24 March 2014

Samuel R. Delany: Another Roundtable


Recently, Locus published an online discussion of the work of Samuel R. Delany with a bunch of different writers and critics, primarily aimed at discussing Delany’s status as the newly-crowned Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Plenty of interesting things are said there, and the participants include a number of people I’m very fond of (both as writers and people), but the particular focus ended up, I thought, creating a certain narrowness to the discussion, especially regarding the post-Dhalgren works, and I thought it might be nice to gather a different group of people together to discuss Delany … differently.

So here we are. I put out the call to a wide variety of folks, and this is the group that responded. We used a Google Doc, and the discussion grew rhizomatically more than linearly, so you'll see that we sometimes refer to things said later in the roundtable. (This makes for a richer discussion, I think, but it may be a little jarring if you expect a linear conversation.)

I hope people who didn't have time or ability to join us in the "official" roundtable will feel free to offer their thoughts in the comments — as will, well, anybody else. Therefore, without further ado and all that jazz... 


PARTICIPANTS  

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, Weird Tales, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He wrote the introductions to Wesleyan University Press’s editions of Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore (forthcoming). Currently, he is a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. 

Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories and the YA novel Bereft

Geoffrey H. Goodwin is a journalist, author, and rogue academic with a Bachelor’s in Literary Theory (Syracuse University) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Naropa University). Geoffrey writes fiction; has taught composition and creative writing in a wide range of settings; has interviewed speculative writers and artists for Bookslut, Tor.com, Sirenia Digest, The Mumpsimus, and during Ann Vandermeer’s helming of Weird Tales; and has worked in seven different stores that have sold comic books.
  
Keguro Macharia is a recovering academic, a lazy blogger, and an itinerant tweeter. Sometimes, he writes things on gukira.wordpress.com or tweets as @Keguro_

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law and The Last Weekend. His short fiction has appeared everywhere from Asimov’s Science Fiction to The Mammoth Book of Threesomes and Moresomes.

Njihia Mbitiru is a screenwriter. He lives in Nairobi.

Lavelle Porter is an adjunct professor of English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.  His dissertation The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual will be completed this spring. Finally. He’s on Twitter @alavelleporter.

Ethan Robinson blogs, mostly about science fiction, at maroonedoffvesta.blogspot.com, a position he will no doubt shortly be parlaying into literary fame.

Eric Schaller is a biologist, writer, and artist, living in New Hampshire and co-editor of The Revelator.


THE ROUNDTABLE

Matthew Cheney
Locus is “The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field”, and so they’re primarily interested in science fiction. We don’t have to be that narrow here. But let’s start with one of the questions they start with, and see where we go: 

How has Delany influenced your own work or views on writing and literature?

detail of the cover of Dhalgren (Bantam, 1975)

Geoffrey H. Goodwin:
I got to spend a week with Chip, most minutes of every day, when he came and taught at my summer writing program when I was getting an MFA. A friend and I were  the two second year science fiction devotees in the prose program (still not an easy spot in academe, though Chip has made that easier), so we knew that one of us could be his teaching assistant and decided to take it into our own hands. I remember the day Anne Waldman found out Chip was coming. I was in a poetry workship with her that day, so I raced to my friend and I swapped a fight over T.A.-ing for Chip to T.A. for Brian Evenson [who, by my reckoning, said some of the wisest comments in the other Delany roundtable] under the express agreement that my friend and I would both follow Chip around the whole time. So we did. Life-changing. Chip is still helping me learn and comprehend both literature and writing. His About Writing is one of my favorite books on the subject.

If one looks at his criticism, fiction, memoirs, and cultural relevance--not to mention everything else he’s accomplished--he’s incomparable. Sure, I remember how he offered the particle theory, where we read and read and then emit a particle on our own when we write, inspired by how we bombarded ourselves; or how he made sure to place the Marquis de Sade’s books within his young daughter’s reach because he wanted her to make her own choices about literature, and there were lessons and exercises in the workshop that were profound--but I also think of Chip as someone with whom I got to trade stories about Allen Ginsberg for stories about Philip K. Dick and Clive Barker. He’s a constellation in a tiny pantheon of living geniuses.

Nick Mamatas 
I guess I appreciate Delany more as a reader than anything else. He doesn’t influence my writing, or my views. There are aspects of agreements, but I haven’t changed my mind about anything to coincide with Delany’s views. I always assign his book on writing—I’ve probably sold an extra fifty copies so far—not because I agree with everything in it, but because everything in it is worth tangling with.

Ethan Robinson
While discussions of Delany often focus on the beauty of his prose, his skillful "way with words" (usually with an example of some passage of heightened sensory description), for me this obscures one of the most remarkable aspects of his writing. It is true that he can indeed write quite beautifully when he needs to, but he is also willing to let himself write badly--that is, to take on modes of writing that are usually considered bad, clumsy, and really get to the heart of what it is that these modes are doing. I think in particular (but not exclusively) of his dialogue, which I find is very much of a piece with the generally derided style of the American science fiction magazines in its matter-of-factness, its often nakedly expository nature--even sometimes its flatness and lack of differentiation. For me it often calls to mind, say, the tendency of characters in Asimov and, later, McCaffrey (just two examples out of many possible) to talk to one another with bizarre thoroughness and "rational objectivity" about their own psychological makeups. In Delany the contrast between these passages of unattractive writing on the one hand and the heightened "poetic" passages on the other becomes a sort of structuring element, one that I think has been underappreciated and underexamined. And for myself, struggling in my own writing with the received notion that one must write "beautifully" (and/or inconspicuously; implied in both: homogeneously), seeing the value of occasional downright ugliness in Delany's writing has been very emboldening.

Keguro Macharia 
I’ll lift Matt’s second prompt below--on beginnings--and track back to the Locus conversation, which started with “beginnings”: when did you first encounter Delany? Which is also a question about SF as a genre that (to my mind) obsesses about beginnings and endings (ecocides, genocides, monsters, hybrids, extinguishment, survival). Which is also to borrow from Lavelle about AIDS and Delany and, more broadly, the forms of extinguishment and disposability his work speaks to and, in doing so, enables us to speak about--this is the importance of Hogg as an early work. I first encountered Delany in the Patrick Merla anthology (Boys Like Us) that Lavelle mentions below. I don’t remember reading him then and, in fact, I suspect that I did not know how to read him at the time--I wanted a simple(r) narrative than he was willing to offer, a cleaner story that stayed “inside the lines,” affirmed identity, made the pleasures of identification simple, the practices of belonging uncomplicated. (Although Matt wants us to be polite, I’ll add that I read much of this impulse in the Locus discussion.)

I re-encountered Delany through Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, just before I joined grad school. At the time, I was interested in formal innovation, and Times Square modeled the kind of writing and thinking I found necessary as a form of world building. I came to the novels later--Stars in My Pocket, Hogg, Mad Man, the Nevèrÿon series, at much the same time as I was reading Delany’s many essay collections. Delany helped me see form--why form matters, how form matters, to whom form matters, why formalism matters--as a project of world-building, world-remaking, inextricable from embodiment, desire, fantasy, and speculation.

Njihia Mbitiru 
I have absolutely no idea, yet, about his influence on me. Others have spoken with great perspicacity--as well as humor (Brett Cox in the Locus roundtable being one)--about Delany’s influence. I suspect I’m still working through mine and therefore limited in what I can say about it. The first bit of Delany’s writing I encountered was The Towers of Toron, the first in the Fall of the Towers Trilogy. I was twenty-one, if I recall correctly. That was twelve years ago now. I’ve become an avid re-reader of his work, which has made me a re-reader of many other writers I onced-over. And because of this I would very much like to hazard that I am now a better reader, but this also remains to be seen: the simple fact is that proof of such is in writing, whose excellence, much as we strive toward our own finally idiosyncratic sense of it, is also a public affair.

Matt: just to touch on what you’ve said about the narrative of certain of his writings--the later ones, beginning with Dhalgren  (written in his late 20s and early 30s, you’ll recall! so that it’s hard to think of this as ‘late Delany’): I also resist and reject this narrative ( I’m not quite at resentment, but give me time). I find it completely non-sensical. Better and more honest to say, as a reader, that the game he’s hunting as a novelist in Dhalgren, Triton, the Neveryon series up into his present work doesn’t hold your interest. It’s a long way away from that to ‘difficult’.  Only a very narrow reading of SF writing would support an assessment of Delany as ‘difficult’, if we’re talking about prose style (though I suspect that’s not what is meant, which begs the question: what do people mean exactly when they use the term ‘difficult’?). There’s so much at a SF readers’ disposal in terms of range and sophistication, or if you like, the absence of it, as there is in any other genre. I enjoy and appreciate Delany’s writing in no small part because it calls attention to precisely this.

Eric Schaller 
Delany’s writings have influenced me more in my approach to life and thought than in writing itself. Some may dislike John Gardner’s concept and application of ‘moral fiction’ to literature, but I have always found Delany’s work moral in its suggestion of how to live a good life. In this respect, as a philosophy, I could abbreviate it as ‘compassionate individualism’: the importance of discovering and following your own path, the diversity of such paths within a population, and how to maintain your personal dignity without selfishly depriving others of theirs. The dedication in Heavenly Breakfast ("This book is dedicated to everyone who ever did anything no matter how sane or crazy whether it worked or not to give themselves a better life"), when I read it in college brought tears to my eyes, and still does.

Through Delany’s writings, I like to think that I became more intentionally aware. My discovery that Delany was gay—not necessarily obvious from his earlier novels, which featured plenty of male-female couples, or from his earlier biographical information which sometimes mentioned a marriage—more specifically the worlds revealed in his non-fictional/autobiographical works such as The Motion of Light in Water, the contemporary sections from “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” and, more recently, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue personified concerns that I would never experience directly. I donate to GMHC because of these works.




Matthew Cheney
There seems to be a narrative among science fiction fans, and particularly SF fans of a certain age, that there is The Good Delany of the pre-Dhalgren books, Hugo and Nebula Awards, etc. ... and then there is The Problematic Delany of Dhalgren and later. It’s a narrative of loss and disappointment, frequently accompanied by the question, “What happened?!” Because I was born in the year Dhalgren was, at least officially, published (it bears a January 1975 publication date, though it actually hit shelves a little earlier), and didn’t start reading Delany until either late 1987 or sometime in 1988, when the last Nevèrÿon book, The Bridge of Lost Desire (Return to Nevèrÿon) was published, my awareness of his career has always included what older, more traditional SF readers considered the “difficult” writings. It’s probably not surprising that I resist, reject, and resent this narrative.

The book I’ve spent the most time with recently, because I’m working on a conference paper about it, is Dark Reflections, which is really beautiful and much more complexly structured than it seems at first, and which should be accessible to just about any audience, since it’s not at all pornographic and the complexity of the structure is subtle, making a basic reading relatively easy. Also, the book’s a great companion to About Writing, which it echoes often. (There’s some good discussion of the “accessibility” of Dark Reflections, particularly for heterosexual men, in Delany’s 2007 interview with Carl Freedman in Conversations with Samuel R. Delany.) But for various reasons, some having to do with events in the publishing industry, Dark Reflections does not seem to have been widely read, and is currently only in print as an e-book. It deserves a wide audience, though.

So my questions for the roundtable are: What other, more useful, stories of Delany’s career could we tell? Is the Good Delany/Problematic Delany narrative useful in some way that I’m missing, some way that I can’t see because it just makes me so angry?

Ethan Robinson
I’ve not yet read any of his fiction after Trouble on Triton (at a certain point I decided to approach him chronologically and have been stalled at The Einstein Intersection, which my library doesn't have; I should just go ahead and buy it, probably), and haven't in fact read Dhalgren, so I can't say too much about this. But I will say that the way I see people talk about this is always very distressing to me as many of the points singled out as "problems" (too many "ideas," not enough action, unconventional storytelling, etc.) are precisely what draws me not only to Delany but to science fiction in the first place! I know the bulk of sf has always been written on a pretty, shall we say, basic level, but I confess I simply have no idea why people who want nothing but simplicity and action and conventional narrative would be attracted to this field, which seems to long for much more.

Craig Laurance Gidney 
My first introduction to Delany was, interestingly enough, Dhalgren. My older brother had a copy of the book when it first came out in the ‘70s and I appropriated it. I read the book in bits and pieces during my teenaged years, and it formed my taste for esoteric and trippy SF. When people spoke about how difficult the book was, I had a hard time understanding them, maybe because I absorbed the idea of the non-linear and counter-factual texts so young. Everything of his I read is through the locus of Dhalgren. The earlier stuff is great to me because I can see the progression of themes that were refined in his later work.

Eric Schaller
I think some of the variable responses to Delany’s work may arise in part from what piece(s) were initially encountered, and how such initial experiences play into future expectations. I first encountered Delany’s work through several short stories read in high school. I remember how strongly “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” affected me, and took a perverse pleasure in the fact that my Dad didn’t follow the main character’s morphing names in the initial section. I also remember reading “Aye, and Gomorrah,” in Dangerous Visions, a story that I knew had to be important because Harlan Ellison said so. At first the story seemed slight, but it lingered and poked at my consciousness.

I don’t think I read a novel of Delany’s until the summer after graduating high school. I was working in New York City at Sloan Kettering and the novel was Dhalgren. There had been the joke published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction about the three things that mankind would never reach (“The core of the sun, the speed of light, and page 30 of Dhalgren”), but this if anything incited my interest in the novel. I was of the right age and in the right place to have the novel assume a central station in my life. But it is also one of those novels that I have returned to and re-read over the years, each time taking something new away from it. For instance, Delany having written that The Fall of the Towers was inspired by a painting of that title which did not show towers but rather reactions to their fall, I noticed a similar approach was often used in Dhalgren: the reactions of characters described before you understood to what they were reacting.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I sought out every Delany book I could find. And to my mind then, and still, there were differences in the approach to writing found in his early works to what I found in Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series. The closest I can come to that difference is to say that in the earlier work Delany seemed to be thinking at a sentence to sentence level. With the later work, it seemed that he inhabited whole paragraphs at once; an individual sentence might not seem that powerful or poetic alone, but within the context of the paragraph it sang.

Geoffrey H. Goodwin
Re-reading the original Locus Roundtable, I can see how some of the context shifted based on the idea of “Samuel R. Delany, Grandmaster.” I know I think differently when “Grandmaster” gets added after anything and then we get the added aspect of, “Welcome to the Science Fiction canon,” by writers who, for no fault of their own, are far less accomplished than Chip. So we have a gay black beatnik who writes science fiction, essays, porn, comics, criticism, and just about everything else—and Chip is the kind of writer who can mean many different things to many different people. Paul Witcover’s review comparing Delany to Hendrix and Bowie really resonates with how I see Chip’s work—but Chip has kept at the work, continuing to evolve. F. Brett Cox nails it when he says Chip was producing books at different points in his life and Chip has always put himself into his books whether they were early SF, criticism, or memoir. And I’d agree that Chip isn’t cranking out spaceships or nuclear-ravaged earths the way the early works could seem—but I also swear that the ideas have been evolving since the beginning. I remember one of the earlier ones, Einstein maybe, where the chapter started with Chip quoting someone he’d talked to that week, citing it as a comment to the author. That level of intertextuality or interstitiality speaks to so much of what Chip has accomplished since then.

Nick Mamatas 
As it turns out, people don’t like porn that isn’t for them. Further, most SF readers are pretty much at sea if they don’t have any tropes to think about. A straightforward and beautiful realist novel like Dark Reflections is just perplexing because it’s just about some guy living his life. No way!

I actually prefer his porn to his SF for the most part. It’s difficult to write transgressive, dirty, occasionally simply wrong stuff with such sympathy and warmth, but Delany manages it. He is an utterly unique writer in this regard.

Geoffrey H. Goodwin 
I see eye-to-eye on a lot with Nick and I think Chip’s right most of the time too. To me, and this may say a lot about Nick’s point about porn (and Nick and I have talked about Chip a-plenty), I think of Hogg as one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen put to paper. Bataille was about my only frame of reference, though I also read Kathy Acker and others prior to finally getting my mitts on Hogg. So I can say that I hope to never pee on a young man, with or without consent, but the book was raw and transgressive and elegant in ways that make it a tour de force in my personal canon. Chip once told me that he used the constraint of only writing when he had an erection for (I think) Tides of Lust. I can see how that’s hard to slip into the SF Grandmaster context.

So maybe the porn’s for me and maybe it’s not, but I loved that book and it certainly changed how I view literature and I care about the book a whole lot, which probably means the porn was for me even if only for being so interesting.

Matthew Cheney
I’ll parenthetically add in here something Nick just wrote on his blog about a different subject (“radical fiction”): "There's plenty of sex in regurgitated fanfiction such as Fifty Shades of Grey, after all. Sex may finally be exhausted as a taboo, or at least as a taboo that can become popular because of its radicalism. Housewives are reading about anal beads now; relatively few people are reading Delany's current sexualized novels about eating snot and dog semen. FOR SOME REASON."

As for me, I like a lot of the SF, particularly from Dhalgren on, and some of the porn — indeed, I mostly agree with Nick that it is in the latter that Delany’s real uniqueness and value shine through. (For me, at least.) Maybe that’s just because The Mad Man is the book that made me a Delany reader for life.

It was probably the autumn of 1995, maybe the winter of 1996. I was a student at NYU, studying playwrighting, no longer a stranger in the city but still feeling profoundly an outsider and generally quite lonely, though I’d gotten involved in some political activism, including AIDS activism with ACT UP, and that helped a bit by providing some sense of purpose. I found the hardcover of The Man Man on the remainders table at St. Marks Books, and since I’d liked some of Delany’s science fiction (and at $5 the book was affordable on a college student’s almost-nonexistent budget), I picked it up. I read it quickly — devoured it, really — it was fascinating and terrifying, arousing and repulsing, and it gave me a greater experience of working through alienation and estrangement than any science fiction novel ever did (Stars in My Pocket, which I’d wrestled with and not really understood at that age, came closest). It’s one of the two great novels of my NYU years (the other being Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which I threw across the room three times in the course of reading it for a class, and which taught me how to be a better reader). I remember then trying to explain the book to an older, straight friend who knew some of Delany’s SF. He looked horrified. Why he seemed to think would anybody ever want to read that. And I couldn’t quite explain. Because, for me, reading it was like simultaneously reading the best horror fiction, the best science fiction, the best fiction.

Partly, it spoke to my crisis of sexual identity, but it went well beyond that, because though I identified with some of the homosexual attractions in the book, I also found some of it (a lot of it!) disgusting. But the book forced me to confront my repulsions and desires. How could I justify my disgust? Did the disgust also contain desire? These questions haunted me.

In some way or another, the book fragmented my sense of subjectivity, and yet I emerged okay with that. (I think one reason I’m attracted now to Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of the “body without organs” and “assemblages” is that those concepts gesture toward an idea of self I was left with: the ever-flowing conglomeration of sense and thought that constructs and re-constructs the “I” — or, as Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” Reading The Mad Man made me more multitudinous.)  There was my view of the world and myself before The Mad Man and my, subtly but profoundly altered, view of the world and myself after The Man Man.

In a 1990 afterword to a paperback edition of Stars in My Pocket, Delany says that the idea of centered, unified subject is oppressive, creating a system in which there is the healthy “us” and the unhealthy/evil “them”, and so he valorizes the idea of the fragmented subject, which he says “is at its healthiest, happiest, and most creative precisely at those times where society and economics contrive (1) to make questions of unity and centeredness irrelevent, and (2) to distance that subject as much as possible from such oppressions.” At 19 or 20 years old, I was tormented by a sense of failed centeredness, of failed selfhood, of failed queerness, of failed everything, really, and The Mad Man somehow or other reduced the torment.

Njihia Mbitiru 
Adding on to that, Matt, another reason I really like Delany’s writing, the SF and the porn is because, among other reasons, I spent the first 18 years of my life in a dictatorship, which, more than other political systems, I think, is defined by the idea of a centered, unified subject. It systematizes that understanding so thoroughly--and brutally, in ways having both a little and everything to do with physical violence--that most people, in spite of the fact that they know that the shitty facts of life don’t bear out this idea, persist with it, even outdoing the people whose job it is to reinforce this in the first place. Really it’s like being in jail, except you carry jail with you. Your responses are always already waiting for you around the corner--to obey, to fuck up and be punished. It doesn’t matter that the social institutions you’ve submitted to give the impression of co-signing your so-far apparently impeccable behavior. You’re a priori a criminal, a sexual deviant. You’re not a citizen, not really. One republic later, Kenya is a democracy, ostensibly, and while there are changes to be happy with, we’re going to be dealing with this crap for a long time. Writing about how a society creates creates and sustains mythologies (how technology is implicated in this, and vice versa), and writing, to paraphrase Nick, dirty wrong stuff with sympathy and warmth is so wonderfully the opposite of all that. It’s illuminating in a way both exhilarating and terrifying. Everytime I write something and think,  ‘Njihia, you’re going to hell [or prison]’’ I have to remind myself that in a sense I am already there, and that it is only going to get worse if I back away from that feeling rather make my way  through it. The Motion of Light in Water is pretty important to me in this regard.

Eric Schaller
During the seventies and eighties, when I first encountered Delany’s work, other science fiction writers concerned themselves with issues of sexuality, gender, and society, but there was a difference with Delany. Sometimes sexual matters were just there, part of a lived-in life and not necessarily required to move the plot forward. I still remember my surprise in reading his short story “Corona,” where a character has to masturbate three times before he can fall asleep, a surprise based on the novelty of this appearing in an SF story and the off-hand way in which it was related.

I will also add that once-upon-a-time Delany wrote quite effective male-female sex scenes. When a friend of mine returned after two years in Zaire while serving with the Peace Corps, he complained about being starved for female attention. I pulled Dhalgren down from the bookshelf and read aloud one of these sex scenes. He made me stop because it was getting him too worked up.




Matthew Cheney:
What do you think does not get said about Delany’s work enough?

Lavelle Porter:  
If there was an “elephant in the room” in the
Locus roundtable it was not whether Delany fell off or not. (I’m sorry, I have always found that ridiculous. As Matt said, maybe it’s a matter of age and perspective.  I was born in 1978 and also came to Delany through the later work.)  To me that elephant, which still went unacknowledged, is the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  I don’t think the term even came up in that conversation.  Once you address the role of HIV/AIDS in Delany’s work then it should be much clearer why Delany’s later writing deals with sexual politics in a more direct way.  If you’ve read “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” if you’ve read 1984 and The Mad Man, and if you understand that Delany’s own mortality was at stake, and that he, like so many other people who survived that awful, scary time, lost so many friends to this illness, and if you saw that the response of most mainstream Americans to the epidemic was “Good!  Let the faggots die!” then it should be obvious why a sexually active, politically engaged, gay writer in NYC might turn his attention to sexual matters, and why that writer might believe that the way we think about sex and respectability and morality needs to be challenged.


I feel that if we’re going to have this conversation about post-Dhalgren Delany, then it shouldn’t go “another further” without at least mentioning AIDS.  Keep in mind also, that post-Dhalgren Delany is also post-Stonewall Delany, with all the political meaning that entails.   One of the first pieces of Delany’s writing that I encountered was “Coming/Out” which I read in Patrick Merla’s collection Boys Like Us (and which is also in Shorter Views).   After my own furtive movements toward coming out, it was invigorating to read a black gay intellectual who critically interrogated that whole “coming out” idea, and it was just the kind of analysis I was looking for.  After that, I read The Motion of Light in Water, which is still among my favorite Delany books. And on and on it went…

Matthew Cheney
Thanks for bringing this up, Lavelle. Sex has been present in Delany’s work from the beginning to whatever extent he could get away with, but maybe one useful alternative framework for thinking about his writings is around Stonewall, which, as a word at least, can stand in for a particular moment when gay liberation activism became more open in the U.S. Hogg, Delany has said, came from the pent-up anger that had no outlet before Stonewall. And then comes AIDS. So among the templates we could impose on Delany’s career, one is [pre-Stonewall], [post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS], [AIDS & after].

Something that hadn’t occurred to me until now, and which now seems really important, is this: All of the SF works that are most beloved by the science fiction community are pre-Stonewall. “Aye and Gomorrah”, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, and the novels up through Nova. All pre-Stonewall.

And thus we get to “difficulty”. Difficult for whom? Nick says, above, “As it turns out, people don’t like porn that isn’t for them,” which is a good insight because it shows us some of what is going on in the response to books like The Mad Man and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which are full of all sorts of descriptions of sex that lots of people find disgusting. Therein, for me, lies the value. I liked Roger Bellin’s naming of this as “libidinal estrangement”. Perhaps it’s a new Sartrean ideal — hell is other people’s porn!

Ethan Robinson
My homosexuality is about as different from Delany’s as could be, but one thing that comes through powerfully for me in his writing about it (particularly in The Motion of Light in Water, which of the works I’ve read is the one that deals with it most directly) is the sense of possibility--both alternate possibilities (for the present and future, perhaps) and past possibilities that have now largely been closed off, whether by something like AIDS (which was largely over as an “event” by the time I came of age, having become by then more of a “fact”, however contested and/or ignored) and the response to it or by the repressively assimilationist agenda of Gay Inc.’s millionaires and their cadres (not that these are entirely separable phenomena, of course). And this sense of possibility--which is of course closely related to what Matt and Njihia have been saying about the “unified subject” and so forth--is present both in the literal what of Delany’s subject matter and in the way he writes about it--and the latter at least as much as the former is my answer to Matt’s question, “What does not get said about Delany’s work enough?” The Locus roundtable goes on for a startling length before anyone brings up structural or formal issues, and even once these issues do come up the discussion of them remains very desultory.

I think one of the things Delany learned best from sf was how to be didactic, or perhaps that didacticism is allowable; and one of the things he learned best from the poetry and other literatures he cares so much about (I think in particular, though not exclusively, of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets) is how to incorporate didacticism into a framework allowing for endless multiplicity--a “multiplex consciousness”, as it were.

Craig Laurance Gidney
I think that if there is an overarching theme to Delany’s work (both pre and post Dhalgren), it is the exploration of liminality, politically, sexually, and intellectually. The characters in Babel-17 and Nova are outsiders. The porn explores trangressive desires. Trouble on Triton, the place of a liminal person in a society. Dark Reflections is a kind of alternative history biography of a man who lives a life in the shadows of his own desires. I think that when people split Delany into “good” and “bad” periods, they are missing this big picture. The non-SF parts of his oeuvre in influenced by his SFnal work, as well; the border between the “realistic” fiction of Dark Reflections, The Mad Man, the Atlantis novellas isn’t as sharply drawn as some critics think it is. Fantasy intrudes upon reality, and vice versa.



Eric Schaller
I’ll just add some emphasis here, calling attention to Craig’s mention of Atlantis:Three Tales, a beautiful collection which is often overlooked in discussions of Delany. The title itself serves to reconfigure how you approach the story “Atlantis: Model 1924,” reminding the reader of the ties between reality and fantasy and how these play against each other. That title alone made me see New York City in an entirely new light.

Geoffrey H. Goodwin
So much of this is wonderful and thank you all very much. It’s so true that form and structure are paramount in what Chip does. He inhabits language. To me, however and wherever we draw the lines, Chip has written wonderful work that transcends SF. That’s hard to take into account in the context of a “Grandmaster” label. I think of how Vonnegut got shuffled aside as he stopped actively embracing SF and how Phil Dick wrote non-SF books (that weren’t in that different a style, in my humble opinion) and never hopped the fence during his lifetime. And how many homosexual writers still get pigeonholed as gay writers when others seem to be writers who happen to have or write about QUILTBAG sex.

Chip has actively straddled most everything you can do with a pen. His skills led to some perceptive and psychologically-realistic SF right when it was necessary, but that means it’s hard to even put forth a place to begin for someone who hasn’t read him yet. Find a pile of ten of his books and read the first few pages. None of Chip’s books are for everyone, and the early works were a great entry point for a lot of us and yet are time capsules now. 1984 might be my favorite because it’s a different kind of time capsule and I was born in NYC, so I’ve probably recommended that one the most as a bookseller and as a reader.

Lavelle Porter
Craig, I like what you said up there, that the borders between his early and late work, or the borders between the SF and non-SF work, aren’t as sharply drawn as some critics want to make it. I think in the long run people will recognize the continuities.  In fact, that’s the thesis of Jeffrey Allen Tucker’s A Sense of Wonder when it comes to the subject of race in Delany’s work.  Tucker shows how the concept of racial difference was already at play in his earlier work, even when SF fan boys were assuming that he was a straight white guy just because he hadn’t specifically identified his race or sexuality.

I also think Delany is recognized now as a feminist writer, someone who has set a great example to other writers on how to write and think about gender. It seems in the last few years the Internet has “discovered” that he wrote an issue of Wonder Woman, something that has given him street cred with the younger generation of students schooled in feminism and queer theory who are coming to his work now.

I was just going back through the essays in the recent Annals of Scholarship issue on Delany “Cruising the Disciplines” (the collected papers from the 2006 Delany Symposium at University at Buffalo).  I particularly enjoyed the essay by L. Timmel Duchamp, wherein she retraces the history of SF, and discusses how women writers are excluded from its literary genealogy.  I was on a panel at that conference with Terry Rowden, whose paper is also included in that collection. I’m still fascinated by his concept of Hogg as a feminist text, and that he had taught Hogg in women’s studies classes. It seems we weren’t able to get any women to participate in this particular roundtable (maybe we should have asked Mitt Romney if we could borrow his binders full of women!), but I did want to make note of Delany’s feminist perspective.  I still remember when I first read Motion of Light in Water, and his discussions with Marilyn Hacker in the book about the way that women were depicted in SF, and their conversation about why men’s jeans had large pockets and women’s jeans did not.  This was wonderfully inspiring to me because as a young man who was just starting to participate in the gay community I was frustrated with the knee-jerk misogyny I’d encountered from too many gay men.  There were a lot of assumptions made that we all hated women sexually and socially, which I did not identify with on both accounts, and I was thrilled to find someone writing so eloquently about sexual and gender identity in a way that was more fluid and in tune with the way that I experienced my own sexuality, not limited to these simple either/or dichotomies, and not built on a hatred of women, or revulsion to women’s bodies.

There are so many wonderful things that you all have said here, and I don’t have time to respond to as many things as I’d like to.  I just want to thank you all for a great conversation, and I look forward to seeing this on the web where others can respond to it.

Matthew Cheney
Thanks, everybody! Let's open up the conversation now. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments area of this post. (If you want to write about the conversation elsewhere, I'm also happy to have links to further discussions dropped into the comments.)

6 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this immensely. I am the only woman member of a post-academic salon/street gang whom I lovingly call "The Philosopher Kings." We meet every month or so to talk and think together about whatever interests us. I am excited to read Lavelle Porter's celebration of the feminisms to be found in Delany's work because, among other reasons, Lavelle does not offer anything to the round table on behalf of women... he rather invokes Delany's feminist writing to illuminate and call attention to the space that some of us might have filled, had we been there. I love that.

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    1. Just to be fair, Matt did invite several other people who didn't or couldn't participate. This was all put together and done in about a week's time. Thanks for your comment! Very happy to see that you enjoyed the conversation.

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  2. I very much agree with Gidney's observations about Dhalgren. Maybe this comment is more appropriate to the Locus forum, but I was kind of shocked that so many of the participants there, while professing to love Delany's writing (and being themselves professional writers and academics, so one would think professional readers), admitted either to never reading Dhalgren or to being unable to finish it. Yes, it's long. Yes, the structure is complex. But when you close the loop at the end, it falls into place enough that you can at least convince yourself you get it all, even if you don't quite. An experience I might add that I had again and again the second and third times through. :-) In the end, Dhalgren transcends the genre, and stands with the other great works of 20th century fiction.

    I too started with Dhalgren (well before the Neveryon books came out) and then went back and read everything he had written earlier. While there's no way to know for sure, I wonder whether I would have picked up as strongly on the recurring themes and leitmotifs that run through all the fiction, including the early work, if I hadn't started with Dhalgren.

    Finally, a note on the perspective of a straight reader in his 60's. I have read the autobiographical work and enjoyed it enormously. I have also read some of the "porn" and admit to having had a hard time with it. I have not yet tackled Spiders, and have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel like I should, because I've read almost everything else, and there's reason to believe that it would ultimately be rewarding. On the other hand, that's a lot of pages of material that I expect to find very hard to swallow, no pun intended. In the grand scheme of things, I selfishly wish that Delany had stuck more to the SFnal work, because there would be a larger body of that work to enjoy. But I can't begrudge him following his muse, nor do I think that the "porn" in any way diminishes or detracts from his status as the greatest living (greatest ever?) SF author.

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  3. I never found Dhalgren hard to read and I've read it probably five or six times. I experienced the unusual narrative structure as just another part of the "world building" that I was used to seeing in my favorite SF. Some of the things I've always loved best about that book are the cross-class interactions. Coming out of cultural anthropology, I'm fascinated by all the creative ways in which real people as well as fictional characters are able to transcend those experiential boundaries. As Craig Laurance Gidney pointed out, so many of these adventures take place in liminal space.
    Mischa__i'm not anonymous, I just don't have an url.

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  4. I've been lucky enough to meet Chip in person while attending a mid 1970s LunaCon, and his very young daughter Isa, as I was staying with the Godparents of Isa. Part of the weekend was a long Saturday evening with Chip, Bernie, Mark and a few others discussing Chip's views on Sf and his work as a Sf critic. Had to take at least one break to go and get more wine. I would still argue that Chip is one of the 3 or 4 best critics from "within" Sf that we have, and it's something that often gets overlooked or little discussed.

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  5. Sorry I missed this. Against day job, the gods themselves contend in vain.

    Although the Locus roundtable was too predictably vapid to rouse much anger, it did make me reflect that Delany is the only one of my very few male "role models" who expresses anger -- a scrupulously polite and polished blade of anger, but a motive force nevertheless.

    "Libidinal estrangement" is indeed a nice phrase. The only writing I've ever published specifically to influence existing discourse expressed similar sentiments and hopes; it might be interesting if only as historical background.

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