuneration; and I am moved to agree.

     This was a dumb and silly thing to happen. But if I may, for a moment, address the greater meaning of this incident, it may at least serve a worthwhile purpose in retrospect.

     What happened to the Odyssey and to Gene Wolfe has happened before. I was speaking to Bob Morales earlier today, and he recounted a conversation he'd had with Eileen Gunn of Clarion West (whose board of selection for instructors feels I'm too "harsh" to be set upon the delicate rose-petal talents of present-day students), who recounted an incident perhaps three years ago, when Chip Delany was teaching there. Chip told the class that at the end of his week, he would personally evaluate their chances and potential and level of craft/art, on an individual basis. He would tell each student what he thought of their work, no holds barred. I've done the same routine when I've taught. He said, however, that if they didn't want to hear such remarks, they could no-harm no-foul opt out of the class on that last day, their choice. Well, all but three showed up; and Samuel R. Delany did his number which is, as we all know, a very high number indeed.

     Except the three who had wimped out chose to complain to one of the women who run Clarion West, that their sensitive widdle feelings had been cwushed by the mean old teacher. That they felt dissed because they'd been left out. (By their OWN canyoubelieveit CHOICE!) And this dolt had the temerity then to upbraid Delany for bruising the delicate sensibilities of these budding Tolstoys and Austens. To her credit, Eileen Gunn subsequently read the bitch the riot act, and told her when one hires a teacher of Delany's caliber, even if you disagree with his methods or viewpoints, you stay the fuck out of his way and let him work. Because it is ALWAYS ultimately to the benefit of naifs that they be exposed to one strong editorial personality after another ... not play the hideously destructive game of "let's not make waves," and "oooo we don't want to unsettle anyone."

     And this brings me to what little good this unfortunate matter may evoke. Workshops have lost their bite. The people in charge, it seems to me (get that: IT SEEMS TO ME) are frightened of their own students. They hire instructors who are timorous, who need to be loved, who want to be "pals" and squirt-gun buddies with the kids they have been hired to whip into shape.

     I may be utterly alone in this, but it was the reason I absented myself from teaching at Clarion (before there was an East and a West) years ago. Because I saw it was turning into a Cult of Personality, and the instructors were loath to upset anyone ... staff, students, university administration. They were pale and proper, politically-correct poseurs; like characters out of a novel of Victorian manners, like The Late George Apley. And in my revulsion I perceived that they were taking money under false pretenses, the students were being treated patronizingly, dishonestly, with kid gloves, like the little old bluehaired ladies with support hose who infect most "writers' workshops" with their astrological poetry and their New Yorker-manqué fiction. Clarion was founded off the template of Milford, to be, goddamit, a BOOT CAMP for writers. Not to make it easy, but to make it a reflection of the REALITY of what it is to work in the public marketplace. The only thing that's "easy" is mediocrity. End-result? Today, colleges are not permitted to discuss "failure" as a life possibility. Not to upset the ego-drenched little parvenus surfeited with their 21st Century self-pity, pointless rebellion, need to deconstruct and ridicule, not to mention their rodent-like feeling that everything and anything they want, they deserve, and they don't need to work to get it. It should just come to them, sans discomfort, because as advertising tells them, they are the noblest demographic that ever was, or ever shall be.

     I fully understand why Odyssey would never have me back, why Clarion East and West feel I am no-price, that I "scare" potential money-units (aka "students") away, that they're affrighted of me. I bask in that knowledge. I know how to pull the plow, how to do that job, how to make it as rough and gritty and as close to the reality of the toughest job in the world as I can when I teach. It's been proved in the fire, because dozens of the people now doing the workshop instructing were people I helped beat into shape. I only wish they'd retained their passion! To instruct otherwise is to cheat, to take pay under false pretenses, to succor the talentless and time-wasting and self-indulgent, and to short-change the ones who look on the job as Art, as a Way of Life, as a responsibility to themselves, their talent, and the rest of the human race.

     What happened to Gene Wolfe has happened before. It will happen again. Unless the sweet little natures who have usurped control of the workshops get slapped around a little, and toughen up a lot.


Harlan Ellison
26 July

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