Samuel R. Delany
The Semiology of Silence
The following text began as a conversation that took place in New York City (in
August of 1983) between Samuel R. Delany and Sinda Gregory and Larry McCaffery
(both from San Diego State University). Another piece based on the same
conversation is included in their book, Alive and Writing: Interviews with
American Authors of the 1980s (just out from Illinois UP).
Samuel R. Delany: I begin, a sentence lover. I'm forever delighted, then
delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying,
into seeing. I'm astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny
tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I'm entranced by their lollop and
flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a
hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.
Oh, I've always been a bathroom dictionary browser. Still—"In the beginning was
the word..."? I suppose poets have to feel that way. But for me, the word's a
degenerate sentence, a fragmentary utterance, something incomplete. Mollying
along, lonesome Mrs Masters asks, "Why aren't there any decent words?" Well,
no word is decent by itself; and less than a dozen indecent—shit, fuck, and the
like working the way they do because when they're blurted by counter women,
construction workers, or traffic bound drivers, they've got a clear capital on
one end and an exclamation point at the other, so that the words alone (in the
dictionary, say, or askew on the stall wall) are homonymous with the indecent
expletive, which is a sentence. Declare "Sputum!" the way we do "Shit!" and
we'll have it obscene in a season. (The understood verb in the expletive "...fuck!" that completes the sentence is, of course:
"I declare...") It's
highly reductive to take the toddler's tentative or passionate utterances, her
one and two syllable grunts, his burble and blab, merely as practice words;
they're questions, exclamations, protests, incantations, and demands. And
tangible predicate or not, these are sentence forms. The late Russian critic M.M.
Bakhtin (1895 1975) hit on the radical notion of considering the word not a
locus of specified meaning but rather an arena in which all possible social
values that might be expressed with and through it can engage in contest. But
what calls up those differing values? What holds them stable long enough to get
their dander up, if not the other words about, along with the punctuation that,
here and there, surrounds and, there and here, sunders: in short, the different
sentences the word occurs in? Without the sentence, the arena of the word has no
walls, no demarcation. No contest takes place. Even historically, I suspect it's
more accurate to think of
the sentence as preceding the word. "Word"—or "logos"—is better considered a
later, critical tool to analyze, understand, and master some of the rich and
dazzling things that go on in statements, sentences, utterances, in the énoncés
that cascade through life and make up so much of it.
The sentence is certainly the better model for the text. (The word is the model
for the Bible, and that really isn't what most writers today want their texts to
become.) The word is monolithic. You can't argue with it. At best it's got an
etymology—which is to say it comes only from other words that most of us,
speaking, don't have immediate access to. And an etymology is only a genealogy,
not a real history of material pressures and complex influences. For that, you
have to look to a history of rhetorical figures, of ideas (expressed by
what...?), of discourse.
The sentence is more flexible, sinuous, complex—one is always revising it—than
the word. It's got style. Yet it holds real danger in its metaphorical compass.
The wrong one condemns you to death.
Der Satz, the Germans say, philosophically: the sentence, or the proposition.
We've got two terms for their one. They lead to very different areas of
utterances about language, too. From the Greek Stoics on,1 this split strongly
suggested that meanings could come apart from words, from the sentences that
evoked them. Philosophically speaking, a proposition was thought to be a
particular kind of clear and delimitable meaning associated with a particular
kind of rigorously simple sentence—or a combination of them in clear and lucid
relations, indicated by truth tables and Venn diagrams; and any truly meaningful
sentence could be broken down into them. Willard Van Orman Quine is among the
more recent philosophers this side of the Herring Pond to suggest that view
isn't right. Meanings just aren't hard edged and delimitable. To use his word
(in my sentence): they just can't be "individuated" as easily as that.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Jacques Derrida is one of the new thinkers to make
it disturbingly clear that the most fixed and irrefutable seeming meaning is
finally a more or less under determined play of undecidables.
"Words mean many things" is the old sentence that tried to illuminate some
pivotal point in this complex situation. A comment about words, yes. But it
takes a sentence to say it.
What interests me most about sentences is the codes by which we make them—and
various combinations and embeddings and tortuosities of them (I was 19 when, in
Lectures in America, I first read Gertrude Stein's bright and repeated
observation: "The paragraph is the emotional unit of the English language."
And you know what makes a paragraph)—make sense. An interest such as mine
usually starts from the position: "Well, there are these things called words,
sentences, paragraphs, texts....And, by a more or less articulatable set of
codes, we interpret them to mean certain things."
But as you articulate those codes more and more, you soon find, if you're honest
with yourself, you're at a much more dangerous and uncertain place. You notice,
for example, the convention of white spaces between groups of letters that
separate out words is, itself, just a code. Knowing the simplest meaning of a
word is a matter of knowing a code. Knowing printed letters—written
characters—stand for language and are there to convey it is, itself,
only a certain codic convention. "Word" (or, indeed, "sentence" or "paragraph") is only the codic term for the complex of codic conventions by
which we recognize, respond to, understand, and act on whatever causes us to
recognize, respond, understand, and act in such a way that, among those
recognitions and responses and understandings, is the possible response:
"word" (or, indeed, "sentence" or "paragraph"). But turn around now, and
what we called "the real world" seems to be nothing but codes, codic systems
and complexes, and the codic terms used to designate one part of one system,
complex, or another. In the larger neural net, the colors we see and the sounds
we hear are only codic markers for greater or lesser numbers of vibrations per
second in electromagnetic fields or clouds of gas. Shapes among colors are
markers coded to larger or smaller aggregates of atoms and molecules that
reflect those vibrations. None of this can be perceived directly; and it's only
by maneuvering and cross comparing certain codic responses to certain others
according to still other codes that we can theorize the universe's external
existence in our own internal codic system—a system that, in practical terms,
while it expands and develops on that theory at every turn, seems hardly set up
to question it except under extremely speculative conditions.
The sentential, codic—or semiotic—view is dangerous because questions that, at
least initially, seem inimical to the system do get asked. And inimical seeming
answers are arrived at. The comparatively stable objects posited by the limited
codic system of the senses do not correlate well with the greater codic
complexes that entail our memory of objects, our recognition of them, and our
knowledge of their history and their related situations, which, finally, are
what allow us to negotiate, maneuver, and control them. Sense bound distinctions
such as inside and outside become hugely questionable. Value bound metaphors
such as higher and lower stand revealed as arbitrary. And the physically
inspired quality of identity becomes a highly rigid mentalistic ascription in a
system that can clearly accommodate more flexibility.
"Solipsism" is what it's called—to call it with a sentence. And it feels very
The way out, however, is simply to remember that the code system isn't simple.
It's terribly complex, recursive, self critical, and self revising; and
redundancy, sometimes called over determination, is its hallmark at every
perceivable point. The over determination of the codic system is the most
forceful suggestion that the universe, from which the system is made and to
which (we assume) it is a response, is itself over determined—which is to say:
it operates by laws. (It is sentenced, if you will, to operate in certain ways
and not in others.)
What does that over determination mean to the human codic system?
It means frequently you can knock out the most obvious appearance and still come
up with pretty much the same understanding or one that feels even finer.
What could be more important than the spaces between for distinguishing
individual words? YetyoucandropthewordspacesinalmostanyEnglishsentenceandstillreaditwellenough.
Words seem to individuate more
easily than meanings. The early Greeks used to write with all capital letters
and no punctuation or spaces between words at all. There are a number of writing
systems that have no way—or only a very impoverished way—of indicating vowel
sounds. They still produce perfectly readable sentences. Nt y cn drp th vwls n
Nglsh nd stll mk prtty gd gsss t wht th txt sys. You can cut the bottom half of
the print off an English sentence with no irretrievable loss of meaning.
That's all over determination.
What you can't do is drop the word spaces and the vowels and the bottom half of
the print all at once. That over determines chaos.
But the fact is, almost any codic convention we can talk of in language matters
is likely to be over determined. Where there's communication, there's
redundancy—starting with the one between what's in your mind and what's in mine,
which allows words to call up similar meanings for both of us. Indeed, if
there's a codic rule of thumb governing the vast complex of codes which makes up
life in the world, it would seem to be: the more obvious, important, and
indispensable a codic convention, the more redundant it is—including this one.
That results from all the other little rules, often very hard to ferret out
because the obvious hides them, that obliquely replicate parts of it, that
manage to reinforce much of it, that give it its appearance—in short, that make
it "obvious," "important," and "indispensable" in the first place. Well,
here I sit, in the middle of all these playful, sensuous sentences and codes,
writing my SF, my sword and sorcery, more or less happily, more or less content.
But I suspect there's little to say about writing, mine or anyone's that doesn't
fall out of its sentences, or the codes which recognize and read them, the codes
which the sentences are—and the sentences which are the only expressions, at
least in verbal terms, we can have of the codes.
McCaffery: Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, you have openly and proudly proclaimed your
writing to be "science fiction." Indeed, in your critical writings, you have
suggested that SF is a genre in its own right and not merely a sub genre of
mainstream (or "mundane") fiction or of the romance or whatever. And you have
resisted the notion that recent SF is "re entering" the realms of serious
fiction. Could you talk about these controversial notions, explain how you
arrived at them, and why you feel they're important?
Delany: The easiest place to enter your question is at the idea of SF's "re
entering" the realm of serious fiction. To be "re entering" anything, SF has
to have been there once before (presumably in the 17th, 18th, and 19th
centuries' "feigned histories" and "utopias," from Kepler and Cyrano to More
and Bellamy); then it has to have left (no doubt when SF stories began to appear
in the adventure and pulp magazines of the early part of this century); and now,
according to some people, it's coming back—while, according to me, it isn't.
Well, that whole model of the "history of SF" is, I think, a historical. More, Kepler, Cyrano, and even Bellamy would be absolutely at sea with the codic
conventions by which we make sense of the sentences in a contemporary SF text.
Indeed, they would be at sea with most modern and
post modern writing. It's just pedagogic snobbery (or insecurity), constructing
these preposterous and historically insensitive genealogies, with Mary Shelley
for our grandmother or Lucian of Samosata as our great great grandfather.
There's no reason to run SF too much back before 1926, when Hugo Gernsback
coined the ugly and ponderous term, "scientifiction," which, in the letter
columns written by the readers of his magazines, became over the next year or so
"science fiction" and finally "SF." Ten years before or 30 years before is
all right, I suppose, if you need an Ur period. It depends on what aspect of it
you're studying, of course. But 50 years is the absolute outside, and that's
only to guess at the faintest rhetorical traces of the vaguest discursive
practices. And in practical terms, most people who extend SF too much before
1910 are waffling.
Look. Currently our most historically sensitive literary critics are busily
explaining to us that "literature" as we know it, read it, study it, and
interpret it today hasn't existed more than 100 years. Yet somehow there is
supposed to be a stable object, SF, that's endured since the 16th century—though
it only got named in 1929...?
Now, there've been serious writers of SF ever since SF developed its own
publishing outlets among the paraliterary texts that trickled out on their own
towards the end of the 19th century and that, thanks to technical developments
in printing methods, became a flood by the end of World War I and today are an
ocean. Some of those SF writers, like Stanley G. Weinbaum (1900 35), were
extraordinarily fine. Some of them, like Captain S.P. Meek (1894 1972), were
unbelievably bad. And others, like Edward E. Smith (1890 1965), while bad, still
had something going. But what they were all doing, both the bad ones and the
good ones, was developing a new way of reading, a new way of making texts make
sense—collectively producing a new set of codes. And they did it, in their good,
bad, and indifferent ways, by writing new kinds of sentences, and embedding them
in contexts in which those sentences were readable. And whether their intentions
were serious or not, a new way of reading is serious business.
Between the beginning of the century and the decade after the Second World
War—by the end of which we clearly have the set of codes we recognize today as
SF—there are things of real historical interest to study in the developing
interpretative codes and the texts that both exploited them and revised them in
the pulp SF magazines and, later, in the SF book market, hardcover and
paperback. But most academic critiques that equate 17th , 18th , and 19th
century didactic fables with 20th century pulp texts just mystify history and
suppress those historical developments, both in terms of what was seriously
intended and what was simply interesting, however flip.
I've never proclaimed my work SF, proudly or humbly. I assume most of my
published fiction is SF—and I assume most of my readers feel it is, too. But
that's like a poet assuming she writes poems, or a playwright assuming he writes
All I've ever "proclaimed" in my critical books, The American Shore (1978) or
Starboard Wine (1984), is that, today, at this perticular point in the
intellectual history of various practices of writing, in the development of the
greater complex of interpretative codes that we apply to the range of writing
practices, "science fiction" is a useful designation and marks a useful
distinction from literature. And I've even gone so far as to propose that when
we bypass some of the most obvious appearances associated with the distinction
and explore the ways in which the underlying codes and conventions over
determine them, interesting things come to light.
In the vast play of codic conventions, there are no distinctions that are always
useful for all situations and tasks. But there are many distinctions that are
useful for many particular situations—so many, in fact, that their profligacy is
itself a situation that makes it useful to call such distinctions "rules."
One place such distinctions are useful is when there's ambiguity on one side
that can only be resolved by finding some over determined path to the other side
where the ambiguity—if we're lucky—doesn't exist.
I've written a number of essays which have employed as examples strings of words
that, if they appeared in an SF text, might be interpreted one way but that, if
they appeared in a mundane text, might be interpreted another:
Her world exploded.
He turned on his left side.
The point is not that the meaning of the sentences is ambiguous, however, but
that the route to their possible mundane meanings and the route to their
possible SF meanings are both clearly determined. And what's clearly determined
is over determined. I've also written an essay on the way readers who have only
acquired the literary codes of interpretation can go about misreading a typical
SF phrase (just a fragment of a sentence): "The monopole magnet mining
operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni..."2
Sentences such as "The door dilated" and "I rubbed depilatory soap over my
face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap" get special
interpretative treatment when we encounter them in an SF text. And it's the
nature of over determination that readers comfortable with SF will usually
recognize these and many other such sentences and phrases as more than likely
coming from SF texts, even if they have never actually encountered them in Niven
or Heinlein or Pohl and Kornbluth.
The distinction between SF and literature is useful if we want to talk about
what's happening to us at such moments of recognition, and how that differs from
the recognition experience we have when we encounter such sentences as "A leaf
stuck to Estreguil's pink cheek," "Gliding across Picadilly, the car turned down
St James Street," "The Marquis went out at five o'clock," or "Ages ago, Alex,
Allen, and Alva arrived at Antibes...."
McCaffery: Until recently most critics have—fruitlessly, it seems to me—tried to
define these differences in terms of subject matter: one text deals with outer
space and the other deals with the world around us. But I gather that the basis
of your view of these distinctions is different. You rely on an essentially semiological argument that the sentences in SF
"mean" differently from
sentences in ordinary fiction.
Delany: Again, it's overdetermination that causes the overwhelmingly important
appearance of the subject matter differences. But that's simply to say with
another sentence what I've said before: the most obvious distinctions and
designations are the most over determined. And understanding doesn't really get
under way until you can tease apart some of the ways in which the not so obvious
conventions highlight, support, and even account for the obvious ones: what
holds the system, as it were, stable. As far as the priority of subject matter
itself, well: poems often have different subject matter from mundane fiction.
Dramas frequently have different subject matter from poems. And films frequently
have different subject matter from dramas. But no sophisticated analysis of
poetry, fiction, drama, or film would try to present an exhaustive analysis of
each field, or its difference from the others, purely in terms of appropriate
and inappropriate subject matter—purely in terms of traditional category themes.
As Robert Graves noticed years ago, all poems tend to be about love, death, or
the changing of the seasons. A clever observation, and it's insightful. But in
the long run we still have to say that a poem can be about anything. Just as
sword and sorcery stories tend to be about the change over from a barter economy
to a money economy, SF stories tend to be about the change over from a money
economy to a credit economy also insightful. Still, SF stories (like sword and
sorcery stories) can be about anything too. But the fact that some academic
critics still seriously try to present an exhaustive discussion of SF in terms
of traditional themes is just a sign of how unsophisticated much academic
criticism of SF is.
The reader who can't respond properly to "The monopole magnet mining operations
in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni..."—the reader who doesn't know what
monopole magnets are, who isn't sure if the mining is done for the magnets or
with the magnets, who has no visualization of an asteroid belt, outer, inner, or
otherwise, or who wonders how mine tunnels get from asteroid to asteroid—that
reader is having the same kind of problem with the SF text that the contemporary
reader of Elizabethan poetry is likely to have encountering, say, the opening
clause of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 129":
Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action...
You have to know that "expense" here doesn't primarily mean cost; its first
meaning here is expenditure, or pouring out. You have to know that "spirit"
here only secondarily means soul; its primary meaning here is volatile liquid,
such as alcohol. And "waste" doesn't have a primarily verbal thrust here; its
nominal meaning here is desert. "To act from lust is to pour out alcohol in a
desert of shame..." was the immediate semantic perception for your ordinary
Elizabethan—well before the level of interpretations began that set double
(i.e., onanistic and commercial) meanings at play throughout this clause, the
conclusion of its sentence, and the rest of the poem.
Before you can deconstruct a text, Robert Scholes writes somewhere, you have to
be able to construe it. It's sobering to discover how many otherwise literate
people have trouble with SF just at the construction level. And
frequently these are the first people to condemn it as meaningless.
Since the complex of codes for SF (like that of Elizabethan poetry) is over
determined and segues into and mixes inextricably with the codes for many other
kinds of reading, one way to learn the SF complex is to read a lot of it—with a
little critical help now and then. That's the way most 12 year olds do it.
But these codic conventions operate at many levels. They not only affect what
one is tempted to call the "what" of the information. They also affect the "way" the information is stored. And I see this storage pattern as
fundamentally different for SF and literature—and that difference holds for all
the sub practices of literature, too: poetry, realistic fiction, literary
Sinda Gregory: You feel this distinction is true even if the literary text
you're reading is a fantasy—say something by Kafka?
Delany: All right. You have a text in front of you. For over determined reasons
you know it's literature—it's in a large book called The Norton Anthology, and
there are 17 books in your local library alone about the writer—this Kafka
fellow. You read the first sentence: "One morning, waking from uneasy dreams, Gregor Samsa, still in bed, realized he'd been transformed into a huge beetle."
Because we know it's a literary text, certain questions associated with
literature immediately come into play. The moment we recognize the situation as
fantastic, yet still within the literary frame, we prepare certain questions: "What could this non normal situation be saying about the human personality? Is
he, perhaps, insane? If not, what in the range of real human experience is the
fantastic situation a metaphor for?" And we pick out two areas in which we
expect those answers to lie: one is that of a certain kind of psycho social
alienation associated with other literary characters, e.g., Conrad's Mr Kurtz,
Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, and Sartre's Antoine Roquentin from La Nausée,
although there are many others....The other area we've already marked out to
explore in the metaphoric light of the text is the area of artistic creativity
itself. And you would be hard pressed to find a discussion of "The
Metamorphosis" that, to the extent it sees the story as interpretable at all,
does not present its interpretation as falling more or less under one or both of
those rubrics. Even Kafka, in his diaries, talks about his writing as "a talent
for portraying my dreamlike inner life"3 (notice he specifically does
about it as portraying or critiquing his outer world), and we have very little
choice but to take this inner life for anything but the inner life of the
writer, or of alienated man and his psychological relations, no matter how
objective the causes of that alienation may in fact be.
All right. There's a text in front of you. For over determined reasons you know
it's SF—it's in a mass market paperback anthology with the initials "SF" in
the upper left hand corner above the front cover repeat of the ISBN number. And
though you only vaguely recognize the writer's name, the blurb above the title
tells you she won a Hugo award for best novella sometime in the early '70s.
(Stories in SF anthologies often have introductory editorial paragraphs, as though they were all text books. But that's because SF has so
little formal historiography.) You read the first sentence: "One morning,
waking from uneasy dreams, Gregor Samsa, still in bed, realized he'd been
transformed into a huge beetle." The moment we recognize the situation as non
normal (because it's SF, in most cases we don't even cognize it as fantastic),
certain questions that are associated with SF come into play: "What in the
world portrayed by the story is responsible for the transformation? Will Samsa
turn out to be some neotenous life form that's just gone into another physical
stage? Or has someone performed intricate biomechanical surgery during the
night?" We want to know not only the agent of the transformation. Kenneth
Burke's "dramatism" covers that very nicely, as it covers fantasy. But we also
want to know the condition of possibility for the transformation. That condition
may differ widely from SF story to SF story, even when the agent (a mad
scientist, perhaps) and the transformation itself (the disappearance of an
object, say) are the same; and I know of no literary or literarily based
narrative theory which covers this specific SF aspect of the SF text. Most of
our specific SF expectations will be organized around the question: What in the
portrayed world of the story, by statement or by implication, must be different
from ours in order for this sentence to be normally uttered? (That is, how does
the condition of possibility in the world of the story differ from ours?) But
whether the text satisfies or subverts these expectations, the reading
experience is still controlled by them, just as the experience of reading the
literary text is controlled by literary expectations. And because they are not
the same expectations, the two experiences are different.
Needless to say, the conscientious SF writer tries to come up with a text that
satisfies and subverts these expectations—exploits them, if you will—in rich,
complex, and intriguing ways, satisfying in the long run whether satisfaction or
subversion is the short term effect at any local point. And, as I've also said,
at the codic level, the two complexes of interpretative conventions
(literature's and SF's) interpenetrate and overlap in many ways, many of which
are linguistic, many extra linguistic. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that
the overlap is probably so great that worrying about the purity of genres on any
level is even more futile than worrying about the purity of the races. Real
understanding of the range and richness of codes, with their attendant
recursions, revisions, and redundancies, makes absolute differentiation simply a
non problem. Nevertheless, at certain heuristic points, when we're trying to
clarify things at a certain historical level (which history, if it doesn't
include the present, contours at every point), distinctions in writing practices
and reading codes, like any others, can be useful if we keep a clear sense of
how to dissolve them when that becomes necessary.
For the last hundred years, the interpretative conventions of all the literary
reading codes have been organized, tyrannized even, by what, in philosophical
jargon, you could call "the priority of the subject." Everything is taken to
be about mind, about psychology. And, in literature, the odder or more
fantastical or surreal it is, the more it's assumed to be about mind or
SF, developing in the statistically much wider field of paraliterature (comic
books, pornography, film and television scripts, advertising copy,
instructions on the back of the box, street signs, popular song lyrics, business
letters, journalism—in short, the graphic flood from which most of the texts
each of us encounters over any day come), has to some extent been able to escape
this tyranny, at least a bit more than the straited stream of literary texts—in
SF we used to call it "the mainstream," which is fine as long as you realize
that paraliterary texts make an ocean.
Among paraliterary practices, popular song lyrics, which in historical terms are
closest to poetry, have been able to escape the tyranny of the subject the
At the level where the distinction between it and paraliterature is meaningful,
literature is a representation of, among other things, a complex codic system by
which the codic system we call the "subject" (with which, in any given
culture, literature must overlap) can be richly criticized. By virtue of the
same distinction, SF is a representation of, among other things, a complex codic
system by which the codic system we call the "object" (which, in those
cultures that have SF, SF must ditto) can be richly criticized—unto its overlap
with the subject.
At this point, of course, the poet gets righteously angry with me, for now I'm
basically slogging about in a slough of jargon. I couldn't really blame any
reader who'd just given up by now and gone home: there's overlap between poetry
and prose too, and we must occasionally criticize prose by poetic
standards—perhaps far more than we usually do.
This may be a good moment, then, to clarify a fundamental about fundamentals.
When we look for a basic, should we assume that because it is a basic we're
after, it will be simple, solid, monolithic, and a tomic (that is, "un cuttable")? Or should we assume that stability—the appearance of simplicity,
solidity, unity—is a function of complexity, of organization (internal and
external), of over determination? Shouldn't we perhaps assume anything that
endures long enough to be noticed, anything that repeats often and clearly
enough to be recognized—in short, any phenomenon that even flirts with the
seeming of identity—must partake of the systematic, must exist as a balance of
complexities, must persist through a combination and interchange of opened and
closed subsystems, and thus must be potentially analyzable?
(Axioms are not objects. They're sentences.)
To choose the second is to choose the approach that privileges the sentence over
the word, that models existence as a set of more or less stable complexities
rather than as a set of atomic rigidities. That's really all the jargon grasps
at. And among the practices of writing today, "science fiction," "poetry,"
"pornography," "mundane fiction," "reportage," "drama," "comic books," "philosophy,"
et alia, all seem like fairly stable, fairly simple, fairly
basic, fairly enduring and, above all, fairly recognizable categories.
Which is to say, each is a complex.
Gregory: But you're saying that on the basis of reader expectation, mind set
makes SF a different genre from ordinary fiction.
Delany: That's not what I'm saying at all. Most readers' experience—specifically
the experience of most readers familiar with a fair amount of
SF—includes texts that feel indubitably SF as well as texts that feel undubitably literary. And, at this point, the texts that strike most competent
readers as undecidable are experienced as few and anomalous. We talk about
situations we agree on as ambiguous only to help develop an analytic vision of
the world as we find it that feels logically and aesthetically satisfying. It's
not simply to say that, just because it sounds sophisticated, things obviously
black must be white, if only because what's obvious has to be wrong. One wants a
theory that accounts for the obvious and the ambiguous. Not a theory which
accounts only for the obvious but which the ambiguous contradicts.
"Mind set" creates the SF text—or the literary text, for that matter? No.
You remember that phrase I was worrying over, a bit back? "The monopole mining
operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni...." Well, that phrase,
even without a predicate, states something; it's a statement about mines, as
they exist in the world today. It says that the object, the location, the
methodology, and the spatial organization of mines will change. And it says it
far more strongly than, and well before, it says anything about, say, the inner
chthonic profundities of any fictive character in those mines or about the
psychology of the writer writing about them—which is where, immediately, the
expectations of the literarily oriented critic are likely to lead her or him in
constructing an interpretation. Any faster than light spaceship drive met in the
pages of any SF text written to date, be it mine or Isaac Asimov's or Joan Vinge's, basically poses a critique of the Einsteinian model of the universe,
with its theoretical assertion of the speed of light as the upper limit on
velocity: those FTL drives are all saying, and saying it very conscientiously,
that the Einsteinian model will be revised by new empirical and theoretical
developments, just as the Einsteinian model was a revision of the older
When Heinlein placed the clause "the door dilated" casually in one of the
sentences of his 1942 novel, Beyond This Horizon, it was a way to portray
clearly, forcefully, and with tremendous verbal economy that the world of his
story contained a society in which the technology for constructing iris aperture
doorways was available.
But I don't think you can properly call the ability to read and understand any
of these SF phrases, sentences, or conventions a matter of "mind set" any more
than you could call the ability to read French, Urdu, or Elizabethan English
poetry a matter of "mind set."
Another interesting point where a rhetorical convention has different meanings
when it shows up in two different fields: the FTL drive which so delighted the
audiences of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back simply doesn't carry the same
critical thrust as the FTL drives that appear in written SF. As a number of SF
writers noted when Star Wars first came out, perhaps the largest fantasy element
in the films was the sound of the spaceships roaring across what was presumably
hard vacuum. In a universe where sound can cross empty space, an FTL drive just
can't support that kind of critical weight against the philosophy of real
Fifteen years ago, Australian SF critic John Foyster wrote: "The best science
fiction does not contradict what's known to be known." When it does, at too
great a degree, it becomes something else. Science fantasy, perhaps.
I'm the same person when I read an SF short story by Sturgeon or an SF novel by
Bester and when I read a literary novel by Robert Musil or a literary short
story by Guy Davenport—or when I listen to a David Bowie song or see a George
Lucas film. Someone's making all these interpretations. Do differing "mind
sets" allow me to make them? Am I happy at one? Sad at the other? Serious and
critical at one? Light hearted and frivolous at the next? Yes, I interpret one
differently from the other. And to whatever extent you agree with me, you
recognize these different interpretations as valid. Do you, then, indulge
several "mind sets" at once to comprehend my several interpretations, if, say,
two of them arrive in the same sentence? I think you'd have to work too hard to
specify what you meant by mind set in order to have it cover the needed
situations; and when you had, you'd find you'd arrived at a meaning too far away
from what most people designate when they use what is already, I'm sure you'll
admit, a pretty informal term. So I'm just not sure how "mind set" comes into
it. I'll stick with expectations, conventions, and interpretative codes.
In terms of reader expectation, what makes SF different from literary
fiction—naturalistic, fantastic, experimental, or surreal—is of the same order
as what makes poetry different from literary fiction. Let's start with the
overlap, since it's the biggest part, despite the fact that it's the least
interesting. A good prose writer is going to pay close attention to the sounds
of the words in her prose; and a good poet of course pays attention to the
sounds of the words in her poem. But that "of course" covers a multitude of expectational difference. Both John Gardner and William Gass are very phonically
aware prose writers. Assonance and alliteration, not to mention phonic parallels
and parallels disrupted, tumble from their sentences. But if Mona Van Duyn or
James Merrill, Richard Howard or John Ashbery, Cynthia McDonald or Marie Ponsot
wrote poems with the same blatant phonics, it would be ludicrous. A Judith
Sherwin or a Helen Adam succeeds with that open and above board approach to
sound only thanks to irony. I'm sure both Gass and Gardner suffered many well
intentioned suggestions: "Your prose is so poetic. Why don't you write
poetry?" (Gardner, with Jason and Medea, tried.) But precisely what makes them
dazzling and stimulating prose writers would make them gross and clumsy poets,
assuming they didn't curb it hugely. And that's all controlled by poetic vs.
prosaic expectations. The fact that poetry is blatantly based on phonic
expectations means, at this point, the phonics must be subtle.
Again, the vast overlap with literature aside, SF is a paraliterary practice of
writing; its mimetic relation to the real world is of a different order from
even literary fantasy. It grows out of a different tradition. It has a different
history. Myself, I enjoy working within that tradition and struggling with that
Gregory: Of course, when Dhalgren came out you had to deal with a lot of people
claiming that you weren't writing SF, that you had gone outside the tradition.
Delany: Perhaps when a book sells seven or eight hundred thousand copies, the
controversy contributes to the acceptance. You might even say the controversy is the acceptance—in which case the acceptance of
Dhalgren was rather
small. Most of the American reading public was quite oblivious to any
controversy at all among the few thousand or, more likely, few hundred who, in
that fanzine or this one, on one SF convention panel or another, expressed their
Myself, I never saw any serious controversy over whether or not Dhalgren was SF.
When the idea was put forward at all, it was more in the line of name calling.
You know: "That's not science fiction! That's just self indulgent drivel!" To
me it seemed a much more modest argument—between the people who didn't like the
book and the people who did. And my impression was that the contention centered
mainly on discontinuities in the action and the lack of hard edged explanation
for the basic non normal situation...along with the type of people I chose to
write about. This last is a point it's polite, today, to gloss over.
But at least one academic (of highly liberal if not leftist tendencies, too)
told me straight out: "I'm just not interested in the people you write about. I
can't believe they're important in the greater scheme of things." What makes
this significant is that the vast majority of fan letters the book received—many
more, by a factor of ten, than any other of my books have ever gotten—were
almost all in terms of "...this book is about my friends." "This book is about
people I know." "This book is about the world I live in." "This book
is about people nobody else writes of...." These letters came from people in
schools and people outside of schools. They came from SF fans and from non SF
fans. For these readers, the technical difficulties of the book, the
eccentricity of structure, and the density of style went all but unmentioned.
After all, if the book makes any social statement, it's that when society pulls
the traditional supports out from under us, we all effectively become, not the
proletariat, but the lumpen proletariat. It says that the complexity of
"culture" functioning in a gang of delinquents led by some borderline mental
case is no less than that functioning at a middle class dinner party. Well,
there are millions of people in this country who have already experienced
precisely this social condition, because for one reason or another their
supports at one time or another were actually struck away. For them, Dhalgren
confirms something they've experienced. It redeems those experiences for them.
For them, the book reassures that what they saw was real and meaningful; and
they like that. But there are many others who have not had these experiences.
Often they are people who during their lives have been threatened by the
possibility of their social supports all going, who fought very hard against it,
and who have worked mightily to stabilize their lives in such a way that they
will never have to endure these real social disasters. Needless to say, these
readers do not like the book. For them, it trivializes real problems and
presents as acceptable things (and I don't mean sex) they have specifically
found unacceptable—and are to be avoided at all costs. But the arguments between
those people who disliked the book intensely and those people who liked it
exorbitantly helped it to become somewhat more widely known—and, presumably, to
reach an even larger audience.
In the world of paperback sales, you know, 700,000 is actually a rather odd
The average paperback book still sells under 100,000 copies. To be a bona fide
paperback bestseller, you have to get in sight of the solid 2,000,000 mark. So
anything between, say, 250,000 and 1,500,000 is in a rather anomalous
ballpark—especially if those sales are drawn out, as with Dhalgren, over ten
years or more now. To appease the commercial anxiety that makes them want to
name everything in case they need to sell it to somebody who hasn't seen it yet
and doesn't want it, publishers have recently started calling such books "cult
successes." So at Bantam I'm known as the author of a "cult" novel.
When you're passing an open door in a publishing company hallway, where people
are talking in the offices, "cult" can sound close enough to "occult" so
that, I gather, there's some small controversy within the company as to whether
I write "cult" or "occult" books. But people who read me don't seem to have
that problem. For them I'm still an SF writer. And my books are still SF.
Gregory: It's hard for me to think of a mainstream book as long and difficult
and experimental as Dhalgren that has sold 700,000 copies. (I doubt if even
Gravity's Rainbow has sold that many.) That seems to be another possible
advantage to the SF field: an ambitious, serious writer who is interested in
formal experimentation (even if this is part of the tradition) may have a
greater chance to get his or her book out.
Delany: Dhalgren has outsold Gravity's Rainbow—by about 100,000 copies: we share
a mass market publisher and statistics leak. But Gravity's Rainbow is a fantasy
about a war most of its readers don't really remember, whereas Dhalgren is in
fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned out areas of America's
great cities. To decide if Gravity's Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time
in a library—mostly with a lot of Time/Life books, which are pretty romanticized
to begin with. To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile
of your own town's inner city. So Dhalgren's a bit more threatening—and
accordingly receives less formal attention.
Sadly, your description of a field of writing open to experimentation and
ambition better fits SF when I began publishing in the early '60s than it does
today. The period in the late '50s and early '60s known as the paperback
revolution created a flood of books—and, with it, a relatively friendly climate
for new writers. William Burroughs published his first novel, Junky, with Ace
Books back in 1953. Those same economic forces probably account for why
Vonnegut's books were, indeed, appearing as paperback original SF novels in the
'50s and early '60s. Carl ("I'm with you in Rockland") Solomon, of Howl fame,
worked at Ace. And when, in 1962, Ace became a publication possibility for me, I
spent the odd minute smiling over the fact that names like Burroughs and Solomon
seemed pretty good writerly company.
The economic crunch crunching through the last decade has left the publishing
world far less accepting and more suspicious of the new and the vital than it
was when the '60s dream of unlimited affluence and endless experimentation was
about. Add to our economic hassles the current "blockbuster" mentality that's infected the book business via the movies, as a
hysterical response to that crunch, and you have a really nasty situation for
any serious writer, in whatever field, trying to break in. And it strikes me as
a very different situation from the particular style of endemic commercialism
rampant in book publishing since it came under its present book distribution
system just after World War II. (Most people are unaware that book distribution
companies today are much bigger than book publishing companies. It's an open
publisher's secret that the publishing companies work for the distributors, and
not the other way around. But most readers can't name one distribution company.)
Before, the court of sales was always there, at least as an ideal to talk about,
no matter how difficult it was to get your work put before that court. Today,
everybody in publishing is pretty well convinced that the court of sales itself
has been hopelessly corrupted, by hype and other, nameless pressures, so that an
editor who says, "I think there is an audience (however small or however large)
that will enjoy this book," is no longer considered to be making a rational
statement in business terms. The only statements considered rational in
commercial publishing today are those which speak to the questions: "How can it
be pushed? How can it be hyped? How can it be made bigger than it is?"—whereas
what is being pushed is of secondary or even tertiary importance, save to the
extent it's got a hot synopsizable angle. Today's publisher would much rather
publish a book which, when described in three sentences, sounds catchy than a
book which affects its readers so deeply and profoundly that, before speaking of
it at all, the reader must pause. The desired book today is the one that prompts
its readers to blurt, "Hey, it's about..." and go on with something snappy.
This not only ends up reducing everything to the lowest common denominator; it
lowers the denominator itself, driving it constantly down. And in an already
shaky capitalism when the quality of what you've got to sell is locked in a
downward spiral, that doesn't leave you much to appeal to.
Of course, pulling together such a tenebrium of gloom clouds is very easy from
the Olympian perspective of 40 plus years—and always has been. It's not a bad
idea to remember that 25 years ago the paperback revolution itself was seen by
many, if not most, establishment critics (Bernard DeVoto's name comes to mind)
as the end of Literature with a capital L. Well, it's always surprising how
writers—the people actually writing—have managed to articulate something over
the range of the writing practices available; even invent new ones if they have
to. And those articulations have their own character in each age. The writing
practices that were most exciting and vital between 1890 and 1920—say, in the
novels of James, Bennett, Conrad, the early Lawrence, and Proust—looked very
different from the writing practices that were most vital between 1920 and
1950—say, those of Joyce, Barnes, Woolf, Faulkner, and Ellison. And the writing
from 1950 to 1980 looks very different still. Are we going to go on to another
change of style, concerns, and structure, in which the realities of contemporary
publishing, from computer typesetting to distribution monopolies, play a large
if ill understood part?
But I think it would also be a good idea for historically sensitive critics to
take a look at how one practice of writing, SF, was positively helped by a
situation which, at the time, was assumed in most cases to be a moral and
aesthetic disaster. It might be instructive in terms of understanding what's to
SF benefitted hugely from those early years of the paperback revolution. Joanna
Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, R.A. Lafferty—the
number of markedly exciting SF writers whose careers were strongly shaped by
that revolution makes your jaw drop. In 1951, there were only 15 volumes
published which, by any stretch of the imagination, could be called SF novels,
while last year SF made up approximately 16% of all new fiction published in the
US. When, by the mid '70s, crunch crunch was undeniable, there still seemed to
be some factors built into the geography of our particular SF precinct (or
ghetto, if you like) that kept the damages at bay a little longer than in some
other fields—primary among them, the vitality and commitment of SF's highly
vocal and long time organized readership, whose most energetic manifestation is
the complex and fascinating phenomenon, fandom. But by now, the material
hardships have made their inroads even into SF.
A few intriguing details of that history scatter some of my essays of the last
half dozen years.4 Am I concerned about what's going to happen to this lively
field over the next half dozen? Am I ever! But I'm also sure that, though it
will be intimately connected with, it will also be markedly different from, what
happens to literature.
McCaffery: I heard an anecdote that very early in your career, you self
consciously resisted jumping on the treadmill of quick writing for quick money
that exhausted writers like Philip K. Dick and others. What gave you the nerve
to say to the SF publishing establishment, "Look, I'm going to take my time and
write a good book—not in six weeks or six months, but in however long it takes
Delany: Anecdotes often reduce the primary reasons for themselves right out of
existence—especially when you tell them about yourself. And I think I once wrote
about that situation—briefly and anecdotally—in an essay you may have come
across. As an anecdote, it sounds very brave and moral; and I'm willing to take
a modest bow. But the simple fact is: I'm constitutionally incapable of writing
quickly. I'm highly dyslexic. That means, among other things, I must write
slowly and revise endlessly, if only to get right what are so cavalierly called,
by the lexic, the "basic mechanics." With all the time I spend looking for the
dropped, misspelled, and transposed words that litter my early drafts, I might
as well, while I'm at it, X the odd adjective, apocopate some terminal
preposition, clarify a parallelism here, or strengthen an antithesis there. It
goes, as they say, with the territory. Any text I write, I'm going to have to
stay with a while—longer, anyway, than the lucky talents who whip out journeyman
like first drafts, which, once glanced at by the copy editor for styling, can be
sent on to the typesetter. It behooves me to think about what I'm doing a little
more, if only to make sure it's complex enough to hold my interest during the
extra time I have to live with it. (An
apothegm in the SF community I've heard leveled at a number of our high
production moguls goes: "If he were a worse typist, he'd be a better
writer"—meaning that such writers commit stylistic bloopers of the same
blatancy as the mechanical ones automatically corrected by simply running the
text once more around the platen. I've heard it said of both Harlan Ellison and
Barry Malzberg—two dizzyingly talented writers, by the bye.) There've been a
number of dyslexic writers, of course; Gustave Flaubert and William Butler Yeats
are among the best known. Dyslexic writers tend to be slow and painstaking. The
fascination of what's difficult, Yeats wrote, had dried him up and left him old.
But for a writer who, like Yeats, didn't really learn to read until he was 16,
more things are going to be difficult than most might expect. Such a writer has
a push to substitute quality for quantity—which isn't entirely moral. A writer
like Joyce, on the other hand, was as lexic as they come. And when he wanted to,
he could write like a speed demon. Fully a third of Ulysses was written in
galleys. That's over 250 of its 765 pages! Even in Paris in the '20s, you had
galleys only for a couple of months, at the outside.
I could no more write 250 pages of fully realized fiction in two months—science
or otherwise—than I could fly to the Moon flapping. And the more I'd thought
about it and the more complicated a structure I'd planned it out to have, the
longer it would take me actually to set it down.
When I was 23, I wrote a long story in 11 days. The manuscript ran to 130
typescript pages—with wide margins: say, 75 pages of ordinary book type. But
that was an endurance test I'd set myself, with mornings given over to first
drafting, then, after a non lunch, the rest of the day and a good bit of the
night spent rewriting the previous day's work.
It's still moot whether I passed or not.
That 11 days doesn't count the two weeks of notes on the early side to plan out
a simple fabular structure that eschewed most of the complexities I'd previously
(and have since) tried to work into fiction. (You could call it two weeks of
testing the water before the plunge.) Nor does it take in yet another week on
the far side for another retyping—in which much rewriting got done. As an
anecdote, I'd like to say that the story—which was eventually published as a
separate book, and has been called a novel—took 11 days, and certainly the
hardest non stop work was crammed into those 11. But I could as easily say that
it took me 11 days plus two weeks at the beginning for notes, and a week of
rewriting after. Composition times are almost as hard to individuate as
Gregory: From early on, your books have explicitly dealt with some very
controversial subject matter. Take, for example, your treatment of three way or
multiple sexual relationships, of gay and bisexual relationships (and all sorts
of sub groups) in Triton, and your general call for the need to explore male and
female sexual roles in all their guises. Do you think that working in the SF
field has given you more freedom to explore these areas? I'm thinking of the
controversy that surrounded, say, Mailer's American Dream or Roth's Portnoy's
Complaint—books that are very mild in their sexual presentation compared with
what you are dealing with in Dhalgren and Triton.
Delany: For a number of reasons, from my racial make up to my sexuality to my
chosen field of writing, SF—or even because, in this society, I've chosen to
write at all—my life has always tended to have a large element of marginality to
it, at least if you accept a certain range of experience that overlaps those of
an ideal white, middle class, heterosexual male as the definition of centrality.
To write clearly, accurately, with knowledge of and respect for the marginal is
to be controversial—especially if you're honest about the overlaps. Because that
means it's harder to regard the marginal as "other." And at that point, the
whole category system that has assigned values like central and marginal in the
first place is threatened.
As to whether SF is more tolerant of what is usually called marginal....Well, it
would be nice to think that because SF itself has traditionally been considered
a kind of marginal writing, it recognizes the problems of life on the edges and
welcomes them with insight and compassion. But that may just be a somewhat na´ve
Basically the idea that a genre, or even an age or epoch, gives a freedom (or,
indeed, imposes restraints) that any old writer, once he or she plops down in
the middle of it, can turn around and exploit wonderfully (or be totally stymied
by) is one I've heard before—and distrust.
It's not that I don't believe in history. Rather, I believe the historical
process is more complicated than it's sometimes given credit for. The play of
social forces lays down constraints (in sexual matters, say) that are
internalized by individuals. Because society is not monolithic, these
constraints are not necessarily the same for everyone; there may be class
patterns, but even that's a reduction. There are going to be lots of variations,
even individual to individual—which variations, if you squint at them from other
angles, will make other kinds of patterns which aren't going to respect class
boundaries at all.
The same play of social forces also lays down constraints for the various
practices of writing—what, in practical terms, is generically acceptable, and
But writers are not assigned their genres by God. Nor do they really choose them
by conscious and considered acts of will. They move into them, even into
literature, by a kind of ecological process. All through my adolescence I wrote
novel after novel, pitched at the center of the literary tradition as I mistily
saw it: you know, out of Hemingway by Faulkner and Joyce, with a good 19th
century underpinning. That was my adolescent reading history, at any rate. I
sent them to publisher after publisher, but although they got me a couple of
scholarships, and some of my shorter pieces even won me the odd amateur prize,
they were all finally rejected.
Then I wrote an SF novel. Actually, it was rather borderline SF. (I had to go
through four published SF novels before, in the fifth, I got brave enough to put
in a spaceship!) And it was accepted, published, reviewed...!
Now there's a developmental aspect here that must be taken into account. I'm
sure the SF novel I wrote at 19 was, indeed, a little better than the literary
novels I wrote at 16, 17, and 18—though "literary" here is only a polemical
distinction. None of them were good books. Still, one does a lot of growing up,
fast, in those years, and some of that goes onto the page. But even in my
teens, what I was being told by literary editors, some of whom from time to time
got rather excited about me, was that the final reason the novels weren't being
published was that they were too literary—and weren't commercial. Even at 17 I
knew some of this was an attempt to make a kid feel a little less crushed by
rejection. Nevertheless, with all that taken into account, there's still a
bottom line situation here: literary publishing wasn't very accepting—they
didn't accept me through a whole lot of tries—while SF publishing was: they
snapped me up on my first submission. And what they accepted was me, with all my
socially laid down constraints, my limited talent, and my individual concerns,
as manifested in what I wrote. And even during my first couple of years in the
field, the genre tended to say to me: "You can do what you want."
Now that's not, "Anyone can do anything he or she wants." Rather, that's "The
kind of things you seem to want to do are more or less within acceptable
If you look over my first four SF novels, all of which were written during my
first three years in the SF field, as I've said you won't find spaceships. What
you'll find is characters quoting poetry at each other. There's more than a
passing interest in the female characters. Small sections are in play form.
Other sections are in stream of consciousness. (The books that followed were, if
anything, more technically conservative.) Bits of the story are told from
multiple points of view. Once, in my sixth SF novel, written when I was 23, I
was told that the printer simply couldn't handle one of the sections; it had to
wait for computer typesetting and the most recent edition, in 1983, for the text
to be printed as I wrote it back in 1965.
Now none of this is terribly profound as far as experimentation is concerned.
The point is only that the SF publishing situation could accept it; my SF editor
could say to me, "That's kind of interesting. I wonder what the readers will
make of it." And for what it's worth, the books are still in print. And this is
a very different situation from the one in which a literary editor in 1960 at
Harcourt Brace, who liked an early novel of mine enough to recommend me for a
scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, said to me about similar
devices in the book I'd submitted: "Well, if we do publish it, those are the
first things that will have to go in the editing." Then she looked at me,
rather sadly, and said: "Chip, you tell a good story. But, right now, there's a
housewife somewhere in Nebraska, and we can't publish a first novel here unless
there's something in it that she can relate to. And the fact is, there's
in your book that she wants to know anything about at all. And that's probably
why we won't publish it." And after two more readings and an editorial
conference, they didn't.
The housewife in Nebraska has, of course, a male counterpart. In commercial
terms, he's only about a third as important as she is. The basic model for the
novel reader has traditionally been female since the time of Richardson. But his
good opinion is considered far more prestigious. He's a high school teacher in
Montana who hikes for a hobby on weekends and has some military service behind
him. He despises the housewife—though reputedly she wants to have an affair with
him. Needless to say, there wasn't much in my adolescent "literary" novels for
him either. But between
them, that Nebraska housewife and that Montana English teacher tyrannized mid
century American fiction. If you look at the first novels published by literary
houses between 1950 and 1965, there's not one that doesn't have something in it
for this ubiquitous non couple.
Good bye Columbus, The Floating Opera...? Salinger, Heller, Pynchon? That
doesn't mean that there weren't other things in their books as well. Some of
those were not there for that obsessive pair, and some would quite offend them,
were they noticed. The point is, however, that the things that were there for
them come quite honestly from those writers. They were not there because Barth
or Roth or Updike decided out of controlled, calculated, and manipulative
intentions to put them there. These writers moved into the literary field in
which they were most comfortable by the same ecological forces that moved me
into mine. Writers are not born into the world the day they write their first
salable work. There's a history of reading, a history of attempts made and
attempts rejected that maneuvers a writer, however random it all seems at the
time, into the position at which he or she is accepted; and that's also a
position at which she or he can be accepted. That individual variation we
started off with? The situation I sketched above is the over determined one by
which generic demands are fitted to individual writerly talents. But that
individual variation means the fit is never perfect; there's still going to be
I don't know about literary publishing today, but in SF I've always had the
wheedling suspicion that when an editor says to a writer, "Your work is too far
out for us to handle," there's usually a silent message that goes along with
it: "And it's too clumsily written, ill thought out, and badly executed to be
worth it, because it won't interest those readers with the higher stylistic
standards that go along with broader topic interests." I felt this way back at
17 and 18 when my early "literary" novels were being rejected; I suppose I
still feel it.
Now to assume that this is how the entire real and social world of art
production—or, more accurately, art reproduction—works is, I suppose, finally a
personal strategy to make rejection an occasion for initiating a personal
attempt at improving what you do, a strategy for keeping rejection from being
simply and hopelessly paralyzing. It's very hard to be any sort of artist
without some belief to the effect that if the surface is crystalline enough, if
the aesthetic logic is both vigorous and rigorous enough, someone somewhere will
have to say "Yes" to it. On the other hand, we all know how
frightening/baffling/boring the new can be to people who feel that they are
guardians of a tradition, any tradition; so that to stand behind such a view too
firmly as anything else but a personal strategy may be suicidally na´ve.
Rejection and acceptance are both complex processes; and the complex truth is
that writing must, itself, be complex enough to remain stable in the face of
both. Current post structuralist jargon would probably talk about this complex
stability in terms something like: "The struggle between reification and
deconstruction that any text worth the name initiates among its endless play of
possible meanings...." The older phrase—much less popular right through
here—is: "The dialectical nature of art...."
The last person to get any public mileage out of the image of the genre stifled
(or genre unstifled) SF writer was Harlan Ellison, with his important Dangerous
Visions anthologies that began in 1967. Exciting as they were, by the time two
of them had appeared, they'd pretty much forced SF to grow up and realize that
genre restrictions were a little more complex than sexually timid editors. (Or
perhaps after Dangerous Visions any SF editor with a tendency towards sexual
timidity was just embarrassed out of it.) Most of us have a conflict model for
writer/publisher differences in which each is assumed to be after different
goals and playing by different rules. But a better model is a game where both
sides have internalized all the rules. Tensions arise between players,
certainly—and high tensions. Sometimes even fist fights. But they develop out of
misread gestures, the bias that comes from a particular angle of observation,
personality conflicts and personal goals as interpreted or misinterpreted within
the game. And there are always teams you don't want to play on just because you
love the game the way you do and that team's managers simply have a different
notion of team goals. But an aesthetically significant conflict with a publisher
with whom you are basically content is rather like a single player trying to get
a team to run a new play when nobody quite understands how it will work or why
it will be effective. The resistances—or, to call them by their right name,
stupidities—you have to deal with are very much the collective sort; and if you
have a truly new idea, you have to deal with that resistance in more or less the
same way you would with a team. Any other approach dooms you to really
McCaffery: Your two most recent books, Tales of Nevèrÿon and Neveryóna are
obvious departures, in some ways, from your previous books. Instead of being set
in some imagined future, both are set in some magical, distant past, just as
civilization is being created. To begin with, do you consider these works to be
SF at all?
Delany: They associate with SF via a sub category of SF, "sword and
sorcery"—SF's despised younger cousin. Certainly one thing that must have drawn
me to SF in the first place was a propensity for working in despised genres.
Sword and sorcery was invented, for all practical purposes, by an odd young man,
Robert Ervin Howard (1906 36), who spent most of his life in Cross Plains,
Texas. He's remembered as a pleasant, personable, if somewhat shy, fellow. His
surviving letters give an impression of a basically genial man, but with a good
deal of almost belligerent rural modesty. Accounts of rare visits to him by
others suggest a friendly and intelligent man, who, nevertheless, had more than
his share of social paranoia. ("Do you have many enemies?" was one of the
first questions he asked Edward Hoffman Price when Price drove down to visit him
after Howard had become established in the pulps.) In 1925, Howard made his
first sale, to Weird Tales, with a story he'd written at 15. By a program of
physical exercise, he also managed to push his tall but frail body in the
direction of his muscular, swashbuckling heroes, so that by his mid 20s he was
quite an impressive hulk. From age 19 to 30 he wrote and sold reams of pulp
adventure and western stories, about characters like Solomon Kane, Buckner J.
Bran Mak Born, King Kull, and—his most popular—Conan the Barbarian; and he wrote
lots of poems. He was a sometime correspondent among a group of writers today
known as "the Lovecraft Circle." One morning when he was 30, he went out to the
car parked beside his home, got in, took up a gun, and put a bullet through his
His mother, lying sick in the house for some time, had recently gone into a
A doctor, Howard's father (also a doctor), a nurse, and the cook (who glimpsed
the suicide through the kitchen window) were in the house when it happened.
Howard lingered for eight hours without regaining consciousness. His mother died
31 hours later. Dr Howard buried her and Robert together at nearby Brownwood,
What's intriguing about sword and sorcery is that it takes place in an a
specific, idealized past—rather than in Rome or Egypt or Babylonia or Troy. This
means whatever happens in this vision of the past that may have something to do
with us today doesn't filter through any recognizable historical events—the
Diaspora, say, or the Peloponnesian or Gallic Wars. So, once again—and this
should sound familiar—it lets you look at the impact of certain cross cultural
concepts that nevertheless are often not given the same kind of spotlight in
historical novels, concepts (like money, writing, weaving, or any early
technological advances—the techne Pound got so obsessed with by the "Rock
Drill" Cantos) that go so far in over determining the structure of the
historical biggies: a war, a change of government, a large migration from
country to city.
What makes S&S historically a specific also makes it rather anachronistic. In
most sword and sorcery, you find neolithic artifacts cheek a jowl with Greek and
Roman elements, all in the shadow of late Medieval or High Gothic architecture.
And because it's all supposed to be happening at an unknown time and place,
there there be dragons!
Gregory: The Nevèrÿon stories all seem to deal with power—all kinds of power:
sexual, economic, even racial power via the issue of slavery. Do you think this
focus on power relationships seems especially interesting to you because you're
black and especially sensitive to them?
Delany: All four of my grandparents were children of at least one parent born in
slavery. Manumitted when she was eight, my great grandmother Fitzgerald still
told my grandmother stories about slavery times, as did my grandmother's
grandparents, with whom my grandmother stayed in summer when she was a little
girl in Virginia—stories which my grandmother, who was alive till only last year
(she died when she was 102), told to me. In imaginary Nevèrÿon, slavery is an
economic reality (fast fading into a historical memory) but also a persistent
fantasy. The historic imaginative space, plus the paraliterary object priority
S&S shares here and there with SF (which allows it to be read for what it is),
lets me play with notions about how things in the world, including the socially
contoured organization of people's psyches, may be functioning in such
correspondences. It's a speculative endeavor; and, however interesting or
stimulating (or, indeed, crushingly trivial) people find the suggestions that
grow out of it, it's still play.
But that's different from what I assume would be the corresponding literary
endeavor: to sketch a psyche, a character, a mind caught up with such a fantasy
(say, slavery), with the world shown only as the necessary frame to hold the
canvas to shape. To me, right now, that just wouldn't be very interesting.
McCaffery: What sort of overall plan have you been following in these books?
Delany: Only the traditional form SF has developed for its own brand of series
stories. In the late '30s and all through the '40s, the overwhelming majority of
American SF appeared in the pulp magazines. Many of these stories, by individual
writers, would return to the same world or universe and pick up the time stream
at different points. Sometimes there would be continuous characters. Sometimes
not. Clifford Simak's City was such a series. Heinlein wrote a sequence of
stories beginning in 1939 which were informally known after a few years as the
"Future History" series, which also included novels. They were only collected
in one volume, The Past Through Tomorrow, in 1967. Certainly the most famous SF
series is the five short stories and four novellas by Isaac Asimov known, since
it was published in three volumes in the early '50s, as The Foundation Trilogy,
to which, after 30 years, he added the full length novel Foundation's Edge
The particular form I'm talking about is probably clearest in the "Foundation"
tales, though you can trace it out in almost all the others. Put simply, the
first story poses a problem and finally offers some solution. But in the next
story, what was the solution of the first story is now the problem. In general,
the solution for story N becomes the problem for story N+1. This allows the
writer to go back and critique his or her own ideas as they develop over time.
Often, of course, the progression isn't all that linear. Sometimes a whole new
problem will assert itself in the writer's concern—another kind of critique of
past concerns. Sometimes you'll rethink things in stories more than one back.
But the basic factor is the idea of a continuous, open ended, self critical
dialogue with yourself.
The series is very flexible. Here's a short story. Next's a bulky novel. That
can be followed by a novella, or another novel, or another short story. When
publishers first began to collect SF series together in volume form, they did
everything they could to try to make the resultant books look like novels.
Because of that back looking critical process, however, often a writer would
have set a story further back in time from an earlier tale, instead of moving
continually forward in strict chronological order. (One good form of criticism
comes from asking the question: "What, historically, might have caused people
to act in a particular way that, when I wrote the last story, I just assumed was
unquestioned human nature?") When the stories appeared over months in
magazines, this was no problem. But when the stories were collected, invariably
they'd be put in chronological order, no matter how this obscured the self
critical development. In the first volume of the "Foundation" series,
Foundation, the order of the stories "The Traders" and "The Merchant
Princes" was reversed to accommodate internal chronology; and the first story
in that book, "The Encyclopedists," was actually written after
what's now the last novella in book three. They make much better dramatic and
thematic sense if you start with "The Mayors" and read them in their
I'm sure you can understand how, if a reader picks up the book version of one of
these series, thinking it's an SF novel (and there's often no way to tell, since
separate stories are frequently renamed "Chapters"), and begins it with the
expectations ordinarily brought to a novel, the book's going to read strangely;
and the self critical development, especially if it's not blatantly obvious,
might just slip by because the reader isn't looking for it.
The first volume of the Nevèrÿon series, Tales of Nevèrÿon, is five short and
long stories that critique each other. The second volume, Neveryóna, is a full
and rather fat novel that returns to a number of the notions in the stories and
tries to re think them. Right now I'm nearing the end of a novella that returns
to one area in the novel that left me with some unsatisfied feelings.
In one sense, the SF series is something like a prose narrative version of that
quintessentially American form, the open ended serial composition poem—Pound's
Cantos, Olson's Maximus Poems, Diane Wakoski's Greed, or Robert Duncan's
Passages. You also find the same self critical thrust at work there. But that's
You can only take it so far.
When you start a series, you have some idea of things you might like to do in it
later that will create some interesting reversal when you get to them, two,
three, or four stories along. But that self critical process usually means that
by the time you reach the story where, dramatically, you thought you might put
in one of these planned out reversals, it ends up doing quite a different job
from the one you would have envisioned for it when you first thought it up.
McCaffery: You said once that you'd like readers to see in your works that
"behind a deceptively cool, even disinterested, narrative exterior you can hear
the resonances of the virulent anti white critique that informs all aware black
writing in America today." Early on, this critique seems to inform your work
mainly in the way you say it does even in fascist works, like Heinlein's
Starship Trooper, by your almost casual inclusion of black characters in
positions of power and authority. But a bit later, in Dhalgren, for instance,
and in the Nevèrÿon books, you seem to take up the issue of racism more
Delany: What I actually wrote—and it's probably worth mentioning that I was
writing to a white critic who was between drafts of an extended article on me,
in the course of which he'd written me to ask why, as a black writer, my work
wasn't, in effect, blacker—was: "If you wrote, 'Behind a deceptively cool, even
disinterested, narrative exterior you can hear the resonances of the virulent
anti white critique that informs all aware black writing in America today,' I
would think you were a downright perceptive reader" (italics added)—all of
which, incidentally, he chose to quote in the final version of his article. I
suppose this was my way of saying: "Hey, my experience as a
black American runs all through my work. But why do you assume its traces will
be such stereotypes?" Some interesting facts about this particular critic: he's
chairman of the combined English and Philosophy departments of his university;
he's something of an expert in African literature and has collected, edited,
transcribed, and published original African folk literature, about which he
knows far more than I do; he's also co editor of an extraordinarily perceptive
anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers, about which I do know something; he and
his wife have adopted a Korean daughter; and he's written a rather good
biography of George Schuyler, an early black satirist, social critic, and father
of the child prodigy pianist, Phillipa Schuyler, who was later killed in a freak
helicopter accident in Viet Nam (where, as an adult, she'd gone to bring back
Vietnamese children). In short, in terms of American culture, black or white,
this critic's a more than interesting man.
But somehow black critics—and three or four, if not five or six, have written
the odd article on me—just don't seem to be all that interested in how black a
black writer's work is; or, when they are, they express that interest in—how
shall I say?—a different tone of voice. The white, worried about some black's
"blackness," always seem to be expressing the troubling anxiety that, indeed,
you may not really be black, and that, therefore, somehow they've personally
been fooled, taken in, or duped, either by your manipulative intentions or by
some social accident—whereas the black critic is perfectly aware that you are
black; I mean if you're born black in this country, you're going to know what it
means to be black in this country; they're just kind of curious, therefore, to
know what's going on with you. Now certainly there are things that can be going
on with a black writer that a black critic who's had experience with them before
may not approve of. He or she may even want to give that black writer down to
the country for it, if not up side the head. But so far, this is not the sort of
critique I've received from black critics.
Still, to me, the tone in which the seemingly similar questions are put feels
different, no matter if they're put to me or I hear them put to other black
writers. But how subjective is this? How subjective is politics?
What I've said, with more than a little belligerence, to a number of whites
who've chosen to question my blackness is (and you'd have to be black yourself
to realize the astonishing number of whites who seem to have nothing else to do
but worry about whether or not their black acquaintances are actually black
enough): Look, I am black. Therefore what I do is part of the definition, the
reality, the evidence of blackness. It's your job to interpret it. I mean, if
you're interested in the behavior of redheads, and you look at three and think
you see one pattern, then you look at a fourth and see something that, for some
reason, strikes you as different, you don't then decide that this last person,
despite the color of his hair, isn't really red haired—not if you and yours have
laid down for a hundred years the legal, social, and practical codes by which
you decide what hair is red and what hair isn't, and have inflicted untold
deprivations, genocide, and humiliations on those who've been so labeled by
I was seven when, with quivering rage, my father—because of some racial incident
at my New York private school—told me how, sometime in the '20s, a cousin of his
had been stopped with her husband by a gang of white men; she was perhaps eight
months pregnant. Substantially darker than she, her husband was lynched, and she
was dragged to a tree, hung up, her belly slit open, and, in my father's words,
"her unborn baby was allowed to drop out on the ground"—because the men
assumed she was a white woman and would not believe otherwise. My father was
there when their bodies were brought back to the campus of the black southern
college where his father and mother were pastor and dean of women. My father, I
gather, was about the age I was when he told me; and while, pacing up and down
our kitchen in a towering fit, he recounted all this, my mother—a black woman
born in New York City—sat at the wide table, one hand holding tightly to the
edge of the dark wood, and pleaded with him, "Sam! Sam, don't tell the boy
things like that! Not now! Tell him later!"
What we've come face to face with here is, of course, the relation between
writing and politics. And that's subsumed by the old philosophical problem of
the relation between language and truth. It's got a venerable name: the problem
of representation. And it's very close to some of the things we were discussing
at the beginning.
You can never know for certain whether or not language is portraying reality
rigorously, thanks to the problem of representation—really two ill separated
problems: the problem of verifiability and the problem of exhaustiveness. (This
latter is sometimes called the problem of sufficiency.) Now I've just told you
two anecdotes, one about an experience with a white critic, and one about an
experience with my father I had as a black child. Both are fraught with
political significance, right? Well, here's a third, simpler than the others,
that'll serve as an exemplar for both....
There's a chair in the corner.
And that's the whole story. Assuming you are alone with only the language in
which it's told, however, you have no way to determine its validity. Is it true,
inspired by the real chair in the real corner of my real room? Or is it a
polemical fiction? Perhaps it's just a downright lie. And assuming I believe
there's a chair in the corner, could I possibly be mistaken? With such a simple
account as that, real mistakes aren't too likely. But what possibility there is
for mistake segues quickly into the second problem: exhaustiveness. Have I said
enough about the situation to allow you, with only the verbal account, to verify
it should you need or want to ? Have I failed to mention that, though there is
indeed a chair in the corner, it's one of those old bean bag affairs from the
'60s, gone so saggy that, today, half the people coming in here frown at it and
ask, "What's that? Some kind of couch?" Is passion, tragedy, material or
emotional catastrophe going on only a room away to my loved ones, acquaintances,
or complete strangers that, even as I write, merits my (or indeed your)
attention far more than fancies about dubiously extant chairs? Or, more
eccentrically and polemically, have I just not bothered till now to mention that
the chair is blue, lying on its side, about three inches from foot to upper
back, and that in just two minutes I'm going
to call my nine year old to come get it, take it in her room, and put it back
with the rest of her doll furniture?
But now let's look at the more complex incidents we started with. Neither was
simple. Both were important to me when they happened, and, for both polemical
and personal reasons, I'm concerned with the accuracy of my account here. By
this time, I've rescanned the accounts as written above a number of times
already, and have—already—at a number of places, during the general editorial
violence that such an "interview" as this gets subjected to, re phrased and
reworded them here and there, with an eye to honesty and accuracy; and in places
where time has blurred memory, I've been particularly careful with perhaps's and
about's. The account can't be exhaustive. But have I told enough? Is my report
sufficient? I didn't detail the racial incident at school that sparked my
father's outburst. It was, indeed, minor, subtle, and complex—though it also
could be seen as involving a great deal of money for the school, and was
generally the sort of thing to make anyone with a tendency to be anxious over
such things tear hair trying to figure out what hurt was done, what intentions
were. (And, in 1949, what black parents with children in a predominantly white
private school weren't anxious over such things?) I couldn't clarify it much
further in less than three pages—so I've chosen to omit it; or, rather, to
represent it only with this sketch of its affect. Was I seven? I could have been
six. I could have been eight. Did my father really see (or say he saw) the
bodies, or did he only hear about them? It's unclear after more than 30 years.
Did my mother's hand hold the table edge only a second or two? Or did it stay,
locked there, for minutes? I don't remember.
Which of these elements is political? In what way are they political?
Talking to me about it years later, my mother told me that, through my father's
tirade, I sobbed and cried out, "It isn't fair, Daddy! Oh, Daddy, it isn't
fair!" I have only the vaguest memory of that part, which, by now, is
hopelessly mixed up with my mother's telling me about it. I have an equally
vague memory that my mother cried a little. But in general she was not a teary
woman; she doesn't remember that. And my father has been dead 22 years.
In the case of the white critic, although I've now checked my own quotation (as
it appeared in his article), I haven't checked his original letter which
contained the questions to which my words responded—indeed, it's not at hand.
How reductive am I being in my account of the exchange? Has memory and ideology
introduced significant distortion? Anyone who comes across that actual article
will notice immediately it's signed by two writers, who collaborated on it from
the beginning. Since, at that stage, most of the queries came from the single
writer, mentioning only one didn't seem too great a polemical
streamlining—though conceivably the writers might not feel so if they read this.
But not only did I not mention the co writer (also white), I've also not
mentioned that in the years since, though I've maintained a friendship with both
men by letter, I've exchanged hundreds of pages of letters with the second
writer of the article....
Where does significant political detail stop? Or start?
This is the problem of exhaustiveness.
I said above that I made changes with an eye to honesty; but, in incidents so
complex and emotional, can anyone maintain the clear line between changes for
honesty and accuracy in reporting and changes made for effectiveness in
recounting? Selection dominates any report of the real, and the line between
relevance and irrelevance is as hard to fix as the line between meaning and
meaning. Indeed, it is the line between meanings.
The kind of questions I've been asking of my own texts above are, incidently,
just the sort that, along with the dramatic images they momentarily evoke in the
writer's mind as she or he asks them, sends the writer back to do another story
or novel in his or her SF or S&S series.
As the verifiability and exhaustiveness problems move into the political arena
of accuracy, mistakes, distortions, lies, relevance, and suppression, the
problem of representation becomes the linguistic bottom line at which Plato
barred poets from his Republic and decided to make the heads of state
philosophers—opening himself for ages to charges of self interested bias. But
like Heraclitus, Plato was already (as Karl Popper reminded us) a prince. And
that same problem is what, so recently, has caused a number of critics to
suggest that all fiction is really meta fiction: since language (and, by
extension, fiction) can't be trusted to be rigorous about the world, maybe it
all must be reinterpreted to be only about other language (and other fiction).
I said I thought that these problems were much like the ones we started with.
That's because I think the way out of them is the same as the way out of the
problem of the plethora of codic confusion: over determination. The key phrase
in the discussion of the problem of representation is: "assuming you are alone
with only the language...." That phrase itself assumes, somehow, that there
such a thing as language apart from the rest of the world—a language complete
with meanings, grammar, syntax, logic—and thus the possibility of understanding,
without a world to inform it, without a world in which it has been and will be
developing, a world which is constantly changing it, and to which, changing or
stable, it is always a response; a world that is, itself, constantly changing
under language's operation. Similarly it assumes that there is a world complete
with its categories, its rules, and its patterns, apart from language.
It's not a matter of language's imposing its codes and categories on a simple,
innocent, and ideally undifferentiated world, as some contemporary criticism
tends to suggest. Rather, the reason that language is codic is because
everything else in the world is too, as we saw at the outset; and language is in
the world and of it. Language and world (or word and object) is another
perfectly useful distinction, as much as any of the others we've glanced at;
but, as with the others, the distinction is only useful if we acknowledge their
hierarchical relation and do not demand they do the job of equal and parallel
opposites where they clearly can not. The world absorbs language. Language does
not encase the world—although the world displays language like (that is, codic)
properties at every turn; and these properties are no doubt what allow language,
in a properly organized neural net, both to exist and to function. Because of
that hierarchy, you can never be without the world and yet with language—"alone
with only the language." Because
language (and all that is language like) is the social, you can only be alone
By the time you get to wherever it is you are when the simplest or most complex
story reaches you over whatever distance through time and space from whatever
context was there for verification, you have already learned on your own enough
about chairs, rooms, fathers, mothers, kitchen tables, the racial situation in
America, interviews, critics, and writers to make a whole bevy of complex codic
judgments, even if absolute veracity or sufficient exhaustiveness are not among
them. These judgments range from your ability to reach a practical answer to the
questions, "How important is it to me, right now, to verify this account? How
important is it to me to have more exhaustive information?" to the strong
feeling, "While x, y, and z have the ring of truth about them, there's no
you'll get me to believe p, q, and r—not unless a, b, and c were very different
from the way the writer described them." And you may hold these opinions to the
end of your life, forget them in an hour, or revise them three months hence in
the light of further reading or experience. These opinions are all political
judgments—interpretations, not perceptions—that we can make about the sentences
in any text: poem, newspaper article, popular song lyric, letter, interview,
pornographic pamphlet, 19th century novel, Hollywood film, advertising copy,
soap opera dialogue, experimental fiction, kids' comic book, Broadway drama, or
contemporary SF story. Much of the process overlaps for all the different modes;
and for each mode there will be distinctive codic processes entailed. Because of
the differences, however, people who have been exposed to a great deal of, or
have carefully studied, one or another of these language practices may have
something interesting to say about the distinctive way in which these judgments
usually occur, or are best carried out, in each.
Any text I present you with will be subjected to these judgments; and though the
judging process will work slightly differently in each mode, there is enough codic overlap so that, whether it identifies itself as a scrupulously honest
report or as a wholly invented fiction, no text I produce can escape them.
Still, I'm the one who's got the responsibility to be honest (in whatever mode),
because I think there's a correlation between what honestly happened (in the
case of the report) or what I honestly thought might happen (in the case of the
fiction) and my political judgments about it—which judgments, presumably, I'd
hope you might recreate for yourself out of my account. At least I hope you
might revise your own judgments in a direction sympathetic to mine. But the fact
I believe in that as a possibility is, of course, also a philosophical and
political judgment on my part.
In world terms, the text is an affluent luxury. Thanks to the problem of
representation, no text can be considered, in any absolute sense, other than a
more or less socially privileged lie (or, if you will, an ultimately undecidable
play of biases, errors, and omissions)—and that's not only the texts
traditionally thought of as fictive, either. The nature of the privilege,
however, is social, recursive, self supporting, self critical, self revising,
memorial, codic, and complex...dialectical, if you will.
Or at any rate, it ought to be. Among the best readers, to a greater or lesser
extent, it is. But it's the nature of the privilege that's in question, not the
status of the text; for the text, finally, is almost wholly an experience—a
process—rather than a thing.
As I said: honesty is my problem (and a different problem in each mode), not
yours; it's a factor of my motives. Interpretation—judging, if you prefer—is
your problem (also different for different modes), not mine; it's a factor of
your needs. Is there an overlap between your needs and my motives? As much as
there's an overlap in the codes that let us recognize them, talk about them,
agree or disagree.
But here might be a good place to begin a rather sweeping conclusion to all
In high school, I had a friend who was a composer. For a time we were also part
of a folk singing quartet together. Somewhere during the autumn of 1961, when he
was in his second year of college and I had dropped out, gotten married, and was
writing my first SF novel, he completed an interesting musical composition that
was to be performed at a concert of new music at Hunter College. It was complex,
atonal, and at some of the rehearsals I helped out as a page turner. At any
point in the piece, the dozen odd instruments would be playing all 12 notes of
the scale—save one. Through the course of the composition, the missing note
moved up and down through the cacophonous sonorities, so that the "melodic
line," if you can call it that, was a silence that progressed, as a sort of
absent melody, through it all. During rehearsals, while I sat by the metal music
stand, waiting to turn over the page for the clarinetist, something became
clear. When the piece, or more usually a stretch of it, was performed very, very
well by all the players, with the dynamics and intonations truly under control
and the great attention fixed to its overall cohesion, then the traveling
silence became clearly audible and its effect striking, disturbing, even moving.
If, however, one or two of the players lost their concentration, or there was
the least little dynamic wandering, or there was any noise at all in the
rehearsal room, or indeed, if the attention of the listener strayed a moment,
then the whole thing dissolved into acoustic mush.
I couldn't be at the concert, but some time later my friend told me that, no, he
didn't feel it had gone very well. As far as he could tell, simply the change in
the sonority of the auditorium that occurred when it was filled with people had
been enough to muddy the subtle musical experience he'd contrived.
Possibly because I wasn't at the performance, I had an interested absence to
think about, and my friend's piece became a kind of model for me of the
situation of the serious writer—if not the artist in general. I thought about it
a lot then, and I've thought about it a lot since.
It doesn't seem to matter whether the writer is a "hard hitting journalist" or
the farthest out constructor of experimental poems. All the writer's noise is
finally an attempt to shape a silence in which something can go on.
Call it the silence of interpretation, if you will; but even that's too
restrictive. The silence of response is probably better—if not just silence
The writer tries to shape it carefully, conscientiously; but both forming and
hearing it today can be equally hard. The journalist may want a very different
kind of thing to go on in that silence from what the experimental poet wants.
One may well want the audience to use it as a lucid moment in which to make a
decision for action, while the other may want the audience only to hear that it
is there and to appreciate its opacities and malleabilities, its resistances to
and acceptances of certain semiotic violences. The SF writer may want the
audience to observe in it the play and fragile stability of the object world
which its malleabilities and opacities alone can model.
The writer will mold it differently in terms of what she or he wants us to do
with it, do in it, using a variety of codes. And the variety of codes that make
that writing meaningful will differ here, will overlap there, depending on the
writerly mode. Nevertheless, we can still, when it is useful, designate all
writerly enterprises with the same terms: shaping the silence.
And we can still distinguish those enterprises.
And judge them.
That's more over determination.
1. The Stoic philosophers were the first thinkers we know of to describe the
sign as consisting of a perceptible signans and an intelligible signatum—i.e., a
signifier and a signified.
2. This fragment is based on a phrase from a story by Larry Niven, the exact
title of which escapes me.
3. From the entry for August 6th, 1914, in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910
1923, edited by Max Brod (London: Penguin Books, 1964).
4. Collected as Starboard Wine (Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press,1984).
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