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A Conversation With Samuel R. Delany
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke
April 2001

Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York. He's lived in Greece, San Francisco and London but most of his life has been spent living in New York City. In 1988, he began working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts and now serves as a professor in the department of English at the University at Buffalo, Buffalo, N.Y. Wesleyan University Press has been publishing both his fiction and non-fiction since much of it went out of print in the late 80s.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nova
Samuel R. Delany Tribute Site

Dhalgren

Chris Moore
Nova
1984
Times Square Red
Shorter Views
Longer Views
Bread & Wine
Trouble on Triton
Atlantis
The Jewels of Aptor

Samuel R. "Chip" Delany published his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, in 1962 at the age of 20. Since then he has gone on to become one of the most widely influential science fiction writers in America. He has won the Nebula award four times, for his novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, and for his short pieces "Aye, and Gomorrah" and "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones." The latter also won the Hugo award for best novelette, and Delany also earned a Hugo for his non-fiction book, The Motion of Light in Water. For the better part of the past decade, Delany has focused more on non-fiction and academia, and currently serves as a professor in the department of English at the University at Buffalo, Buffalo, N.Y.

Like so many other authors over the last couple of decades, you have suffered through the extinction of the midlist. Now, however, it appears you're coming back in a significant way with Vintage Books' re-release of Dhalgren. Why now? And why Dhalgren in particular?

The factors controlling a writer's popularity are as mysterious and ultimately as unknowable as the number of stars in the sky or (to quote Sir Thomas Browne) the name that Achilles used when he hid himself among the women.

But, as Browne also suggested, even such unknowable questions are not beyond all speculation. When a significant number of reasonable answers have been marshaled, however (the topics of the books still, to certain readers, seem of interest; still others may remember the writing as having a vitality they liked; the book was commercially successful twenty-five years ago; and Vintage's marketing department feels they may be able to reduplicate that), the greatest and the most humbling one remains: I've been very lucky.

When it was first released in January 1975, Dhalgren caused quite a stir with its racial and sexual content. Stylistically, it was daring as well, and today is among a handful of works considered "landmarks." Does the book hold up today? Has it aged well?
I'm the last one who would be able to answer that, of course. You'll have to ask a reader far less involved with the book than I am.

After Dhalgren, a large portion of your back catalogue is scheduled for reissue as well -- Babel-17, Empire Star, Nova, and Driftglass. How involved have you been in the reissue process?
No more, I'd guess, than any other writer having a book reissued. I've suggested what editions Vintage should use to set from, given them lists of typographical errors to correct that, over the years, various readers have brought to my attention. Like many writers, I keep files of old reviews and articles that have appeared -- and I gather Vintage's publicity folk have found some of that documentation helpful.

I don't believe, however, I've been any more involved in the process than any other writer having a book reissued by a major publisher.

Midlist problems aside, how is it possible for a writer as influential as yourself, with as many critically acclaimed books as you've produced, to fall so badly out of print?
Again, you'd have to ask the people who worked at my previous publishers. Sometime in 1987, Bantam Books -- then my major publisher -- started putting my books out of print, basically one every two weeks. That term I was a Senior Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University's Andrew D. White House. Every couple of weeks I'd get a call at my office: "Just wanted to let you know, we're putting The Fall of the Towers out of print. Sales just don't warrant keeping it alive... Hey, we just called to let you know that, because of sales figures, we're putting Nova out of print..." And I'd say, "Um... Uh... yeah. Okay..."

Over a few months, my baker's dozen Bantam titles, some of which had been in print for as long as ten, fifteen, even twenty years, disappeared from the shelves. At the time, I thought: Well, my hour in the public eye is over. It's happened to writers before. It'll happen to writers again.

I did think it was strange how the sales of title after title had fallen off like clockwork. Later, of course, I learned that, under all sorts of economic pressure -- from rising paper costs to new tax laws to the myriad mergers that transformed the publishing industry over that decade from some eighty or so competing businesses to five corporate monoliths -- Bantam had instituted a new policy, where everything from publishing slots to advertising budgets to catalogue space was being taken away from midlist writers like me and given to far fewer projects with a shot at becoming low-literary quality bestsellers, along with a few slots reserved for brand new writers, who were to be given -- exactly -- three chances each to make it as a bestseller. They were paid low advances, though often a fair amount of promotion went with their books.

If, however, after three tries, these new writers didn't produce something that could be fed into the bestseller machinery, they were dumped -- and were often very surprised (and unhappy) men and women: Up till then they'd assumed that, as writers, they'd actually had a supportive publisher behind them. Nobody ever told them they had only three chances. Presumably they'd look around and figure it out for themselves. Some -- the John Sauls, the Dean Koontzes, the Clive Barkers -- actually did. A lot, however, didn't.

You say "mid-list problems aside," but that's what the problems were. Nor was I the only victim. Not just from science fiction and mysteries, but dozens of writers fell out of the mainstream as well. Science fiction -- however -- has a particularly vociferous and relatively organized fandom, so that calls for reissues and attempts to throw some attention back on worthy writers from the past can come with a bit more force -- another way of saying I've been lucky.

Are you now coming back into favor?
You make it sound as if I'd been dismissed from the palace in disgrace for a tasteless joke I'd let slip about a powerful courtier; then, because she missed my quips and dinner table repartee, only now has the Empress passed on an approving nod at a mention of my name that's allowed me to return.

Would that it were like that!

Of course I'd like to think a few people remembered the reading experience my work represented for them, readers who felt that experience was worth making available again to others. Probably, though, that's too utopian. More likely someone I've never met and whose name I'll never know decided that there was money to be made -- either from nostalgia or whatever. Thus the decision to bring Delany back into print.

So are you now getting the credit due to you?
But what credit is due anyone? The only sane thing any writer can say to such questions Thomas Mann said, many years ago: "As to the worth of my own work, I cannot know, and you cannot tell me."

Half a dozen years after Dhalgren appeared, someone sent me a recently written grammar book, for people learning English, in which -- among the various examples of American writing scattered throughout -- two or three paragraphs of Dhalgren were quoted as an example of economical and informative prose. The writer talked a bit about the structure of the sentences, made one or two points about their arrangement and internal form. At the time, I remember, I was overwhelmed.

Works by many classical poets and writers have survived from Greece and Rome -- in fragmentary form -- because some grammarian used a quotation from the work as a particularly effective example of one grammatical figure or rhetorical trope. The hundred-twenty-four-odd fragments surviving from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus come to us pretty much this way. So does most of what survives of Sappho and the even more fragmentary work of Achilocus.

After that book showed up in my mailbox, I recall thinking: There's nothing more a writer can ask. That someone might choose a sentence or six of mine to teach others how to read, write, and think in this extraordinary language, American English -- well, when set beside questions of "attention due," I feel that honor simply dissolves those questions.

With so many reissues coming up, what original projects do you have in the works?
A lot of my energies of late have gone into non-fiction: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the essays in Longer Views and Shorter Views. At this point, I've always got two or three non-fiction projects going. They relax me and allow me to get away from the toils of teaching, the worry of workshops, and the general agita of academic administration.

Fiction -- at least for me -- requires long, relatively uninterrupted time stretches in which to bring it to fruition. I've never been a two-hour-in-the-morning writer, who could put in another six hours on Sunday afternoon. For me, a novel requires weeks of living in a largely mental and wholly internal landscape. Everything else has to be relegated to the odd hour here, the bit of time there. Sadly, however, uninterrupted time blocks are not what life doles out today to any of us with regularity.

Have you made any progress on the long-awaited follow-up to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand?
I have real hopes of getting back to it someday -- though, no, currently it's not on the front burner.

You first made a name for yourself in the 60s, when science fiction was in the midst of the "New Wave" renaissance. Has the genre fulfilled the promise and potential of that era?
In the arts, people are always waiting for someone or some movement to "fulfill her/its/his promise." Then, half-a-dozen or a dozen years on, others begin to realize that, really, something extraordinary was actually happening: That's what all the talk of promise was about.

From the teens and twenties, there's a whole sub-genre of embarrassing reviews, which explain, in effect, that poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Hart Crane or Wallace Stevens really do have quite a bit of talent. As soon as they learn how to write "real poetry" and stop all their experimenting, they just might fulfill their promise and produce something worthwhile...

The New Wave had some extraordinary writers: Disch, Zolines, Ballard. And, yes, they wrote what they wrote back then. Well, Camp Concentration, 334, On Wings of Song, Neighboring Lives (this last, Disch's collaboration with Charles Naylor),... these were -- and remain -- extraordinary. I'm hoping soon people will begin to rediscover the range of Joanna Russ's work -- and the work of the late Roger Zelazny, through Bridge of Ashes and Doorways in the Sand, before he became trapped in the downward commercial spiral of his Amber series.

Currently, what writers impress you?
What writers do I like? Richard Powers, certainly. Guy Davenport, and William Gass, surely. In science fiction, Lucius Shepherd, Bill Gibson, Karen Joy Fowler. Ethan Canaan (to return to the mainstream) -- though I'm not sure what happened to his control of the sentence in his most recent novel For Kings and Planets -- is a spectacular writer. I like the work of Robert Glück and Edmund White -- as well as David Markson of Reader's Block.

Several years back, on an episode of Deep Space Nine, Avery Brooks portrayed a black science fiction author for a Campbell-esque magazine in the 50s, whose race was concealed from the readers. The episode has distinct Delany overtones, although the circumstances of this character appeared quite different from yours.
I never saw it -- though people have been mentioning it to me on and off for years. Once, even before that, I got a call from an old high school friend of mine, whom we used to call Chuck. He was at a sports event out in Seattle, I believe, and calling on a cell phone -- before everybody and his brother had one. "Just a second," he told me, "I want you to say hello to someone." Sitting next to him, apparently, was Brooks -- who, I learned, to my surprise, was something of a Delany fan. Chuck and he had ended up on the same national committee to promote libraries -- and, at one of their Seattle conferences, had all gone to a baseball game together. My name had come up, so Chuck had decided to give me a call and introduce us. A few years later in 1998, at a publication party for Octavia Butler, I actually met Brooks -- and we had our mutual friend to gossip about for a while. Brooks is a very pleasant, if somewhat shy, man. Since that time, I've managed to catch half a dozen of his Deep Space Nine episodes in rerun. He's an impressive actor.

But, no, I've missed the one you mentioned.

Certainly, though, the situation of that character was different from mine! My race was never concealed. From 1968 on, I was pretty much "the black gay SF writer."

You've quoted Joanna Russ before, that the science fiction clubhouse door has a sign upon it saying, "Girls stay out. Minorities stay out" as an explanation of why white males dominate the field of science fiction and fantasy. While that's changed significantly for women, three decades after you broke through the barrier, progress has been negligible for minorities. Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson (both women, interestingly enough) generate a flurry of attention whenever they release a new book, but after them... Is that sign still up on the clubhouse door? Or is there something else at play?
Things, when they get better, often get better in spurts -- and get better for different sub groups at different times. Because we're going through a period of social solidarity among women, and black women especially, there's been a much-needed surge of improvement in the visibility of black women writers that's even reached into the science fiction precincts. Octavia Butler was my student at Clarion back in the late 60s. Nalo Hopkinson was my student at Clarion only a handful of years back. I had the honor of recommending Hopkinson's first published story to editor Ellen Datlow -- something I can be proud of for the rest of my life. But I hope things will get even better -- as they need to, for women black and white; and for black men; and for Asians; and for the range of Amerinds; and for Hispanics -- writers, readers, and just plain folk.

Science fiction/fantasy generally prides itself on being broad-minded and all-inclusive. Do you feel your race or sexuality hurt your success?
No. I think a much better argument might be made that both have added to what success I've had. I don't mean through any reverse prejudice (the cherished fiction of the politically conservative). But both have provided me with a great number of life experiences, many of which do not often make it into fiction. While publishers are convinced fiction readers are only interested in reading about what they've read about before, the reality is, I suspect, more sanguine: People want new stories and new materials to explore and interrogate and have adventures in. The world -- particularly the academic world -- has been changing with a rapidity that, while astonishing, is still just slow enough to escape the eye of, say, the university student who has only been in school for four years, or even the graduate student who stays for eight or ten.

Today, there are Gay Studies Programs in every University worth the name. Forty years ago, not only was there no such thing, there were no Women's Studies, no African American Studies, no Film Studies. Moreover, if you'd proposed any such ideas, for most of them you'd have been laughed out of the department meeting, and for one or two, you might have ended up incarcerated.

In 1996, I gave a talk at a conference at Yale on post-colonialism, in which I discussed ideas and experiences I'd had that reflected on the postcolonial situation, but which had come to me largely because I was a gay man traveling about in the world.

The Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist Nadaal El Sadawi was also at the conference, and when a bunch of us went out for pizza between conference sessions, she remarked: "You know, Chip, if you had given that talk at my University in Cairo at noon the way you did here, by four o'clock you'd probably have been in jail." It was a sobering thought.

It has only been these changes in the academic culture of the United States that have, of course, allowed my personal situation to function in a positive manner.

Do you feel your writing has ever been overshadowed by your persona? Whenever your name is mentioned, it's almost always in the context of "SF's first major black writer" or "SF's first openly gay writer," or both. Do those tags unfairly, or fairly, distort the perception of your work?
Whenever a writer begins to garner a reputation, various "biographemes" (Roland Barthes' term, I believe) begin to sediment out. They're all ridiculously restrictive. But they give us something to hang the reading experience from. Robert Frost is that New England rural poet. Gertrude Stein went to France and wrote silly sentences, such as "Suppose to suppose suppose a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." Edmund White is that radical gay novelist. Chester Himes is that black literary writer who ended up writing detective fiction. Jackson Pollock was a loud drunk who did drip paintings. What ridiculous summations for any artist's work! Nor do I think it's an accident that of the writers I've mentioned, the one who's had the greatest influence on the development of the course of American literature -- Stein, without whom there would have been no Hemingway or anyone else who ever aspired to an accuracy beyond the standard sentence -- gets the silliest.

Most people only know my "persona," as you call it, though my writing. I already do a fair amount of lecturing, but even there I'm reading from lectures I've written down. So I wonder, indeed, if your idea above -- that my "persona" overshadows my work -- isn't something of an illusion, produced by the work itself. The fact is, the fat, forgetful old man, who walks with a cane and stutters a lot when not reading from a prepared text, just isn't that interesting.

Running a search for "Samuel R. Delany" through several online booksellers turns up as many -- if not more -- books about you and your writings as by you. What does that say?
Alas, I've never run such a web search. I can't really comment. Having said that, I mention that, a couple of years ago, my daughter told me she was going to sweep the web for me and print out a bunch of stuff -- and sent me some thirty pages of bibliographic material various people had gathered. As I recall, there was about one error every fifth entry in most of it -- which seems par for the ratio of information to misinformation on the web. Still later, I stood at the shoulder of a professor in his study up at SUNY Buffalo, while he showed me this and that reference to me on the internet. I admit, I didn't think they were terribly exciting -- though, somewhere up in Vermont, a fellow named Jay Schuster has put together a careful and accurate few pages on his website. Such attention is very warming. But since I simply haven't seen it all -- or even most of it, if there's really as much of it out there as you suggest -- I can't tell you what it says.

Since the late 80s, much of your writing has been for academia. Essays, articles and papers are obviously a different thing to write than short fiction or novels. Do you, as a writer, find fulfillment in that form?
Yes. I think the writing of other writers about writing can produce a kind of stabilization process -- and, as a window into various traditions, it's helpful to other young writers. Books like Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, How to Write, and Lectures in America were wonderfully inspiring to me when I read them as a seventeen- and eighteen-year-old. So was Forster's Aspects of the Novel, as was Pound's ABC of Reading.
Stand close around, ye Stygian set
With Dirce on one barque convey'd,
Or Charon seeing, may forget
That he is old, and she a shade.
I memorized that Walter Savage Landor quatrain ("Dirce") out of Pound's cantankerous and contentious meditations ("In his time Samuel Johnson was the best mind in England -- except for those months Voltaire was visiting London.") on what was good and what was bad poetry, back when I first read it. When I can't remember the year Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood's or in which library the earlier manuscript version of The Times Machine is on store, that still stays.

Jorge Luis Borges's lectures from the famous Charles Eliot Norton series at Harvard for 1967, This Craft of Verse, form another of those extraordinary books -- Borges is as humble in his suggestions about literature as Pound is arrogant and iconoclastic. Yet both are wonderful turn-ons for the young writer contemplating the range of enterprises that (as they might say in current critical jargon) constitute the literary.

Has your joining academia changed perceptions of your fiction? Non-fiction?
Other people's or my own? Perhaps a few people find me more of a curiosity now and so are willing to give some of my work a look. If anything, though, I find my encounter with academia only confirms me in my own sense of what literature (and literary activity) is. First of all, it's not and never has been a consensual enterprise.

Concepts of what constitute good writing form a conflictual field -- highly so and they always have. That is the only reason why, say, simplicity and concision are just as much esthetic virtues as ornamentation and rich ambiguity. It's also why either one, out of control, can become an aesthetic failing -- dullness and banality in the one case, and overwrought clutter in the other.

Do you feel your most significant contributions to the field have/will come from a university setting, or as an author of fiction?
Writers write what the world compels them to write; and the University nudges you strongly toward writing non-fiction. Significance is not a factor in that -- because it's the one thing the writer him- or herself has no access to. The eighteenth century playwright Thomas Ottway very probably died more or less sure he would go down in literary history as the greatest English playwright of all time. During his lifetime, his work was regularly compared to that of Shakespeare, and it was a critical given of the time that his play Venice Preserved was a better play than Hamlet.

But today how many people remember Ottway? Or have ever read a line by him? If he survives at all, it's as a canonical example of just how wrong-headed an era or a local and provisional set of literary opinions can be.

As a writer, what are you capable of now that you weren't 30 years ago?
Your question puts me in mind of Goethe's quip: "A man of fifty knows no more than a man of twenty. They just know different things." Indeed, I'm far more aware of the mad things I did at twenty, things that, today, I simply wouldn't have the gall to try -- I mean, even if, through whatever dumb luck, I came close to pulling them off or a few readers were kind enough to refrain from pointing out the number of times I just fell on my face.

Really, though: A writer's talking about what he or she is capable of, like a writer's talking about the worth of his or her own work, is a pretty good way for that writer to start sounding like a pompous poseur.

Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is -- and is only -- what its words make happen in the reader's mind. And all readers are not the same.

Any reader has the right to say of any text: "But I didn't think it was that good."

Only this morning, I talked to one of my graduate writing students, whom I'd suggested read Flaubert's Un coeur simple -- one of the greatest pieces of French prose by one of the giants of early modernism. It's a tale that, the first time I read it, struck up tears in my eyes; as well, I felt that I had been exposed to -- no, I'd been struck to the center of my writerly being with -- illuminations of the structure and texture from this single woman's life in the French provinces a hundred-fifty-odd years back. It's as close as work from a human hand can bring you to that imagined moment where the Judeo-Christian God pulls back His hem to reveal, beneath it, a moment of starkest suffering and the human redemption into which the heart can recreate it.

"So what did you think?" I asked.

Frowning behind his glasses, my student told me: "It was an okay story. But there was just so much description...." The most carefully observed and meticulously organized account of lived provincial working-class life in any language in the world, I'm thinking: and to him, it's "just so much description." While he went on to ask me: "Was all that description supposed to be symbolic or something...?" It was enough to make you start quoting Heidegger on "the forgetting of Being" in our day.

But the point is, when the writer turns to address the reader, he or she must not only speak to me -- naively dazzled and wholly enchanted by the complexities of the trickery, and thus all but incapable of any criticism, so that, indeed, he can claim, if he likes, priestly contact with the greater powers that, hurled at him by the muse, travel the parsecs from the Universe's furthest shoals, cleaving stars on the way, to shatter the specific moment and sizzle his brains in their pan, rattle his teeth in their sockets, make his muscles howl against his bones, and to galvanize his pen so the ink bubbles and blisters on the nib (nor would I hear her claim to such as other than a metaphor for the most profound truths of skill, craft, or mathematical and historical conjuration) -- but she or he must also speak to my student, for whom it was an okay story, with just so much description.

This second -- and far more important -- task requires, however, some humility.

Copyright © 2001 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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