29 May 2009

Outtakes from an Introduction

I've told the story of how I came to write the introductions to the revised editions of Samuel Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine (the latter due to be published, last I knew, this fall [update 8/25/09: Now postponed till sometime next year]). The intro for JHJ that appears in the book, though, is very different from the first one I wrote, because from conversations with the editor at Wesleyan University Press, I got the impression that I should write a light, accessible, personal introduction for a general audience, something similar to Neil Gaiman's intro to The Einstein Intersection. No big deal. I had a sort of funny story about first encountering JHJ at much too young an age, so I built the introduction around that.

Chip Delany's reply was something to the effect of, "Great intro! Wrong audience!" Oops. (And, he asked, is JHJ really that difficult? No, certainly -- but I do tend to like to be dramatic...) It turned out that Chip had hoped for an introduction that was more along the lines of the long, scholarly introduction Ken James wrote for Longer Views. He told me to think of my audience as someone who has recently gotten a Ph.D. and is wondering why she should read this book.

I did my best to conceal my panic -- I don't, after all, have a Ph.D. myself, and I wasn't entirely sure I could write two introductions of 3,000-6,000 words each that would be even remotely coherent. In the end, though, I'm quite proud of how they turned out, and the research and thought I put into them ended up being some of the most pleasurable of my life.

After I turned in the final JHJ intro, Chip suggested I should put some outtakes from the first one up here. I'm not sure these are really worth preserving, but perhaps they will offer some amusement, and in any case I think it will prove that the change in perceived audience for the intro was nothing but a good thing...

The simple answer is the parentheticals.

First, though, we need the question. For that, I have to tell a few stories.

When I was in graduate school recently, my uncle asked me what course I was most enjoying. I said a course in postmodern theory. (He has spent enough time around academics to know roughly what I was talking about.) He said he had one question he'd always wanted to ask somebody in such a course, but he'd been afraid of offending them. I said he had no need to worry about offending me. "Well," he said, "what I've wondered is if any of that stuff has any value other than as some sort of game or in-joke. Is any of it really ... saying anything?"

I could have been a smart-aleck and replied that that was a very important problem in postmodern theory, the separation of this thing we call "language" and this other thing we call "meaning", but I wasn't feeling smart-alecky right then, and the uncertainty at the heart of his question had been bugging me quite a lot, too. My answer was one I have more or less stuck to since then: I don't immediately reject as worthless the complex and often convoluted sentences created by writers associated with that thing that has come to be known as Theory, because while certainly I have read plenty of essays and books that seem to hide vapid banalities in a labyrinth of neologisms and ornate syntax, some books and some essays use the labyrinth not to hide anything, but to house it most comfortably.

The question is: Is it worth the effort? The answer is: Yes, sometimes.

(But that's not the question we were searching for.)

[Then follows the small bit of personal stuff that actually made it into the intro, about me first encountering JHJ when I was a kid in the local college library, just discovering science fiction.]

And so now we come to the question for which I have already offered an answer: What does a reader need to pay the most attention to so as to begin understanding Delany's critical prose?

The simple answer is the parentheticals.

There are many different types of parentheticals with Delany. There are the ideas and comments put in parentheses. There are the footnotes and endnotes, many of which become mini-essays of their own. All of those are relatively easy things to work through, though. The challenge comes with the parenthetical statements within sentences, and the paragraphs that function as parenthetical remarks about other paragraphs. There is no simple trick to being able to comprehend the ideas that spring from other ideas and lead in directions of their own. It takes practice and patience.

Which brings us back to my uncle's question about contemporary critical theory in general: Is any of it really saying anything?

There is a corollary question: Does it have to be so difficult?

The simple answer to both questions is: Probably.

If you decide that a piece of writing is saying something, and saying something of value, that is because you have a context from which you can understand and value its ideas and a set of skills that allow you to understand how those ideas are expressed. When I first encountered The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, I was just a nerdy little kid, and I had neither the context nor the skills nor the experiences to get any more from it than I would have gotten from a textbook on nuclear physics. I returned to it after I had built up a context: I knew more about Delany, I knew more about science fiction, I knew more about reading and writing. Not a lot more, but enough to begin. I had read stories by Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ. I had read Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and thought it was the greatest novel ever written (because it was the most intellectually thrilling novel I had ever read, and I assumed nothing could be better). I knew a few general things about the New Wave in the 1960s, having by then read some of Judith Merril's best-of-the-year anthologies and Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. I had begun to think about politics and gender and sexuality.

I'm sure other people could make sense of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw with a different sort of context, a different basic collection of references and general ideas, but this was the one that worked for me.


It can be interesting to chart what changes and what doesn't in Delany's ideas, but it is equally important to look at what changes in the culture from his earliest essays to his most recent, and how that is reflected in his analyses. One of the many things Delany has given us is a record of what it was like to be thinking about writing, reading, and living in a time when the perception of those things by the broader culture changed. The influence of such people as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan was at first limited to the academy, but the influence exploded outward quickly enough, affecting everything from teaching styles to product design, so that now, forty years later, The Economist magazine can run an article suggesting that the ideas of Foucault, Barthes, and Jean-François Lyotard have been absorbed and assimilated by marketing researchers and venturing capitalists.

Beyond providing evidence of how Delany's writing metamorphoses, and beyond the fascination of controversies past, the value these essays hold for us now is their continuing ability to provoke thought. When I said that the secret of beginning to understand Delany is to pay attention to his parentheticals, what I was suggesting was that it is important to pay attention to how you, the individual reader, absorb his ideas. Don't get stuck on particular sentences -- you can come back to them later -- but instead let the flow of ideas inspire ideas of your own. If you start daydreaming while you read, don't worry about it, just remember where your thoughts took flight. When you come back, you will come back to the page as a different person with a different mind, and you will be able to pick up from where you left off, and go for a little while longer, until either you can't fit any more ideas in your head, or you start to dream again. Either result should be cherished.

Is any of it really saying anything—

Is any of it really saying anything to me?

That is the question each of us asks of anything we pay attention to, and the things we pay the most attention to are the things that cause us to answer the question with a strong Yes.

The way I answer that question is obvious. With The Jewel-Hinged Jaw finally back in print, you now have the chance to answer the question for yourself.