For me, it came down to a hat.
Gabe & Tycho, the creators of the wildly successful Penny Arcade webcomic, were griping publicly about Harlan Ellison’s refusal to join in on a bit of spontaneous fun at a convention. They’d brought silly hats and gotten all of the guests to wear them. All save Ellison, who refused.
Harlan was right. Gabe & Tycho were wrong. And Harlan, as well as many other authors and artists of his era, deserves part of the blame for the situation ever arising.
The sixties gave voice to a new generation of authors who believed that ideas and form had their own merit, and they championed those who attempted to break free from the traditions of the past. They were iconoclasts, they broke boundaries… and somewhere along the way, they won their argument. Unfortunately they did not win well.
The idea that all artists are fundamentally on equal footing, and that the difference between them is the art they create, is not particularly daunting anymore; nor is the notion that boundaries should be broken. What has been lost on many contemporary artists, both verbal and visual, is the fact that some boundaries have inherent merit.
Yes, Harlan and the Penny Arcade duo were all equally Guests of Honor. But Ellison had more awards to his name, provided both by peers and fans, than years the Penny Arcade crew had in their lives. That does not mean they had to kowtow to his wishes and demands, but it does mean that he’d earned their respect.
And it was not given. Because they both had a measure of fame and success, Gabe & Tycho had assumed they were equals. And they were, in the sense that they were all artists producing popular work. If anything, the Penny Arcade crew could make a strong case for being more relevant – Ellison doesn’t produce much these days, and they do. (On the other hand, when Ellison DOES produce something, it’s still brilliant.)
George R. R. Martin is, arguably, the most famous person alive working in the fantasy field. I have watched him speak to Jack Williamson, and I have watched professional comic artists speak to him. In each of those situations, there was a sense of reciprocated appreciation for the professionalism and artistry of the others while simultaneously maintaining a deference to the years the older pro had brought to the field and the significant work they had produced during that time. I find it hard to overstate how pleasant those interactions were to see.
Art can be equal. Artists can be equal. History is not. By failing to recognize these facts we diminish the value of achievement and foment dissatisfaction. We also undermine the value of excellence, because by only judging on present and hypothetical future works it frees writers from worrying about the consequences of releasing bad material and diminishes the rewards of producing superlative work.