Pacific Rim Review of Books

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In the Beginning was the Word:
Samuel R. Delany on Writing as a Creative Act

Carol Cooper

"[Delany] said that science fiction wasn’t special because of its gadgets and its landscapes …. instead it was special because of its language, and the assumptions and techniques readers used to interpret that language, and the way writers’ knowledge of those assumptions and techniques affected the stories they wrote.”

—Matthew Cheney, paraphrased from “Ethical Aesthetics: An Introduction to The Jewel-Hinged Jaw."

Out of 13 works of non-fiction published to date by Samuel R. Delany, more than half devote themselves to essays, letters, and/or transcribed interviews about the process of writing (and reading!) itself. Throughout, Delany supports his observations using sprightly anecdote or allegory; sometimes with salient references to the novels of Toni Morrison, Robert Heinlein, and Gustave Flaubert, or the critical theories of Susan Sontag, George Orwell, and Jacques Derrida. I cite this tiny sampling of Delany’s textual reference points, out of a much wider spectrum of equally relevant examples, just to assure newcomers to Delany’s ideas that they can trust the breadth and evenhandedness of his research.

Having steeped himself in all the usual literary and paraliterary canons, including poetry, which he reads but does not write, Delany goes back and repeatedly compares their subjective and objective effects before measuring his conclusions against those of other literary critics. He constantly searches for quality among diverse categories of fiction and non-fiction, from pornography to graphic novels to obscure small-press monographs with the advantage of having written memorable examples of each. With 26 published novels plus several landmark works of autobiography under his belt, Delany is no mere ivory tower observer of man’s literary enterprise. Widely acknowledged as both a gifted wordsmith and a particularly astute, self-aware reader, Delany is perhaps uniquely qualified to explain how any given text works, and why or whether it works as effectively as possible.

The two books reviewed here include the first and the latest anthologized attempts by Delany, currently a tenured professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, to codify and promote his personal aesthetic. Revised and republished this summer by Wesleyan Press, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977) now makes a perfect companion-volume to On Writing (2005). Together they provide enough dialectical and autobiographical evidence to render their author’s arguments as clear and persuasive to the lay reader as to the degree-laden academic. Oh sure, readers may have to negotiate a few text-bombs of linguistic jargon, but by and large Delany’s wry, energetic rhetoric explains the quantum mechanics of great, even paradigm-changing writing in simple, powerful terms.

Born in New York’s Harlem to a middle-class black family in 1942, Delany was an award-winning science fiction novelist by the mid-1960s. He produced long and short-form prose which elegantly deconstructed consensus reality long before semiotic agendas were routinely on the menu for most genre writers and their critics. The extant SF community of progressive writers and editors embraced him, and his invited presence among the elite peerage of the 1966 Milford Writers Workshop alone might have secured his reputation .

It is significant that his 1966 Nebula award-winning novel, Babel-17 featured a non-white female “xenolinguist”/cryptographer as it’s protagonist and functioned almost like a thematic sequel to his similarly language-obsessed novella The Ballad of Beta 2. This was one year before Jacques Derrida would publish three philosophical essays which “laid the foundations of deconstruction”, much to the benefit of Delany’s later writing.

However, it must be remembered that Delany’s prep-school education and omnivorous reading habits fueled only part of his prodigious cultural production through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In Fred Barney Taylor’s 2007 documentary “The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman” Delany vividly recollects “the sexual generosity” of New York City in providing the spontaneous, semi-public recreational sex he needed to drain stress and tedium out of the 8 to 10 hour days of writing/rewriting required to complete his first five or six novels. A self-identified gay man since adolescence (who would nonetheless go on at 19 to marry his high-school sweetheart and later produce one child) Delany frequently encoded aspects of his polymorphous sex life in his fiction. He deployed this information in his writing more and more deliberately through the mid- to late 1970s, seeing no social benefit to excluding this subject matter from the realms of art or public discourse.

Released not long after the surprise crossover success of Delany’s controversial urban fantasy Dhalgren, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction was a selection of provocative essays first published for collegiate consumption by David Hartwell’s Dragon Press. Obsessed with science fiction’s semantic potential (especially in the hands of authors like Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ, and Thomas Disch), to cast bright, transforming light on the most occluded, self-sabotaging aspects of the human condition, Jaw became the first such collection—as Matthew Cheney points out in his introduction to this new edition—to bring “linguistic, structuralist, and post-structuralist concepts to bear on the material.” Because of the pioneering originality of his approach, anyone now hoping to be taken seriously as a critic of any form of speculative or fantastic literature must somehow respond to Delany’s ideas.

Several essays have been dropped from, added to, or re-sequenced in the 2009 edition depending on whether they’d been republished elsewhere in intervening years. Notable additions to what originally were 14 pieces written between 1966 to 76 are the 2003 essay “Midcentury: An Essay in Contextualization”—a sprawling autobiographical reminiscence which offers historical reference points for mid-20th century thinking about gender, race, and the pace of social change—and Delany’s feisty, exasperated “Letter to the Symposium on ‘Women in Science Fiction’” that was first included in a Symposium-dedicated issue of Khatru in 1975. The content of the “Letter” informs Delany’s meditative dissection of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, as well as two far more favorable critiques of stories by Joanna Russ and Tom Disch. Indeed, much of the fun of reading Jaw and On Writing back-to-back lies in noticing how unflinchingly Delany brings the same analytical standards to the work of established writers as to the uneven efforts of his fledgling creative writing students.

Delany’s formidable memory and raw intelligence is on full display in On Writing. Whether remembering how he taught nuanced observational skills to his first class of Clarion workshoppers, or confessing to interviewer Steve Erickson that wanting to “perfect” the basic structure of his favorite Alfred Bester novel in 1965 made him write the epic space opera Nova, Delany is inspirational. Aspiring writers seeking to know what powerful freedoms they might exercise through masterful control of plot, characterization and language will find the answers here. Delany shrewdly suffuses his Neveryon quartet with anarchic sexual motifs and stylized irony. He unselfconsciously writes Sadean gay pornography as seething political commentary on the AIDS crisis. He applies insights culled from Gertrude Stein, Lacan and Plato to fictionalized interrogations of modern myths about civilized social behavior, thereby making readers perceive reality in new ways. The 13-part appendix which closes the book condenses all his most helpful advice into a pithy, accessible index of shortcuts that impatient students and teachers alike will love. Even Delany’s more complex solutions to narrative dilemmas compel implementation because his recognition and framing of each problem is so mathematically precise.

Marketed today as essential “how-to” guides for aspiring writers, both books give equal weight to mainstream and genre fiction, since Delany rejects class distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. He simply warns—through practical examples and cautionary anecdotes—against structural sloppiness and lack of inspiration in whatever one chooses to write. More than once he stresses the difference between “good writing” and “talented writing,” explaining that good (meaning technically correct) writing minus talent (meaning energetic, inspired ideas) is responsible for most bad fiction. Yet he insists that both talent and technical skill are required to create truly memorable fiction, thus helping us understand exactly how far Delany raises his pedagogical bar above the basic competencies encouraged by most MFA programs.

Carol Cooper is a freelance culture critic at the Village Voice. She is the author of Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. She lives in New York City.