Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210
The first time I interview Samuel Delany, we meet in a diner near his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It is a classic greasy spoon that serves strong coffee and breakfast all day. We sit near the window, and Delany, who is a serious morning person, presides over the city as it wakes. Dressed in what is often his uniform—black jeans and a black button-down shirt, ear pierced with multiple rings—he looks imperial. His beard, dramatically long and starkly white, is his most distinctive feature. “You are famous, I can just tell, I know you from somewhere,” a stranger tells him in the 2007 documentary Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. Such intrusions are common, because Delany, whose work has been described as limitless, has lived a life that flouts the conventional. He is a gay man who was married to a woman for twelve years; he is a black man who, because of his light complexion, is regularly asked to identify his ethnicity. Yet he seems hardly bothered by such attempts to figure him out. Instead, he laughs, and more often than not it is a quiet chuckle expressed mostly in his eyes.
Delany was born on April 1, 1942, in Harlem, by then the cultural epicenter of black America. His father, who had come to New York from Raleigh, North Carolina, ran Levy and Delany, a funeral home to which Langston Hughes refers in his stories about the neighborhood. Delany grew up above his father’s business. During the day he attended Dalton, an elite and primarily white prep school on the Upper East Side; at home, his mother, a senior clerk at the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch, on 125th Street, nurtured his exceptional intelligence and kaleidoscopic interests. He sang in the choir at St. Philip’s, Harlem’s black Episcopalian church, composed atonal music, played multiple instruments, and choreographed dances at the General Grant Community Center. In 1956, he earned a spot at the Bronx High School of Science, where he would meet his future wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker.
In the early sixties, the newly married couple settled in the East Village. There, Delany wrote his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor. He was nineteen. Over the next six years, he published eight more science-fiction novels, among them the Nebula Award winners Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Even then, his exploration of issues of sexuality, ethnicity, and gender—like the polyamorous love between three spacecraft navigators in Babel-17, or alien colonization and the relationship between the marginalized and history in The Einstein Intersection—distinguished him from other authors working in the genre. Even when set in fantastic worlds, like the Star-Pit, a city that squats at the galaxy’s edge, or Nevèrÿon, an ancient, dragon-filled land whose inhabitants are just learning to write, Delany’s work mirrors the generational shifts and concerns of his times.
In 1971, he completed a draft of a book he had been reworking for years. Dhalgren, his story of the Kid, a schizoid, amnesiac wanderer, takes place in Bellona, a shell of a city in the American Midwest isolated from the rest of the world and populated by warring gangs and holographic beasts. When Delany, Hacker, and their one-year-old daughter flew back to the States just before Christmas Eve in 1974, they saw copies of Dhalgren filling book racks at Kennedy Airport even before they reached customs. Over the next decade, the novel sold more than a million copies and was called a masterpiece by some critics. William Gibson famously described it as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”
When we talk, Delany still seems humbled by that novel’s success, yet he mentions more than once that it did not change his life in any real way: he still struggled to publish his more controversial works. One of these was “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” from the Return to Nevèrÿon series, four volumes comprising eleven interlocking pieces. Written in 1984, it was the first work of fiction about aids published by a major publisher, Bantam. During the mid-eighties, Dalton Books, then the largest bookseller in America, refused to stock his books or those of other science-fiction and fantasy authors who dealt with gay content, since novels in those genres are often read by high-school students. As a result, Bantam backed out of publishing the fourth book in the series, and much of his older work wasn’t reprinted. Delany, however, turned to small presses and academic publishers, and to date he has nearly forty books in print.
Over the course of almost a year, I met with Delany eight times. We never returned to the diner; as we finished that first interview, the waitress informed us they would be closing forever that afternoon. We conducted one of our longest interviews in a café-bar in Philadelphia called Woody’s, where the walls are painted bordello red. Young men milled about in leather vests, and someone kindly picked up our bill. I had been reading Octavia Butler’s essay “Positive Obsession,” in which she mentions that when she started out as a writer of science fiction, Samuel Delany was perhaps the only black author writing in the genre. “What good is science fiction to black people?” Butler asks. “What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?”
I pose these questions to Delany, and he responds excitedly: “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”
—Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
(Additional questions posed by Jenny Davidson.)
By Samuel Delany’s request, this interview is dedicated to Joanna Russ, 1937–2011.
In the same years, I found the Signet paperback of Radiguet’s Devil in the Flesh and, a few months after that, the much superior Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, translated as Count d’Orgel in the first trade paperback from Grove Press, with Cocteau’s deliciously suggestive “introduction” about its tragic young author, salted with such dicta as “Which family doesn’t have its own child prodigy? They have invented the word. Of course, child prodigies exist, just as there are extraordinary men. But they are rarely the same. Age means nothing. What astounds me is Rimbaud’s work, not the age at which he wrote it. All great poets have written by seventeen. The greatest are the ones who manage to make us forget it.”
Now that was something to think about—and clearly it had been said about someone who had not expected to die at twenty of typhoid from eating bad oysters.
Gide says somewhere that art and crime both require leisure time to flourish. I spend a lot of time thinking, if not daydreaming. People think of me as a genre writer, and a genre writer is supposed to be prolific. Since that’s how people perceive me, they have to say I’m prolific. But I don’t find that either complimentary or accurate.
Not a full decade on, when I was twenty-seven, Stonewall happened. Many of the political conclusions that became generalized with Stonewall—such as coming out of the closet to end the nightmare of gay blackmail—I’d arrived at in theory at eighteen or nineteen. But I didn’t start acting on them until I moved to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1968.
In Harlem, though, there was jazz culture. We lived right down Seventh Avenue from Small’s Paradise, which I never went to, because I was a kid, but I knew it was there. Or the Red Rooster. They were places my parents and their friends went. I knew the Lafayette Theatre had once been right across the street from where I lived, but it wasn’t now. Orson Welles had directed plays at the old Lafayette. My mother told me how she’d gone there to see the black actor Canada Lee in Welles’s all-black production of Macbeth, when she was a young woman. Harlemites called it Blackbeth, so that’s what I grew up thinking was its actual title, till I saw some posters for it on display at the Museum of the City of New York.
My childhood was massively and miserably contradictory. I’d been singled out as a smart child almost from infancy. Back in 1947, when I was five, I’d spent six weeks with my mother at the Vassar Summer Institute for the Gifted. The institute was very near our summer home in Hopewell Junction, New York, and my father would drive out to visit us on the Vassar campus on odd weekends. My mother had a sense that I was a really bright kid, and I thrived on the institute’s music, drama, and science programs.
Yet from ages eight to sixteen, I had to go twice a week to special tutors and psychologists who tried to help me with my appalling spelling and often incomprehensible writing. The psychotherapy continued till I was twenty-three. There was this bewildering contradiction between my clear intelligence and my extreme dyslexia. And nobody understood why. The fact that I was a black kid from Harlem in a private school full of white kids added its own tangle to the general confusion. In Jill Lauren’s book on dyslexia and learning disabilities, Succeeding with Learning Disabilities, I’m used as a case study, along with my daughter, who’s inherited it.
What’s wrong with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it fails to take into account the whole economy of discourse, which is a linguistic level that accomplishes lots of the soft-edge conceptual contouring around ideas, whether we have available a one- or two-word name for it or only a set of informal many-word descriptions that are not completely fixed. Aphra Behn clearly describes the “numb fish” and its calamitous effects on other fish, animals, and human beings, so that we all recognize it as what we call the “electric eel” today. But she did it in the mid-seventeenth century, well before anyone had thought of electricity or Franklin had sent his kite up into the lightning storm. Thus falls the Sapir-Whorf.
Discourse is a pretty forceful process, perhaps the most forceful of the superstructural processes available. It’s what generates the values and suggestions around a concept, even if the concept has no name, or hasn’t the name it will eventually have. It determines the way a concept is used and the ways that are considered mistaken. The following may be a bit too glib, but I think it’s reasonable to say that if language is what allows us to think things, then discourse is what controls the way we think about things. And the second—discourse—has primacy.
For a couple of years in my early twenties, I was a die-hard believer in the Sapir-Whorf, though I had never encountered the term, or even read a description of it, which begins to hint at what’s wrong with it as a theory. I even wrote a novel that hinged on the concept—Babel-17.
Perhaps the largest problem the lack of a single term imposes is that it becomes difficult to individuate the idea. Where does it begin and where does it end in terms of what it refers to out in the real world? The more complex verbal support there is for a concept, the easier it is to critique.
If I’d had the term Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it might have been easier for me to realize that it was just incorrect—in the same way that when, at twenty-one, I first encountered the word dyslexia, I was able to realize I wasn’t the only one with these problems, that it was a condition rather than an individual and personal failure on my part, and the stories I’d read about writers such as Yeats, who didn’t learn to read until he was sixteen, or Flaubert, who was so backward in his reading and writing that he was known as l’idiot de la famille, now made much more sense. The realization of the flaws in the Sapir-Whorf, in that they caused me to begin considering the more complex linguistic mechanisms of discourse, you might say gave me my lifetime project.
When I was thirteen, I read War and Peace—the first two hundred pages over two or three days, then I stayed up for thirty-six hours straight to read the rest, with my father coming in every few hours during the night to tell me to put the light out and go to sleep. Interruptions aside, it was a wonderful experience—though I slept all Sunday. That’s the point I decided novels were where it was at.
I read whatever books were lying around—Freddy the Pig and William Faulkner, Raintree County and Mandingo and Frank Yerby and Studs Lonigan and God’s Little Acre and the Alexandria Quartet. I tackled Dylan Thomas and The Waste Land before I left the eighth grade and probably every popular-science book George Gamow published. My downstairs neighbor, who was a writer of young-adult novels, in a moment of who-knows-what excitement, enthused to me one afternoon about Colette’s Chéri and The Last of Chéri and Chester Himes, whom he had known personally. By then, I had a library card, so I read them.
The novels that made me want to write them were Huckleberry Finn—my father read it to me one winter, a couple of chapters a night, after I was in bed, one of few truly pleasant memories I have of the man—and A High Wind in Jamaica and Great Expectations. And Pale Fire, a novel that reinspired me to want to make more such books in the world. The Song of the Lark, My Ántonia, and My Mortal Enemy, along with all of Cather’s stories and nonfiction writing. La Princesse de Clèves, Madame de La Fayette’s wonderful seventeenth-century psychological study on which Radiguet modeled his Count d’Orgel, or Sentimental Education, or Lost Illusions, or Mrs. Dalloway or The Waves or The Years. They are all books that have made me—and, oh yes, others—want to write still other books.
The dyslexia didn’t much hamper my reading. What it affected was my writing. I couldn’t spell anything! In an early short story I wrote, a woman who works in a five-and-ten at one point exclaims, “Customers! Customers! Customers!” All three were spelled differently—and all three wrong. I could not spell the word paper three times right in a row!
I had already tried to write a novel, something called Lost Stars. It was about a very lonely young man named Erik Torrent who wandered around the city, looking at things. I started it when I was thirteen and finished it when I was fourteen. It had about everything wrong with it such a narrative could have. People were very nice about not telling me that. I suspect they were just impressed I’d filled out that many pages with words.
One exception was music. Science had a wonderful music-appreciation course, in which I learned all about the Second Viennese School. It changed my life. We listened to a part of Berg’s opera Wozzeck and, after we listened to Webern’s Passacaglia, heard the story of his death, how Webern had been shot by an American soldier when he went out on his front steps for a cigarette after curfew. Webern and Berg have been among my favorite composers ever since. A lot of the students, when our music teacher played the last three scenes of Wozzeck, began to snicker and asked, “What is that? That’s just noise! What kind of music is that?” But I was knocked out by its expressivity. All I could think was, Wow! Our music teacher explained the twelve-tone system to us, and I went home and started composing a twelve-tone piece that afternoon.
It took me a while to realize that if a teacher had taken me aside and said, “Come on, Chip, sit down, let’s talk, this is how you have to do this,” probably I would have learned how to negotiate it. But nobody did.
Any book you have to work yourself up to read. Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, His Sensations and Ideas, which I’ve now read four or five times and taught twice, and Plato and Platonism, which I also teach. It took me two years to get into the first. I devoured the second over two evenings. When such books influence you, if that’s the proper word for what I’m describing, it’s what you imagine they do that they don’t do that you yourself then try to effect in your own work—that, to me, is what’s important. What these books actually accomplish is very important, of course! But the whole set of things they might have accomplished expands your own palette of aesthetic possibilities in the ways that, should you undertake them, will be your offering on the altar of originality.
Before I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror books and stories, I really thought they would be the Nevèrÿon tales, or at least something like them. But I discovered that, rich and colorful as they were, they weren’t. So I had to write them myself.
And Uncle Hubert, who was a twenty-three-year-old law student at NYU at the time, turned to him and said, “You are a real country nigger, ain’t you?”
When my father told me this, it was just a funny story. But he was so disappointed at not seeing the skyscrapers right away, I decided, thirty-five years after his death, to include the anecdote in “Atlantis: Model 1924.” Family stories provided most of the proairetic material for the tale.
Because Dad wanted to see the skyscrapers, someone told him he should walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Back then, of course, Brooklyn was nowhere near as built-up as it is today, and as he got to the other side, he saw a big cornfield—where Borough Hall is now—an immense cornfield stretching off into the distance. His first thought was, They told me Brooklyn was supposed to be part of New York City. But coming off the bridge here is like walking right back into North Carolina!
In 1993, when Dad was dead and I started to write my story, I realized that was the same time—year and season—that Hart Crane had moved into his new home at 110 Columbia Heights, in Brooklyn. The first thing Crane did was start writing the poem “Atlantis,” which became the final section of his poetic sequence The Bridge. There’s a reference in it to corn and another to fields. It struck me, That’s got to be the same cornfield my dad saw. It’s got to be!
When Crane looked from his window, he must have seen the same corn my dad saw when he crossed the bridge. So that’s what gave me the idea—and the title. Why, I thought, don’t I write a story about the two of them meeting each other on the bridge?
Even before the autobiographical impulse, what started “Atlantis” is the idea that the paradigmatic works of our time were The Waste Land, The Cantos, and Ulysses. A vast intellectual armamentarium is presumed to stand behind each one, an armamentarium of cultural references and literary allusions. They’re drenched in intertextual references, to the point where you wonder, Could a writer do all the things that Joyce and Pound and Eliot are presumed to have done in these works? Is this really possible, or is this all critical hype? So I thought, Well, let me try it on my own.
I went and got as many books on Hart Crane as I could. I invaded the library at UMass, where I was teaching. I wrote down hundreds of phrases I wanted to work into the story. There are so many references to other texts, I can’t remember them all! In my story, Crane cries, “Any dull seamy era can throw up an Atlantis.” Well, “any dull seamy era” is an anagram for Samuel Ray Delany—and, yes, the other thing I had in mind was “Vivian Darkbloom,” Quilty’s biographer in Lolita and an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov. Nabat and Kalit and the lines just before them are the code words and phrases the terrorists use to gain admittance in Oscar Wilde’s early play Vera, or the Nihilists. The tale is filled with references to all sorts of obscurities, most of them things Crane might have known. The subway signs on the subway cars, for Naugahyde and Sloan’s Liniment? Well, when Crane worked for Sweet’s Catalogue Service, those were among the accounts he had to write. The subway car Sam and Hubert ride uptown in is, in effect, Crane’s own world . . . except for the Coca-Cola sign.
The next question is, of course, Why would he have done it? These are very conservative, backward-looking literary experiments, you see. They are experiments that start with a hypothesis, and the text is used as a way of working out a task, to see what the result is. Other than trying to weave the work, in a practically magical way, into the rest of the culture, I don’t know why. The only reason I can think of is because he wanted to see if he could.
To assume that “putting all your talent into the service of a single idea” necessarily involves something fundamentally different from concentrating on the precision, energy, and ekphrastic force of the single sentence is to commit one of those logical slips Orwell described so well in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” the one he calls “operators” or “verbal false limbs,” assuming there are differences and oppositions where there are really developments and continuities. It’s just a way of starting to talk about the larger project, the bigger picture—and critics are always slipping into the false notion that there’s a conflict between the bigger picture and the details that compose it, when there isn’t. That’s one of the ways they mystify the artistic process. Sometimes these are honest mistakes. More often, however, they are symptoms of lazy reading and lack of thought about what the writer is actually saying.
Later on, when I was about twenty-four, I read Bester’s book again and realized, while it was very good, it wasn’t the greatest thing I’d ever read. But because of its overall color and energy, Tiger! Tiger! projects a sense that, just over the novel’s horizon, someone is thinking seriously about important modernist questions. What is the relation of the ordinary working man to the privileged man at the pinnacle of culture? What causes modern warfare today? What is the relationship between economics and war? Bester was very definitely a leftist writer, with a sense that economics was behind all wars. For him, wars were the playing out of economic-cum-industrial conflicts.
Still later I found out that Bester himself had been reading and rereading Ulysses for a year and discussing it weekly with two close friends. You could easily say that Tiger! Tiger! was his attempt at a book for bright fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, with some of Ulysses’s textual playfulness. I wanted to see whether I could write something that would be as interesting for a twenty-five-year-old as this had been for me at fifteen. I’ll never know whether I succeeded.
Today, I watch seminar rooms full of graduate students misread both Bester and Conrad, because they no longer have to wonder about the possibility of such illegal elements occurring in the story and the compensating possibility of suggestion as a writerly strategy for representing both sex and violence. In Tiger! Tiger! the demonic antihero, Gully Foyle, invades Robin’s exploded apartment and stalks across her living room to where she cowers away from him on the couch. There is a line of white space ...
At fifteen I knew perfectly well Gully went on to rape her. Many of my students, however, miss it. As readers who’ve learned to read with texts written largely after 1968, they’re unfamiliar with that order of narrative suggestion. Writers aren’t constrained by law to use it today and many young readers, under thirty-five, have forgotten how to read it.
My students reach the climax of Heart of Darkness, when the pilgrims stand at the steamer’s rail, firing their rifles at the natives on the shore, fifteen or twenty feet away, “for some sport,” while an appalled Marlow blows the boat’s horn to frighten the Africans off. Some of the natives throw themselves on the ground, but among them stands Kurtz’s black mistress, her arms raised toward the boat that carries Kurtz away. From his bed in the wheelhouse, sickly Kurtz watches through the window—which Conrad has made clear has been left open. At the boat rail, the white men go on firing, and with a line of white space, the scene ends ...
Year after year, more than half my students fail to realize that the white men have just killed the black woman Kurtz has been sleeping with for several years. Or that Kurtz, too weak to intervene, has had to lie there and watch them do it.
When you ask, later, the significance of Kurtz’s final words, as he looks out through this same window, “The horror! The horror!,” it never occurs to them that it might refer to the fact that he has watched his fellow Europeans murder in cold blood the woman he has lived with. Suggestion for them is not an option. Earlier generations of readers, however, did not have these interpretive problems.
“If he raped her, why didn’t the writer say so?” “If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of “literacy.”
Another canonical work that lists toward the incomprehensible for the modern reader under the weight of modernist criticism is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Whatever you say about the story’s all but infinite higher meanings, just at the level of plot, The Metamorphosis is an allegorical tale about a family, one of whose members, presumably the one who’s responsible for bringing in most of the money, is suddenly stricken by a catastrophe, a debilitating disease that—overnight—renders him homebound and largely unrecognizable as the person he once was and tells what the experience might be from the point of view of the person to whom it happens.
This was a fairly common experience for families before World War II, and it still is. Kafka himself was such a person. His tuberculosis rendered him such a person in his own family, and it struck me as a chillingly accurate picture of the whole process of the transformation that occurred when my own mother was felled with a major stroke that, in an instant, rendered her wheelchair-bound, paralyzed on one side, and without language for the last eight years of her life.
The way the remaining family both recognizes and does not recognize the new and wholly dependent creature as the person he or she once was, and the way the invalid has to be treated—physically and emotionally—as a kind of insect . . . well, it’s a hugely cruel story, even as it details how love for the person metamorphoses, under pressure of the transformative situation, into annoyance and a feeling of entrapment. The title refers to the family’s transformation as much as it does to Gregor’s. When the invalid finally dies—as my mother did, almost a decade on—Kafka explains how at last there is a feeling of freedom and even rebirth.
When we were coming back from the cemetery after my mother’s funeral, my sister, who truly loved my mother—as, indeed, did I—said to me, “Chip, that is the end of eight awful, awful years,” and a breeze blew momentarily through the trees. I had to answer, “Yes, it is.” And I remembered Gregor’s sister, in the last sentences of Kafka’s tale. It’s a portrait of the human processes which constitute that awfulness.
I’d never argue that the historical resonances that so many analysts see in the tale are not there, but I point out that what I have described as the events of the story and their general significance is how those historical suggestions manifest themselves. How we treat our invalids—our mad, our physically or mentally compromised family members—does tell you something about who we are politically, historically, culturally. But until we can respond to the story as an allegory on that level, those historical suggestions are just not anchored. The commonplace reading, under the supernatural event Kafka has given us, is what keeps the meaning-generating mechanism of the tale functioning.
Arnold Hawley is married for not quite twenty-four hours before that relationship falls catastrophically to pieces. For the rest of his life, he lives alone. Since I was a teenager I’ve always been partnered with someone. Maybe four years in my life—from ’75 to ’79, when I was taking care of my daughter—I lived as a single man. But Dennis and I have been together for twenty-one, going on twenty-two, years. I’ve seen him through a serious drinking problem and his recent half-dozen years of sobriety. He’s seen me through prostate cancer and a few other medical emergencies. I’ve always lived in open relationships and generally had lots of sex. I’ve been quite lucky, with some small public reputation.
Arnold is an adjunct university instructor and a poet. I’ve been a full professor since I started full-time university teaching in ’88, and I’m a prose writer. Really, my life has been the opposite of Arnold’s. Certainly when I conceived Arnold’s story, I wanted to write about somebody who was as close to my opposite as possible. The only way I could have made him any more different from me was to make him white—and perhaps a woman. But I really wanted to write about another black gay male writer, a different black gay male writer from myself.
Much of Heavenly Breakfast deals with the day-to-day minutiae of minor drug sales. As much or more deals with sex, much of it polymorphous. Since much of that was illegal, as a matter of course I changed the names. Besides, as I made clear in the introduction, I had not kept characters strictly apart. There’d been a fair amount of fictive mixing and amalgamating.
I was a little surprised, then, when I ran into a woman who had been a character in the narrative and who, as we stood on the corner of Sixth Street, somewhere in Alphabet City, told me how much she’d enjoyed the book. Then, after a moment’s pensive silence, she added, “I wished you’d used my real name. That way I could prove to some of the people I know now that we really did things like that.”
Not long after that, I ran into Eeyore, called Grendel in the first edition. He was still selling pot off this bench or that in Tompkins Square Park. “Hey, man—that was a really cool book you wrote.”
“You read it?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure. But how come you called me Grendel? Nobody believes it was me.” He, too, grew pensive. “You know, I ain’t done a lot to be famous for. About the only thing anybody could know about me who ain’t one of my customers is being in your book. It would be nice if I could point to that and say, Hey, that’s me. People who read it would see my name and know.” So when I next got the chance to change it, I did.
And I’d think, This is going to be it! They’ll give me a lecture hall and some graduate students and turn me loose. I’ll be able to do some real thinking and some significant teaching for them. Then I’d get there and discover that maybe three people had read any of my scholarly nonfiction, and while they had talked it up a great deal to the others on the faculty, what the school wanted me to do was take a class of freshmen and sophomores and introduce them to American science fiction—which, of course, was Asimov and Heinlein and Bradbury and maybe Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. “You’re teaching that, aren’t you? We had a graduate student here nine years ago who begged us to let him teach a class in science fiction, and when we finally did, that’s what he taught. So I guess that’s an important book, right?”
They were sure that’s what it was all about, because fifteen or twenty years ago perhaps they’d actually read some. Their views of SF basically came from some monumentally uninformed articles on the genre that would appear every ten years in Harper’s or even, slightly less so, The New Yorker.
Or they’d want a creative-writing course for undergraduates. Most were surprised—and, I could tell, resentful—when I’d explain, “These are all moderately interesting, middlebrow texts. I have nothing against any of them, not to mention Philip Dick, another entirely middlebrow writer. But none is rich enough to support the kind of reading I want to do with my class.” A few times I got to sit down and argue my way through to something a little more interesting. Repeatedly I got Sturgeon and Bester, Zelazny, Russ, and Disch on my reading lists—and not just single stories by them, but two and three books by each. Eventually, though, I learned that the kind of teaching I wanted to do just wasn’t supported in this country. Even in France, Foucault complained repeatedly that there was never really time for post-lecture discussion.
Once I was invited to give a lecture at MIT. David Halperin invited me, and I warned him it would be a three-hour talk, with only a ten-minute break in the middle. He must have thought I was crazy. Still, he said yes. I delivered it to a jam-packed lecture hall, with students sitting up and down the aisles. It went over very well. From the student response afterward, I got a sense it was the kind of thing they were hungry for.
But I’m seventy, now, not fifty, and arthritis prevents me from standing for more than twenty minutes at a go. Were I offered that sort of lecture venue today, I’d have to turn it down. Even my public readings at universities these days have to be done seated. But that was back when I was thinking seriously about teaching.
My book The American Shore, an analysis of Thomas Disch’s brilliant and exemplary short SF story “Angouleme,” was an attempt to provide something I felt could stand up to the new approaches to reading that were burgeoning all around me back then. In at least three classes, Shore provided me with my own theoretical textbook, before I made the transition, in ’88, to professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shore and About Writing are my two stabs at creating textbooks for my own students.
Frequently, those discursive models are in conflict with simpler discourses. When that happens, for some people it will be as interesting and as exciting as a good chess game. Others will not pay that much attention to the discursive conflicts. For them it’s not so interesting. But, as I did, listening to the students after my MIT lecture and reading what some of them went on to write me about the experience, I have the impression that a certain number were hungry for the kind of experience they had there and took from it something I can recognize as what I’d wanted to give. It’s not a message, but an experience of seeing the world and the topics it comprises at a certain level of complexity, of potentiality, of relationship—a complexity and relationship that intricately entails, even as it empowers, the pursuit of beauty and joy.