Earlier this year, film-maker Fred Barney Taylor released Polymath: or, the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, a documentary that addresses the professional and sexual life of one of science fiction's most respected authors. Though the film is rich with visual images, Delany's voice and words, not always synched to the content of the images, constitute its core. Delany occasionally reads from his own work, but most of his monologue was generated by questions Barney put to him off-screen; Barney later selected portions of Delany's lengthy, extemporaneous answers and used them in the soundtrack. Such a process would be fraught with peril for many writers and likely to produce verbiage that few people would care to listen to, but Delany's clarity, honesty, and thoughtfulness shine through. Since Delany has been publishing thoughtful essays as well as elaborate and energetic replies to interviewers' questions and a variety of correspondents for years now, I doubt that anyone familiar with his nonfiction output could possibly be surprised.
However, Delany's most recent nonfiction collection, About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, & 5 interviews, which Wesleyan University Press published in December 2005, is something out of the ordinary, even for Delany. Many fiction writers produce pedagogical texts for beginning writers, but few, even outside of the science fiction genre, ever offer a book that goes beyond elementary pedagogy to talk about the many aspects of the professional context in which today's writers work. In addition to writing pedagogy, About Writing offers a frank and sophisticated discussion of such risky subjects as talent, ambition, competition among writers, the acquisition of literary reputation, and the writer's relation to the market—touching on issues that troubled me for months after I first read the book. Six of the essays (actually, there are eight, not seven, counting the 59-page piece titled "An Introduction: Emblems of Talent") have been previously published, and of these three date from the 1970s, two from the 1980s, and another from 2000; the earliest interview hails from 1995, the most recent from 2004. The letters, the introductory essay, and the appendix are all original to the volume.
Delany has been teaching writing workshops since 1967 and graduate-level creative writing classes at major universities since 1988. Day in, day out, he dwells among wannabe writers, apprentice and novice writers, and what he calls (in "Letter to P____") "nonambitious writers" (to whom this book is explicitly not addressed). I can personally attest to their usefulness to novice writers, for I first read four of the essays ("Teaching/Writing," "Thickening the Plot," "Characters," and "On Pure Storytelling") in 1982, two years before I began writing SF, and have read them again many times since (including reading excerpts aloud to my students at Clarion West in 2005). Although these four essays shaped the way I first constructed SF narratives when I actually started writing them, initially they influenced the way in which I read and understood SF. Despite their tight focus on the process of constructing narrative, they are neither dry nor introspective (as such texts tend to be) but pleasurable in their active stimulus of the creative imagination as well as in their many conceptual provocations.
The next two essays, dating from the early 1980s, are decidedly less pleasurable for the non-writing reader though useful in a monitory way for apprentice and novice writers. In "Of Doubts and Dreams," Delany muses on a variety of doubts that arise while one is writing and their necessity to the process. He mentions numerous sources of doubt, among them doubts about word choice, doubts about a possible thinness in the writing, or even, when writing page six, doubts about something back on page two. And so on. Writing, as he says, is hard work. "The writing down—and the rejecting of—language produces revelations and revisions in the most formal organization of the story." (p. 103) Painful (and likely to be assiduously avoided) as the process of doubting may be for the novice, Delany embraces its role in writing at the moment of composition (as opposed to later) because it produces energy that generates "narrative sweep." (I suspect that this production of energy may account for why writing within formally imposed constraints can feel so liberating.) Indeed, Delany's very definition of "writer" hinges on this process. "To be a writer," he declares, "you must write to project yourself, again and again, through the annealing moment that provides the negentropic organization ... Without this moment, this series of moments, this concatenation of doubts about language shattered by language, the text is only a document of time passed with some paper, of time spent pondering a passage through a dream" (p. 100).
The second essay from the early 1980s is a solicited critique of an amateur short story that was originally published in a fanzine side by side with Delany's critique. This and the appendix are the sole pieces in the book of use and interest to beginning writers (and their teachers) only. Most beginning writers would benefit enormously from it, though as I read it I found myself thinking that it must have been as painful for Delany to write as it was for me to read.
In my first reading of the last essay—"Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student"—when it originally appeared in Delany's nonfiction collection Shorter Views, I picked up on only a portion of the ideas it develops because its tone grated on me and put me on the defensive. It so clearly addresses the likely-to-fail "intermediate and advanced creative writing student," cataloging the typical errors Delany has apparently encountered in students' work in a tone that struck me as somewhere between exasperation and peevishness—a tone Delany almost never takes in his essays (though it occasionally crops up in interviews when the interviewer is being particularly obtuse)—that I wondered why it had been included unabridged in Shorter Views, which addresses a wider audience than likely-to-fail intermediate and advanced creative writing students. "Most of you who read these notes—the vast majority—will discover, sometime fairly soon (that is, in the next three, four, or six years), that you are not really writers." (125) A good deal of what follows that statement is of the "do this" and "don't do that" sort, complete with a preemption of excuses students have presumably made to Delany in the past for justifying their choosing to ignore the advice offered. Granted, Delany's advice is sound, including his warning against the "false flashback" that crops up in many first novels. But the advice, however useful, felt more like an explanation for the expected failure of the addressee than like pedagogy.
The interesting conceptual material first presented in "Some Notes" is developed in the letters and the excellent introductory essay, "Emblems of Talent." Much of Delany's discussion of talent, ambition, and competition here unfolds in the context of his experience as a creative writing teacher. At the beginning of "Emblems of Talent," Delany tells us that at some point during the first three lectures of an introductory course in the reading of science fiction that he taught at Amherst he would ask the students if they were interested in writing the kind of stories the class was reading. "Perhaps five to ten people scattered throughout those hundred-plus," he writes, "would fail to raise a hand." I imagine that such a response would come as a shock the first time, but on repetition would amplify one's sense of the strangeness of the phenomenon—particularly given how few of these wannabes are themselves fiction readers.
Delany observes that it is possible to teach people without talent to write well, and he provides a helpful list of rules of thumb that anyone can use to turn sloppy prose into "good writing":
Here again we come up with an unhappy truth about those various creative writing and MFA programs. If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull. (p. 6)
Ah, the knowing SF reader will respond, nodding wisely. Sturgeon's Law! But in fact, while Delany's generalization tips a nod to that axiom, he is actually saying something a bit more specific. He goes on,
However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.
Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction. (p. 6)
Delany follows this assertion by elaborately distinguishing between good and talented writing and identifying what he calls "emblems" that can designate talent. Talent generally refers to an inborn ability that can be developed or not. From childhood, the musically obsessed know well the cold equation of talent. Practice may be essential but only really matters if you have talent to begin with. In the choir, only the best singers are the soloists—even in grade school (though not, apparently, in some church choirs in Seattle, as I once discovered when attending a concert of baroque Christmas music, where the cost of sharing out the good parts noticeably diminished the quality of certain portions of the performance).
While I have no difficulty accepting that an individual's body sets the potential and limits of their musical talent, I have trouble accepting that it also sets the potential and limits of literary talent as well. The lack of a parallel with musical talent that occurred to me while reading about "emblems of talent" seemed confirmed several pages later, when Delany talks about competition among writers. By competition he does not mean to suggest that writers can be ranked (as players in the string sections of orchestras are). Rather,
Even among the most serious pursuers of the aesthetic, there is more than one goal; there is more than one winner. Multiple qualities and multiple achievements are valued—and have been valued throughout the history of the conflicting practices of writing making up the larger field called the literary. (p. 15)
Exemplifying the multiplicity of literary talent, Delany provides an astonishingly varied list of mostly twentieth century writers, many of them SF writers and, to my delight, many of them women whose work I've been reading with great pleasure over the years, in such numbers as to acknowledge women's voices as a substantial presence in the conversation; the list occupies more than a full page of text. To which he adds:
and any of the three hundred or five hundred or fifteen hundred others any literate reader would have to add to such a list ... The diversity and difference among such lists make the literary field rich and meaningful—not some hierarchical order that might initially generate one such list or another. (p. 16)
Reading this, I thought of how whenever online magazines or bloggers put up lists of the best ten of this kind of writer or the best fifteen of that kind, comments immediately pile up, demanding "what about so-and-so?" and "why did you leave out the following good writers...?" until finally the original ten best are now among the fifty (or more) best.
And that is exactly what Delany says is a Good Thing.
So what is the nature of the competition, if it's not hierarchical? Delany puts it this way:
When you have read widely among these indubitably good writers, you must make an average image for yourself of their inarguably talented work—and realize that is what your own work must be better than. And you must realize as well, one way or another, that is what they are all (or were all)—living and dead—doing. (p. 17)
I'm still uneasy about the word talent, and I'm not sure the word competition is apt. But the argument above makes sense to me, because as I read it, the notion of competition becomes, rather, a matter of writers proving worthy of participating in the conversation, of contributing to that vast "multiplicity" of achievement that embraces diverse qualities. Delany seems to be telling students that to join the conversation, they've got to be at least as good as the average of this (really very large) body of writers: they must qualify at an entry level. And yes, I'm fine with this ... until I start to think about the other average, the average of the fiction that is published—literary, SF, or in any other genre. 85-95% of it, Delany has already told us, is dull and banal (i.e., bad). Or, to be more specific, the average of the fiction to be found in the most prominent SF magazines, since this average, actually, is what most novice writers of f/sf take as the standard for their achievement. (I know, because I make a habit of asking students who attend the workshops I give which authors they read, and they seldom mention those Delany designates as "talented.") Delany would have all fiction writers striving to be better than the average of the best writing (including the best writing in the best magazines), not simply the average of all the fiction to be found in the best magazines. Talent would seem to be Delany's last defense against the triumph of mediocrity. I wouldn't be surprised if many SF writers (new as well as "established") found this particular method of assaulting mediocrity threatening and harsh. But Delany is unequivocal about the damage he sees done through the normative standard for achievement's being set by mediocre writers rather than by the most talented, and although I'm not certain that writing students themselves can be held responsible for setting such a standard, I must agree that such a normative standard does damage.
So just what is Delany's definition of talent? In "Some Notes," he says that talent is the ability to absorb, internalize, and submit to models—of stories, of novels, of whatever literary form one writes in. Merely knowing the models, however intimately, is not enough. "Many people," he says, "find such submission frightening. At the order, even from inside them, 'Do this—and let the model control the way you do it,' they become terrified—that they'll fail, fall flat on their face, or look stupid." No question, this is an aspect of fiction-writing that is both essential and simply can't be taught. In both "Emblems" and "Some Notes" Delany also talks at length about the artist's drive and will (which he calls, after the German romantics, Begeisterung) that makes submission to the models possible. His description of the creative process in terms of a body-deep, almost unconscious imaginative relationship to the models rings so true for my own experience that after months' of considering and wrestling with the idea, I'm now persuaded that Delany is correct to call the ability to submit to models talent.
3. Drawing Distinctions
Despite my discomfort with Delany's use of the terms talent and competition, I'm in complete sympathy with his insistence on distinguishing between "talented" and "good" writing. "Talented writing and good writing sometimes fight," he says. His elaboration of this observation resonates with my experience of the misuses that naïve readers make of what he calls the "strictures" for good writing. (p. 9) A few summers back, at one of the Clarion West parties held every Friday the workshop is in session, an alumnus who'd done the workshop a few years earlier engaged me in a conversation about short fiction that was at first handicapped by our having to shout to make ourselves heard over the party roar. At one point I brought up a Flannery O'Connor story, and he asserted that he had given her up after reading a few of her stories because she was a terrible writer. I thought I'd misheard and in frustration led the way outdoors, to the deck, which was considerably quieter. I got him to repeat his comment and discovered I had heard it correctly. So I asked him why he thought that O'Connor was a terrible writer. He replied: Because she is always "telling, not showing, the reader."
At this point in the conversation, I made a judgment about this man who was a few years out from his Clarion experience: I slotted him into the "wannabe" rather than the "novice writer" category, though I'd never read a word he had written. Why? Because he was still talking about wanting to be a writer and his only idea about good fiction was based on a set of rules of thumb he took as the Ten Commandments of literature, to be used to judge texts rather than as a guide for editing one's own work. For me, his failure to appreciate Flannery O'Connor was not the issue, only his reason for dismissing her. What can it mean, that a wannabe writer is unable to recognize "talented writing" when s/he encounters it? In the moment, I responded to this man's assertion that O'Connor's stories are poor because she "tells" too much by trying to persuade him that telling isn't always a capital offense in fiction, and that where O'Connor tells, she is also giving us the opportunity to perceive things that she does not (and probably could not have) put into words; in short, I argued that telling one kind of thing often creates a space that allows the reader to perceive—likely from an oblique angle—what would otherwise remain inaccessible. W.G. Sebald's fiction, for instance, exemplifies this sort of writing.
I failed to get my interlocutor to see my point. I now think I should have tried to get him to see that aids to learning do not make useful standards for judging aesthetic worth. As Delany notes, the best fiction follows its own rules; what makes a work of fiction good has to do with its effect on its readers—with whether, when spoken aloud, it feels good in the mouth and with the intellectual and affective responses it produces within the reader's mind and body. Surely the reason we tell novice writers to "show, not tell" is because in inexpert hands "telling" makes for "dull and banal" reading. The question to be asked about O'Connor's "telling" is whether it makes one stop reading. Granted, what is "dull and banal" will vary among readers, but surely such a judgment is not often made about O'Connor's short fiction.
When I came to Delany's "Letter to P___," I found my surmise that Delany sees talent as a bulwark against mediocrity borne out. Here he discusses the flooding of academic creative writing workshops with "nonambitious writers" who simply feel
that it would be nice to write, that writing might help in some vaguely conceived inner project of self-actualization, but that greatness is not a reasonable goal... (p. 156)
The effect of this is not benign, since it produces, he says, "a field...in which anything recognizable as ambition is regarded as something between a sickness and a crime." (p. 157) In other words, academic creative writing programs foster mediocrity by generating a social ethos that is inimical to art. This analysis confirms Delany's choice of the word competition. But that he links his ideas about talent and competition within a single paradigm explaining the normatization of dull and banal writing becomes even clearer when he lays the fault of this situation largely at the door of "antiromantic critics" for failing to talk about the distinctions between the ability to write and talent, and talent and genius.
The question that haunts me is this: would a discourse that resumed the use of romantic terms like "genius" and "talent" and that vigorously sorted writers into Delany's three categories foster the kind of competition Delany sees as desirable? Speaking as a woman writer, I am dubious. In my world, women are from girlhood constantly punished when they dare to "put themselves forward" or "take themselves seriously." As a result, it requires extraordinary audacity and indifference to social opprobrium for any woman to admit even to herself (much less to others) that she aspires to "greatness"; women known to have done so continue to be ridiculed even centuries after their death, simply because the very idea of their doing so is intolerable to our overbearingly-gendered aesthetic tradition. I do not doubt that Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf both did so, but they did not cop to it publicly.
Christine Battersby's landmark work on the social politics of the concept of "genius," Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (Indiana University Press, 1989), offers an elegant analysis of why gender politics must be factored into any such discussion. She notes that modern ideas about creativity are largely modeled on notions of a male God creating the universe and the conceit of male procreative power, which de facto exclude women. "If we look at the aesthetic literature of the late eighteenth century," Battersby writes, "we will see that the greatest males (the natural 'geniuses') were being praised for qualities of mind that seem prima facie identical with Aristotelian femininity." Philosophers and critics developed new qualitative distinctions that used "different types of passion, imagination, frenzy and irrationality to account for the difference between geniuses and females. A man with genius was like a woman ... but was not a woman" (p. 8). Since women were held to embody passion, imagination, and irrationality, these qualities could hardly be taken as the presence of genius when found in women. Such ideas continue to lurk even today and are in no way contradicted by the most famous (and widely adopted) late twentieth-century model of genius, Harold Bloom's theorization of an oedipal "Anxiety of Influence," in which literary sons challenge literary fathers to produce the next generation of great literature, and literary mothers and daughters are insignificant.
The attention Delany himself pays to the talent and genius of women is in fact extraordinary in a male critic: I can't imagine any other male critic including such a generous portion of women and nonwhite writers on his lists; and his notion of "the multiplicity of talent" is inclusive of fine writing without regard to its genre or the gender or ethnicity of its producers. Thus when Delany thinks about talent and genius, he does so without wearing the usual gendered blinders. His paradigm may make sense when employed by himself, but the thought of it in other (male!) hands makes my blood run cold. Placed in the hands of most critics, his paradigm would result in only a very narrow range of talent and genius being recognized. Would that price be worth the elimination of the attitude that the radical extreme effort that is necessary for making art is akin to sickness or crime? And, perhaps more importantly, would ridding the literary sphere of that attitude rid it of normatized mediocrity? I tend to doubt it. The conformists who embrace mediocrity are simply another face of bourgeois culture, in whatever sphere they inhabit, including academic creative writing workshops. And bourgeois culture, however paradoxical it may seem, is the context in which literary practice has flourished since the spread of printing technology and literacy.
In "Letter to R____," Delany focuses explicitly on how to achieve a literary reputation in response to a letter asking how to do it.
Many of us at fifty or thereabouts go through ...[Delany's ellipsis] well, certainly we cannot call it a "mid-life crisis." It's more a two-thirds life reevaluation...We find ourselves having to reassess just what our priorities are. If the making of art survives as one of them—or perhaps even the first of them—we decide not only that that is what we must do, but also that we must be recognized for it, socially and broadly. (p. 183)
Delany begins his reply by talking about the need for obsessive hard work that sacrifices everything to writing; names three types of "literary markers" and how they work to produce recognition; and then admits that merely producing work of extraordinary quality may not always suffice. "Again and again this process apparently fails to stabilize the reputations of high-quality fiction and poetry with the general readership." (p. 185) And in the end, "every artistic reputation that manages to come into being at all is going to be a highly idiosyncratic affair." (p. 198) In "Letter to S____," Delany suggests that his correspondent is not a writer: S___, he says, has sent him a story written 23 years ago, and writers are people who write. He then goes on to describe "the workshop junkie" (a type he has encountered, not a single individual) who takes the same story to every workshop, year after year, in order to be able to tell people what this well-known writer or that once said about the story. While in "Letter to Q___, " after asserting that "A good deal of what passes for 'good' or even 'excellent' contemporary fiction could benefit from a somewhat larger helping of the virtues of (the best) fiction of 1830," Delany delivers a devastatingly incisive critique of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye.
The five interviews broaden the discussion by expanding our understanding of the context in which writers today work. The first interview, by Lance Olsen, focuses on experimental writing; the second one on the state of literature and its institutions today; and the third on poetry. In Delany's interview with Steve Erickson, he challenges the very idea that a work of science fiction can "transcend" genre and insists that "genre distinctions are fundamentally power boundaries." (p. 317) And in the last interview he discusses how canons are constructed and what he calls the "literary/paraliterary split." In each of these interviews Delany evinces a breadth and depth of thought that depart from many of the standard clichés and ruts that critics (both inside and outside the academy) persistently inhabit.
Like all of Delany's work, About Writing is vivid, passionate, and provocative. After first reading its 419 pages in December 2005, I've returned to the book again and again. Delany warns in his preface that "this is a book for serious creative writers" (ix). And so it is. But I recommend it also to all people who want more from their reading than simply entertainment; i.e., all serious readers.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.