02 April 2017

Delany at 75

from The Polymath

Samuel R. Delany just celebrated his 75th birthday, an auspicious occasion.

I've been writing about Delany for over a decade now — I've written and published more about his work than about that of any other writer: introductions to new editions of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore; on his early pornographic novel Equinox; on his recent novel Dark Reflections; an interview in 2009. I spent some time last summer researching in his archives at Boston University and expect to return this summer, as about a third of my doctoral dissertation (in progress...) is devoted to his work. I've given presentations about him at academic conferences, and all of my academic friends are probably quite tired of my invoking his name at every possible opportunity.

The simple fact is that I think Delany is one of the most important American writers, one who ought to be spoken of alongside any great American writer (however defined or identified) of the second half of the twentieth century. Though Delany readers disagree not only about their favorites among his works, but about what should be considered his major writings, the passion of the arguments indicates the range and richness of his oeuvre. As a novelist, he's more interesting than Updike, Mailer, Vidal, and other big white males who still so dominate the idea of post-World-War-II American lit; as a nonfiction writer, he's at least the equal of Sontag. And yet somehow he continues to get seen in very limited ways, ways that impoverish the reading of his works.

The limited view of Delany often seems to result from personal preferences for particular texts or types of texts, and with a writer as complex as Delany, that's a fatal flaw. In fact, one of the great lessons of Delany's project is to encourage us to think beyond personal taste, to recognize personal taste as only a first step, an entry point. We all have our individual interests and preferences. (Myself, I like some of the early work well enough, but had Delany published nothing after Nova, I wouldn't be interested in him; of the fiction, The Mad Man and Dark Reflections are my favorites, though I think Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand could plausibly be offered as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series is perhaps his most impressive sustained work. For all that focus on the fiction, though, I generally feel most excited and inspired when reading his nonfiction.) However, to assess Delany within any sort of literary history, to take stock of his aesthetic and intellectual achievements, to understand anything that he's up to, requires less solipsism. Such an anti-egoistic idea extends well beyond the realm of literature, and is itself present as a concept in virtually all of his books, whether Empire Star or Times Square Red, Times Square Blue or Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.

The conviction that Delany's work must be seen in multifarious ways by multifarious audiences with multifarious tastes was what led me a few years ago to organize a quick alternative roundtable discussion of Delany to counter one that Locus created in honor of his inauguration as a Grand Master of Science Fiction. I knew even then that my effort was inadequate — despite my attempts to make things otherwise, we were all male, for one obvious inadequacy — but the goal was simply to show some of the possible ways of broadening how we discuss and value Delany's work, hoping to inspire others.

Of recent academic efforts, the special "Delany Lately" issue of African American Review (Fall 2015) and the symposium on Delany in the Winter 2012 issue of American Literary History are significant; the recent publication of volume one of Delany's Selected Journals in a gorgeous edition from Wesleyan University Press (brilliantly edited by Kenneth James) is monumental; and Wesleyan's commitment to Delany's work in general has been one of the most notable (even noble) commitments by an academic press in our era to a particular writer.

Naturally, I think it's not enough. For a writer of Delany's stature, there ought to be more, and it ought to be more various.
(my always already overstuffed Delany shelves)

It's time for more discussion of the conjunctions of Delany's various identities and labels — black man, gay man, queer being, sex radical, afrofuturist, Grand Master of Science Fiction, novelist, essayist, pornographer, New Yorker, modernist, postmodernist, metamodernist, person born in 1942, [fill in the blank]. Delany is interesting in any one of those contexts, but he is most interesting in the ways he intersects contexts. I use the term project for his work intentionally. His oeuvre is remarkably consistent and coherent when viewed as such.

Here, then, is my own (incomplete! provisional!) wishlist for Delany's 75th birthday:

Let's attend to Delany's aesthetic choices and achievements. Such work is almost unavoidable with ostentatiously experimental texts like Dhalgren, but Delany's prose, the structure of his narratives, the epistemology within his structural choices, etc. needs to be investigated. He spends much time thinking about such questions himself, both of his own writing and others', and there is much benefit to anyone willing to read closely and think closely about his texts.

Let's mine the archives. Ken James is doing magnificent work with the journals. To my mind, the letters are even more interesting. (You can glimpse some of what they're like in 1984 and About Writing.) We need collections of the Delany/Joanna Russ correspondence. We need collections of Delany's correspondence with critics and intellectuals — the Delany/Fredric Jameson letters, the Delany/Carl Freedman letters, etc. There's an extraordinary ars poetica-cum-autobiography available in the many generous letters Delany has written to various bibliographers, biographers, and scholars who have written about him over the years: illuminating letters to (among others) Robert Bravard, Seth McEvoy, Earl Jackson, and Jeffrey Tucker that, excerpted (to remove repetitions) and collected would make for a compelling book. Delany's correspondence is an important part of his work; he sees letter writing as an art form, and the sorts of letters I'm thinking of tend not to be especially personal, making a collection of them feel more like a collection of essays than of tantalizing scraps for voyeurs. (1984 is representative of his form of letter writing, but is a small selection from a narrow period of time.)

Let's look at the fiction and nonfiction together. This goes back to my feeling that we must see Delany's oeuvre as a project, and since my own dissertation work is on the meetings and meldings of nonfiction with fiction I might be prejudiced in favor of this, but Delany has commented on it at times himself, finding it a critically exciting idea. Read Starboard Wine alongside Trouble on Triton and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Read the Nevèrÿon books alongside the writings on literary theory and postructuralism. Read The Mad Man and Dark Reflections alongside Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. (And get more creative than these obvious pairings!)

Let's move beyond genre boundaries. We need to read Delany's project beyond the big taxonomic boundaries of fiction/nonfiction, but we also need to read it beyond the other sorts of genre boundaries, particularly that between science fiction and not-science-fiction. For instance, Damien Broderick somewhere offered a quick insight that is hugely productive, and is one Delany himself has said (multiple times) is interesting: Addressing the inevitable question of what became of the long-promised second half of Stars in My Pocket — The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, Of Cities — Broderick said that one could read The Mad Man as that second part of the diptych. Doing so would make for a pretty stunning essay, I think. (Yes, I may do it. But I'd be thrilled for someone to get to it before me, because I have a lot of other things I need to be writing!) Sticking only with the SF or only with the not-SF is too limiting. Additionally, the porn must be accounted for, as it's clearly a major component of Delany's project. Some years ago, I began trying to do some work reading Hogg and Dhalgren together, but the effort petered out because I just didn't want to spend a lot of time thinking about Hogg. Other readers are much more fascinated by it than I, however, and could bring great insight to the ways the two novels reflect and illuminate each other. Similarly, more appreciation of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders as a kind of culmination, a summa, of so many of Delany's interests and tendencies is waiting for us: that novel brings together the science fiction, the porn, the 19th-century-novel style of social realism, the philosophical concerns, and more that has been present from Delany's earliest writing. I expect, for instance, some great insights could be found by reading Through the Valley alongside The Fall of the Towers and some of the pornographic entries in the first volume of selected journals.

Let's get intersectional. Just to reiterate some of what I said above: limiting Delany to any one identity discourse is to mutilate his project. We must be interdisciplinary when we read him. We must stand in the intersections, turn all the lights to green, and see what crashes into us.

I know of few writers in English of the last 100 years as intellectually challenging as Delany. For me, he sits equally with Virginia Woolf and J.M. Coetzee, the other writers I've committed significant time and study to. I celebrate his 75 years with immense gratitude for the luck that lets all of us be here to think with him.