Science Fiction Studies

#66 = Volume 22, Part 2 = July 1995

David N. Samuelson

"Talking" Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics: A Collection of Written Interviews. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan/University Press of New England (800-421-1561), 1994. vii+325. $40.00 cloth, $16.95 paper.

Samuel R. Delany both clings to and defies genrefication. Claiming to write "science fiction"--not speculative fiction, or sword and sorcery--because of a defining attitude he brings to it, he notes that spaceships appear first in his fifth sf novel, and argues for science fictional readings of Dhalgren and the four volumes of Return to Nevèrÿon. Sf's "way of reading" he keys to a readerly and writerly focus on a malleable material world, in contrast to the malleable subject (perceiver-protagonist) of fantastic and realistic fiction. Yet his fiction, not all of which demands an sf reading, also has its malleable subjects, and his writing, not all of which demands to be called fiction, includes himself as a character. Frequently dissolving borders between fiction and nonfiction, he interweaves critical, theoretical, and autobiographical elements into both.

Besides a couple of dozen short stories and around eighteen novels, Delany has published eight volumes of non-fiction. While the others take essay or memoir form, Silent interviews marks a shift in his published interviews from oral to written form. From the 1978 "Comics Journal Interview" (reprinted here), he began to demand at least proofreading rights, then revising and extending his remarks, eventually using the questions as a pretext for mini-essays. Finally, in "The K. Leslie Steiner Interview" (first printed here though commissioned for the Review of Contemporary Fiction), he invents both questions and answers, the interviewer and to some extent the interviewee.

Evidencing a certain anxiety about this new form, Delany defends it in the Steiner interview and the later-written introduction with plausible arguments. Interviewers mis-hear, mis-transcribe, and mis-understand answers, especially those they do not expect to hear; all three translation errors are visible in Delany interviews published before he exercised more control. He legitimately disavows the "interrogation" model of a subject whose unguarded words may betray guilt, and claims as a writer the right to think in revised prose. Consistent with his poststructuralist position, this refusal to privilege voice over print and presence over absence demonstrates a postmodern selfconsciousness and reflexivity which are progressively more evident in Delany's later fiction as well.

In the process, of course, we lose at least the sense of unedited spontaneity, since the interviewee can censor slips of the tongue that might reveal something unintended but telling. Although he retains an appearance of serendipity, following a topic where it leads, a considered writerly response may in fact lead the reader outward rather than inward, and leave an interviewer no chance to probe further. To be sure, interviewers vary greatly in sophistication and some would be unable to capitalize on such a chance. In this book Delany's most fruitful exchanges are with sophisticated interlocutors, like Takayuki Tatsumi (SF Eye and Diacritics) and the Comics Journal people; from others he tends to wrest the interview away to redirect it. Unstinting of the time required to lay out a position in detail, he often takes revision, as in his fiction, well beyond simply fixing errors.

If his longer responses seem embryonic essays, the question logically arises as to why he did not simply write them as such. One reason is that he is revisiting old territory. Familiar to me from other Delany essays are such topics as writing (including SP) as a way of reading, science as a kind of grounding, series fiction as an author's dialogue with himself, the limits and benefits of genre, the dangers posed to reading by inappropriate contexts, and the need for close attention to texts and material facts of history--like incorrectly linking him to the New Wave and neglecting the foremothers of cyberpunk. For his more "counterintuitive" insights (i.e., what he perceives his audience is not used to thinking), dialogue with a real or imagined interviewer can make them more accessible.

Some of these observations, however, are musings aloud on topics converted elsewhere to essay form. Others, like his comments on Philip K. Dick and their shared "liberal Jewish" world-view, might yet be worth a whole essay. Still others, however, may be too familiar in circles beyond his interlocutor to merit a full-scale recounting. In the context of an interview, moreover, a writer can propose with some conviction an idea he might never demonstrate conclusively, especially if he moves away from his usual area of expertise. Montaigne coined the term essai from the verb "to try," which fits the provisional form of an interview, even one that is actually written, better than it does a formal critical analysis. The interview, oral or written, provides a legitimate launching pad for many different ideas, old or new, more or less connected, more suggestive than conclusive.

The reader should also consider that writing a more or less impregnable essay takes time away from commercial pursuits. A full-time academic for several years now, Delany is rarely paid more than a pittance to express critical ideas in essays. That he pursues them at all, even in interviews, argues his commitment to what he contends, his desire to uncover a grain if not a vein of truth, and his hope that at least part of his audience can learn to read him by his lights.

If this book does not extend his previous critical volumes much conceptually, it does emphasize elements leas explicit before. Socio-cultural dimensions of Delany's critical theory emerge most clearly as new points of emphasis in these interviews. Although they are interwoven throughout the book, at least four strands make up this complex knot. At the risk of exaggerating and oversimplifying their distinctness, I will address them as rhetoric, criticism, perception, and politics.

Rhetoric. Under "rhetoric," I include specific art forms, "difficult" styles, the pleasures of order, and a "higher meaning" of genre. In SF Eye (interview conducted in 1987). Delany connects cyberpunk to the mysterious lunar artifact of Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon and early evocations of outer space, all of which use inflated rhetoric to differentiate "paraspace" from mundane dimensions. For Comics Journal, he expatiates on characteristics distinguishing graphic art from cinematic and prose narratives, and in the Steiner interview he differentiates the role of settings in theatre from those of comics. In "A Conversation with Anthony Davis," whom Delany interviewed, he raises with the composer distinctions between opera, stage musicals, and non-musical drama as well as the influence on him of Wagner and Modernism (explored by Delany in Wagner/Artaud).

In "The Kenneth James Interview" (1986) Delany charts the enormous impact on him of the French New Critics in the 1970s. Beyond the power of their insights to extend his, he notes his delight with Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Levi-Strauss as "astonishing" writers, doing something new with words. Alongside a recommended reading list (including Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson, and John Searle) is a tactical justification for difficult styles. Difficult rhetoric is hard to co-opt, to restate and distort in simple terms; assimilation is slower, accompanied by commentary, contextualizing difficult concepts. He proceeds to compare them to Modernist poets and novelists, rather than to writing of which the plain sense is obvious.

Connection with his own work is implicit as Delany modifies positions in earlier essays, explicit as he explains to James the role of revision in his Nevèrÿon stories. Readers of that series who do not agree that revision "simplifies" them may find elucidation in "The Callalloo Interview" (1989). There he distinguishes concise, vivid, inventive, and insightful writing from commercial demands for "transparent" writing, by definition conventional, if not clichéd. He also acknowledges aiming from the beginning of his career to express himself in a style that was not transparent, and one that called attention to its own mediation, relatively rare at that time in commercial fiction.

It should come as no surprise to Delany readers that he explicitly tells Susan Grossman (1988) of the "fun" of organizing fiction and making order out of chaos, rehashing his difficulty of making connections in the "Towers of Toron" trilogy (cf. Motion) and his pleasure in working with patterns and reflections in Nevèrÿon. Embodied in his attention to style and technique and to genre appropriateness, this delight is elevated to a higher plane in the Steiner interview. There he posits as an "aesthetic theory" the existence of a human "aesthetic register," in which the recognition of genre is a higher level pattern.

Criticism. Theory is the high point of sf criticism for Delany, and he told Diacritics that he saw little of it in print as of 1985. Formal criticism in some fanzines of the Forties and Fifties spurred readers and writers to improve style and plausibility, but the effect of criticism today is unclear. As writers, critics need readers. He finds academic critics conveying formal explorations, watered-down Marxism, and simplistic thematic studies in a vacuum, or worse. Composing and addressing a "literary" audience, they ignore a major distinction of sf reading and writing, i.e., taking the world more than the perceiving subject (protagonist, narrator) as malleable.

Not used to "telling stories" about what they read, academic critics produce allegories of reading that differ widely from those embodied in sf. Shaped by Modernism and assuming a canon, the allegories of today's criticism focus on aesthetic engendering, interpretive problems, and the anticipation of criticism. All of these center on the limitations of perceiving subjects. Sf ignores these issues, even anticipating postmodernism in its resistance to the formation of a canon and its denial of veneration to any artwork. What sf allegories dramatize are generic power relations, life and text in contest with a historical critique of text, and text and genre in tension with the philosophy of science. Subjectivity is not absent, but it is distanced; an objective world out there is foregrounded.

These distinctions are relevant to all readers, not just to critics, but also to creative writers. Literary writers typically rework childhood (ages 8-15), he tells Grossman, acquiescing to or rebelling against historical and material limits. By contrast, sf writers typically rework adolescence (12-23, the years basically covered in his 1988 memoirs, The Motion of Light on Water), exploring the world as negotiable. In Diacritics, that negotiation translates partly into solving individual or "local" problems, an act permeating sf which is rarely central to literary fiction. Limited to his perceptions and identified with his author, the "literary" self (like the self of fantasy) treats distortions of the "normal" or conventional as hallucinations. The contrasting self of sf is "embedded" in what he or she does. Denying the existence of character except in situations, Delany invokes a model likely to fit any story-centered writing where the reader suspends disbelief, i.e., most commercial fiction.

In part because of the distance he claims between author and character, Delany resists simplistic biographical readings that confuse the writer with what the reader sees of himself reflected in the text (Steiner). He has never denied the relevance of biography, however, including his own. That he seems a little more forthcoming about autobiographical data in this book than in previous critical volumes surely stems from writing his memoirs in the late Eighties. Doing so dredged up details and made him attend even more to the processes of memory. Thinking of his writings, for example, reminds him of circumstances under which he wrote them (Grossman). Material history shows his memory up as incompletely reliable (Camera Obscura).

Although he acknowledges that personal elements increase in prominence in his later fiction (Callalloo), he distances himself from his characters. If some are self-images, others are figures of desire, accessible to him only in imagination (Diacritics). His fiction does not focus on the creative process, he tells James; artist and scientist figures are useful narrators because they are close observers. One reason to assert this distance is that self-absorption better befits a literary writer. Overlapping the criminal and "the magic kid" in his fiction, however, the artist and the scientist contribute to an idealized self-image present in his fiction and non-fiction alike.

Perception. As storyteller, theorist, and critic, Delany takes seriously a central structuralist (and post-structuralist) tenet, that everything is encoded. The storyteller must consider it in the makeup of "characters" and the fictional world they inhabit, as well as in anticipating what readers may expect of them. One application of this principle Delany credits to Theodore Sturgeon: fully imagining a scene, but describing it in a few vivid details as they impinge on a character's consciousness, evoking in the reader an emotional nexus rather than the full sensory impact of the physical whole (Steiner).

Memoir-writing seems to have reinforced Delany's sense of history as artifact, produced by interactions between language, desire, and events, all abortively contesting for supremacy (Cottonwood Review, 1986). More obvious in terms of the past, recorded in some fashion, this insight applies to perception in general, how we process and even anticipate experience.

To Delany's eye, literary readers ignore the findings of structuralism. They presuppose as time-honored a canon that is actually coterminous with and shaped by the Modernist revolution in the arts. Produced and maintained by literary institutions, it marginalizes as minor writing which contests or contextualizes white male heterosexual experience. Limiting literature to what a limited and partial literary self can perceive, they see it as reflecting real life without bias, but life outside the artwork is real only in so far as it is internalized in the text. That conception of literature is an index to a marginal life style, and a marginal mode of discourse at best, one that has always been predatory toward folk, minor, and paraliterature. Calling centrality in Cottonwood Review the "stabilizing illusion of Western culture," he cites in Diacritics the term "minor literature" from Delueze and Guatari as a new literary model, located on the margin of the margin.

Politics. If everything is encoded, every set of values is created, making political dimensions inescapable. Although politics is unruly and bad-mannered, ignoring it won't make it go away. To Delany, critics evade the politics of literature out of fear (Cottonwood Review), but complacency is also relevant. Critics find it easier to work within given parameters than to take responsibility for continuing or reforming them. Awareness of the politics that goes into it destroys the illusion of an autonomous canon. It also takes our attention away from the pure unfettered examination of a text; what makes it meaningful, morally valuable, artistically valid, or socially significant is now located or at least justified from outside.

The myth of centrality marginalizes people as well as art and literature. Marginalizing leads to or reinforces stereotyping, enforced by pressures from within as well as without. Whoever enforces it, in literature and life, forced rigidity of form or content is a political imposition. The politics of publishing, reinforcing genre, has this much in common with the politics of race and gender. As a black, gay, writer of science fiction, Delany has been marginalized in all three, but refuses to "stay in his place."

The politics discussed most specifically in these interviews is that of making art public, including familiar pressures from the sf ghetto and the teaching of literature to the performance of opera and the production of comic books. Sf permeates all the interviews, often in contradistinction to literature. Although he disowned the label in a 1980 interview by Charles Platt in Dream Makers, not reprinted here, Delany is now an academic. In that role, he does his part to remake the canon or revoke its credentials. In The Cottonwood Review, he maintains that he teaches sf, not literature, though he believes good teaching of either requires attention to text and context.

"A Conversation with Anthony Davis" discusses the technical hardships of mounting an opera, but also the difficulties white critics had in perceiving the artistic and social event before them. Reviewing his opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, they are said to have been unable to separate it from artistic contexts in which they were already familiar with successes of white and black people.

What is not concerned with technique in the Comics Journal interview is largely taken up with politics. Delany sees the pecking order in comic books as even more hierarchical than in paperback publishing. Having worked on "feminist" stories for Wonder Woman, Delany willingly subordinated his work to that of the visual artist, Howard Chaykin. Discussing their hardback sf comic book, Empire, for which Delany designed the story and wrote "half" of the prose, his lament is that a publisher with ghettoized ideas of audience expectation, fancied himself a creator and made sure that what was published was aesthetic hash.

Delany's introduction notes his deliberate use of outmoded terms, sex, race, and semiology, to avoid readers' mistaking them for metaphysical realities. This notice also calls attention to their ubiquity in this book, expanding his criticism from sf into "real world" concerns. Few of these interviews exclude comments on race and sex and coding, but none of them go much further than comments. Assent may be easy to give to most of these heartfelt ideas in general, but they are considerably less developed here than are his observations on writing.

The Steiner interview gently chides me for crediting him with seeking to "liberate the word" in his critical writings. Delany sees himself on a different quest, to "broaden the meaning of reading" to include political dimensions. Ironically, this book may do more for the former than the latter. I think his fiction embodies politics more convincingly than do his interviews, while their loose structure liberates the word in ways neither of us intended.

The Book as a Whole. Silent Interviews is attractively packaged by a university press that has also just published a matched set of quality paperbacks containing the entire Nevèrÿon series. It is durable and printed clearly for ease in reading. It is not a model of careful proofreading, nor is it a complete collection of Delany's written interviews. It is, however, representative of his critical thinking over the last fifteen years. The form of the whole is more pedagogical than logical or chronological, moving from overviews through more specialized topics to lighter personal background and a summing up, followed by a coda.

The conversational ease of the interview and his penchant for concrete visualizations make the book fascinating to dip into at random for desultory reading. Sparks fly in every exchange, as Delany seems to jump effortlessly from one suggestive generalization to another. Among the many I have not addressed are the impact of Wagner on sf and Modernism, the use of monologues in Neveryóna, the primitive state of sf rhetoric for describing time aberrations, the effects of "slot" publishing on delaying the age at which writers begin sf careers, the bad press given to sadism, and Delany's views on violence. In a collection, however, the features that make a good interview insure repetition and some measure of self-contradiction, which including other written interviews would have increased. We can also see what questions he deflects and what answers fail to grow.

The repetition I have addressed from the start. Contradictions and inconsistencies are a little harder to pin down. His insistence on sf as a way of reading is not wholly consistent with his own readings of specific texts. He may overplay distinctions between subject-oriented literature and object-oriented sf and between the "real" as political and the "actual" as transcendental. Though he calls blackness a hangup of whites (SFS, 1983), he brings up race throughout the book. Even as he challenges academic critics, he declares in Callalloo (1989) his interests to be mainly teaching and non-fiction. one omission that might have made a difference is awareness of the amount of structuralist and post-structuralist theory, other than his, that has crept into academic sf criticism since 1985. Whether it would obviate his strictures on the audience for criticism, I am not sure; like Delany himself, however, more critics seem to be taking part in a dialogue among readers.

As in much of his non-fiction, he seeks to disarm criticism of his positions by suggesting that he has already considered and dismissed it, that his "counter-intuitive" ideas fall outside the critic's angle of vision, or that he has read and internalized theorists with whom the critic is less familiar. An interviewer normally has to let him get away with what could be termed bullying and evasion. Even a friendly reviewer is not bound by the same politesse.

Read as professional scholarship, these interviews show a fairly casual attitude to expository development and evidence outside his immediate ken, not to mention textual citations. It would be unfair, however, to apply those standards rigorously. A more appropriate model is a set of "ideas in progress," advancing here, filling in there, feinting there toward a position not yet firm. Even in this baggy assemblage, it should be obvious that Delany's intellect is formidable, that he raises important issues few sf critics do, and that he challenges his contemporaries, me included, in valuable ways.


For an extended account of his critical oeuvre, see my "Necessary Constraints: Samuel R. Delany on Science Fiction," Foundation 60:21-42, Spring 1993. Commissioned for the Delany issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, it will be excerpted there. Since I had access to published and unpublished versions of most of these interviews, some overlap here is inevitable.

Delany, Samuel R. The Motion of Light on Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing: 1960-1965, with "The Column at the Market's Edge." London: Paladin, 1990. (The British paperback is fuller than the American hardbound edition, subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965. NY: Arbor House, 1988.)

_____. Wagner/Artaud: A Play of 19th and 20th Century Critical Fictions. NY: Ansatz Press, 1988.

Platt, Charles. "Samuel R. Delany" [interview]. Dream Makers. NY: Berkley, 1980. 69-75.

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