Silent Interviews with Samuel R. Delany

19 Jan

Many writers have preferred the written interview to the face-to-face interview. If we’re to take Nabokov at his word when he says, ‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child,’ then one couldn’t blame him too much for preferring the former. William Gaddis seldom gave interviews and requested that they be written, and often, no longer than ten questions, which would eliminate such winning nuggets of curiosity as, ‘on which side of the paper do you write?’ or ‘how hard to you press your pen on the paper?’

Samuel R. Delany, the interviewee of this collection (save one where he does the interviewing), when asked why he prefers the written interview, concludes a lengthy response with the following:

‘I’m a writer. When I want to think with any seriousness about a topic, I write about it. Writing slows the thought process down to where one can follow them—and elaborate on them more efficiently. Writing is how I do my thinking. Thus, if you want to understand what I think, ask me to write—not to speak.’

Almost all of his responses are lengthy. He answers each question with great care and consideration. Given the nature of his answers, one can’t help but feel that this is an author who is far too interested in the questions he is being asked to give room to the kind of hemming and hawing one does in a live interview—which causes us to stop well before the suspicion that he’s just some recluse that doesn’t like to talk to people.

Delany is best known as a Science Fiction writer—which he is very careful to identify with, as opposed to a writer of ‘speculative fiction.’ He goes great lengths in these interviews to articulate why he thinks that different genre distinctions more represent a way of reading rather than a way of writing. Very hermeneutic in nature, the collection takes interesting turns as simple questions turn into deep studies of such all-encompassing subjects as ‘the city,’ which is only explored in such depth in order to determine the origins of the Sword and Sorcery genre (of which much is discussed in relation to Delany’s Neveryon series). In a game of textual interplay and rigorous historical mapping, Delany concludes that the Sword and Sorcery genre is, ultimately, about the transition from a barter economy to a currency economy. Undermining academic definitions of Science Fiction, Delany likewise concludes that the whole genre of Science Fiction is ultimately founded on the transition from a currency economy to a credit-based economy.

His answers are so careful and all encompassing that we start to believe all the lucid connections he has put much thought into, even if they only represent his interpretation at the end of the day—as is the case with his theory that most of the imagery in Sword and Sorcery and epic fantasy stems more from Richard Wagner’s opera than it does from anything else.

Calling Delany ‘well read’ would be a bit of an understatement. As he talks about Science Fiction and its place in history, it’s then necessary for him to get onto the subject of literature as a whole. He remains adamant about the fact that Science Fiction is a form of ‘paraliterature’ that has operated outside of ‘literature,’ both commenting on it—often completely unaware—and overlapping with it. While many of Delany’s contemporaries—like Michael Moorcock and Thomas M. Disch among others—were very much concerned with that very overlap between ‘literature’ and Science Fiction, Delany remains interested more in teasing the different genres apart in order to trace them to their roots. He is a thinker who is interested precisely in difference and how objects relate to one another and at roughly what points they integrate and separate.

According to Delany, all hard definitions concerning genre come about through ‘over-determination.’ This is the same when one tries to define ‘literature’ just as it is with Science Fiction and all ‘paraliterature.’ When curiosity is raised as to why he is so adamant about calling what he writes Science Fiction, he responds:

‘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 plays.’

He gives very interesting reasons why fantasy that occurs within ‘literature’ isn’t enough to put it on the Fantasy shelf—Kafka being one example. When we read The Metamorphosis, something extraordinary happens. Gregory Somsa wakes up and has turned into a giant insect. Delany takes into account that one can determine what kind of writing this is by other writings—whether they are that of people who have studied Kafka or whether they are the other writings of Kafka himself—just as one can determine what kind of writing it is by the work it sits next to on the shelf, the kind of publishing house it comes from and the kinds of printing it has gone through. One comes away from this discourse thinking that ‘genre’ as a subject is a lot woollier than the academic world gives it credit for, and if one wants to say anything about it, one must look at it in many different contexts.

The voracious reader’s mouth will surely water as Delany gives the interviewer reading tips on where to start reading Derrida if one’s not sure, along with many other texts and how they both relate to and inform the reading experience of one another. The ambitious reader will perhaps feel a hint of recognition as Delany describes how reading Levi-Strauss’s ‘Sunset’ at a slowed-down pace helped stretch his brain into a place where it would then be prepared for a second reading of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. Some interesting thoughts occur around the AIDS epidemic as Delany talks about incomplete (even backward) studies and statistics on the subject. Discussions of race, class, and sexuality abound as well, and this inevitably all ties back to all things literary. He even delves into why ‘difficult discourse’ is more useful when approaching certain subjects.

This is highly recommended not only for Delany’s fans, or people curious about the subject of genre, but for anyone who cares very much about language, literature and history. It’s also a good example of how to articulate and place very difficult thoughts one might have into cogent interpretations.


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