Harlan Ellison's Voice: Way Over the Edge

Monday, May 11, 2009
Harlan Ellison likes to hear himself talk. Now that's hardly an earthshattering conclusion: Ellison's abrasive, vociferous and frequently litigious nature have been fairly well-documented online. But it was only recently that I actually heard Ellison's smug, self-satisfied attention to his own work.

The Voice From the Edge: Volume 1 is the first of two audiobook collections of Harlan Ellison's short stories, read by the author. Now, I've always like Ellison's stories, and his personality was never a terribly important factor: who cares if the author is a jerk if the stories are good?

Here's the relevant quote from the back of the box: "...only aficionados of Ellison's singular work have been aware of another of his passions ... he is a great oral interpreter of his stories."

Well, I certainly wouldn't call his interpretation great, but there's no arguing that Ellison is a passionate interpreter of his own work. So passionate, in fact, that virtually every word is screamed, shouted or howled. His delivery is most akin to a continuously rising crescendo of shrieking: a pompous, overblown, overacted cacophony of undirected passion.

The bombastic, over-the-top delivery is a bizarre contrast to Ellison's actual storytelling. I always imagined Ellison's authorial voice as dry, understated: sardonic, certainly, but letting the fantastic nature of story speak for itself. Read out loud by Ellison, however, every description and every event is given the subtly of a sledgehammer blow to the forehead. By the end of any given story in this collection, the madcap delivery has reduced the essence of the tale to clownish buffoonery.

I'm generally a fan of audio books: they don't work well for every genre or author, but when done well, and interpreted well, they can be a fantastic experience. This collection is not a fantastic experience. It is an embarrassing performance, much like an actor, so praised for his performance in one venue, who decides to release an album (I'm looking at you, Nimoy).

Ellison may be a fantastic author, but he's a poor narrator. I guess the best you could say is that Harlan Ellison likes to hear himself talk.

Pseudonym: I'm immune to bad narration. I'm a frequenter of librivox.org, a community of random individuals who take it upon themselves to read and mangle the world's greatest literature. Not necessarily a problem when listening to A Child's History of England, but when you get into, say, The Three Musketeers, you will find that the mispronounciations, the awkward cadance and the monotonotic delivery will cause you to laugh and then weep.

I'm not sure what it is that makes some people oblivious to their various obvious deficiencies, but they're in full force on librivox. Some are excellent - you could almost imagine them as professional readers, where some are just awful, and you wonder why they've been the ones to read 50% of the books on the site.


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