03 April 2006

Loving Delany

There are a couple of interesting reports from the recent Samuel R. Delany conference -- L. Timmel Duchamp offers an overview, and Steven Shaviro has some notable things to say as well. I'm immensely jealous of them for having been able to attend!

Since I'm working on writing a proposal for my masters thesis on Delany this week (I got a thesis committee together through a good sales pitch, but now need to figure out the substance), I was struck by something Duchamp noted:
For many of us the most startling and moving moment of the conference came during the panel discussion on the first day, when Delany said that although he was gratified by the evidence of so much careful, devoted attention to his work, he worried about the dangers posed by its being so motivated by love. Not only did he think such work might be too partial, but he also ruefully noted that intense love of an artist's work could without warning flip into its polar opposite, intense hatred.
This very idea has occurred to me as I've been reading through various critical works about Delany, because most of the people who have written the richest material about him are quite obviously deeply enamored with his work, and the strength of what they write often comes from a passionate connection to his material. This makes perfectly good sense, since academic work on Delany is still marginal compared to writers whose work has sparked both intense love and hate, and because scholarly work is so time-consuming, most of us prefer to spend that time with subjects we don't just get angry at. (I could never, for instance, write about the British Victorian novelists, because reading even their major works is tedious to me, never mind all the minor and obscure things a scholar has to wade through.)

There's a difference, though, between love for a writer's work and fascination with it. I wouldn't say I love Delany's writings. Certainly not in comparison to the writings of many other people. But I find them more fascinating than the writings of just about anybody else, and I have for many years. I'm intimidated at the thought of having to write about them, which is one reason I've decided to do so -- I like to tackle writing projects that intimidate me, because even if in the end it all seems wrongheaded or superficial or a disaster, inevitably I feel like I learn more than I would have had I done something I was more comfortable with, more sure of.

Loving a writer's work makes it difficult to use that work as a tool of thought. Being fascinated by a writer's work, though, is a different thing: passionate, yes, but in a cooler and more analytical way. I have trouble writing about Chekhov, for instance, not because I am intimidated by his stories and plays, but because I adore them. I read them over and over, and if I ever have to think about why and how they work, it takes a real act of will to do so, and even the process feels disappointing, thin, wrong -- the writings themselves provoke the love, and so any distance from those writings becomes a distance from the source of love. Whereas I've heard and read tremendously perceptive insights into Chekhov from people who respect or admire his writings but clearly don't adore them.

Fascination leaves the fascinated reader open to more ways of viewing the work, because no-one likes to hear criticism of something they love. Say bad things about Chekhov and I won't listen and will probably think there's something wrong with you, that you're not just illiterate but probably subhuman. Say bad things about Delany and I might think you missed a particular point or something, but unless you're just being moronic ("He uses big words"), it's not likely to bother me, and I'll probably be interested in why you don't find the writing successful or engaging, because that can become an extension of the fascination: an interest in ways the writing-that-fascinates is received, ways it is valued and disparaged, and so the fascination is not simply with the writing itself (although that is the foundation), but also with the entire real-world milieu the writing provokes, inspires, and shapes.