Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some thoughts on Samuel R. Delany's About Writing

Justine Larbalestier has posted several times recently about the excellence of Samuel R. Delany's About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, and so I requested it from the library and began salivating at the thought of its arrival.

And then it came in at the library and I rushed there and picked it up and rushed home and sat down with it at once assuming that I would be immediately transported (I suppose I was vaguely thinking of Stephen King’s On Writing—which is very good indeed, a really gripping read, more memoir than manual).

Fifty pages in, though, I realized that not only was I not being transported, I was full of irritation.

At the book designer who thought it was a good idea to print the text in a small typeface with narrow margins and a non-standard page size that didn’t seem to me to augment the reading experience in any way.

At Delany for being undeniably brilliant but also far from concise (and actually, my advice is that while I think you will be well-advised to get this book and read it if you’re a fiction-writer of any ambition, there is no reason to start with the introduction and plough through the book from start to finish; you will be better off dipping in here and there and seeing what catches your eye, then going back to read the introduction afterwards). In other words, I didn’t sufficiently attend to the collection’s subtitle. Which makes it quite clear that this is a miscellany or hodgepodge or whatever you want to call it. Fair enough.

Most of all I was ready to kill the proofreader who fell down on the job. I quite see why Delany (I assume it’s his choice rather than just house style) would have wanted to print the dates of lifespan and/or publication after names of authors and books. I’ve done this myself in my academic writing, I think it makes a lot of sense. But once you make that choice, you set yourself up for a whole extra level of fact-checking that just didn’t happen here. I was fuming (I am a proof-reading maniac, my eye jumps to the error before I’ve even read the page; that said, my novel had a number of embarrassing typos that I can’t believe I didn’t catch, including the awful “deep-dried” for “deep-fried," so let me not imply I am immune from this awful problem, it is rampant among small-press publications and only really inexcusable in a big-budget corporate blockbuster which this is clearly not). Amy Hempel was not born in 1851. The last name of the novelist who edits The Believer is Julavits rather than Julawitz. Balzac’s first name is Honoré, not Henri. The last name of the author of the excellent High Cotton is Pinckney, not Pinkney. Beckett’s novel is Molloy, not Malloy. And so on and so forth.

However another fifty pages in, the book was bristling with post-its and I was in the grip of intellectual excitement and writerly stimulation of a kind that made me want to liken this to a favorite book of mine that is also invoked by Delany, another must-read: Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. That book and Confucius to Cummings were my bibles when I was fifteen or so (a book having been published by New Directions was enough to make me buy it—the bookstore at my school weirdly had almost all their books & as they had been printed in most cases several decades earlier and I suppose just never returned to the publisher, the cover prices were remarkably low, indeed astonishingly and implausibly affordable).

So let me give you the lowdown on what really struck me here (the book is full of useful and interesting things and each person who reads it will have their own commonplace-book-like mini-anthology of wise observations).

Delany is very good on the three things most likely to afflict the beginning fiction-writer (clutter, thinness and cliché) and on the way that when a writer has internalized models enough to use them in his or her writing he/she doesn’t remember that model any more in terms of a particular example or text “but experiences it, rather, as a force in the body, a pull on the back of a tongue, an urge in the fingers to shape language in one particular way and avoid another,” something experienced “through the body.”

He gives lots of appealing and irascible sound-bites, including a short and effective explanation of why reviewers shouldn’t use the rhetoric of “transcending the genre” when they discuss science fiction (or more broadly any kind of ‘genre’—Delany calls it “paraliterary”— fiction).

What I most appreciate is the strength of the case Delany makes for writers’ need to be wide-ranging readers. I am deeply devoted to this ideal, which seems to me generally ill-realized both among literary scholars in the academy and among contemporary fiction-writers and teachers of writing. I strongly identify with the readerly self on display here, and I have noted a number of Delany’s arguments for use the next time I get into an argument about this.

Delany says that “[i]t is only relatively wide-ranging readers who can respond to writerly talent, because they alone can experience what it is different from”: “People who read only mysteries, or, indeed, only eighteenth-century novels, are not likely to have much input into the contestatory dialogue about which contemporary works are worthwhile and which works aren’t.” YES! I can’t remember the last time I read something I so strongly agreed with.

And here’s his amplification of a related idea in another essay in which he explains what he means when he says he wants “to see academic critics approach the new and the old.” He doesn’t want works by, say, Walter Pater and Djuna Barnes and John Keene to be “judged by the same ‘objective’ standards”:

I want to learn, rather, what kind of education is necessary to form an aesthetic sensibility (or, what kind of political savvy it requires, should you be more comfortable with that idea: as I said, on the level I’m speaking about, they’re all but the same thing) that can appreciate, enjoy, and be deeply moved by all three. I think, today, I’m probably more likely than not to find this from a writer who has had some affiliation with the academy. As a reader, I’m probably going to be able to hear it a bit more easily from a writer who feels at least somewhat comfortable with the ideas, if not the rhetoric, of the theoretical developments in criticism since (arbitrarily) 1968 broadly called critical theory. But the fact is, I don’t find it with any regularity. And the academics who never sharpen their analytical teeth on a current work that speaks to them seem to me somehow to be shirking the full employment of the sheer power (constituted as largely by disinterest as by bias; by both blindness and insight) their position and their concomitant educations bestow.

He also gives the best description I have ever seen of what it feels like to revise a novel (this is actually uncannily close to the way I was formulating it to myself as I worked on the latest version of Dynamite No. 1, which involved some fairly substantial re-imagining of various plot and character points). I love the idea of writing as notation; it seems extraordinarily apt to me, and he amplifies the idea in several different places here:

When writers get (from readers or from themselves) criticism in the form “The story would be more believable if such and such happened” or “The story would be more interesting if such and such . . .” and they agree to make use of the criticism, they must translate it: “Is there any point in the story process I can go back to, and by examining my visualization more closely, catch something I missed before, which, when I notate it, will move the visualization/notation process forward again in this new way?” In other words, can the writers convince themselves that on some ideal level the story actually did happen (as opposed to “should have happened”) in the new way, and that it was their inaccuracy as a story-process practitioner that got it going on the wrong track at some given point?
In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it. Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can’t be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.

Other highlights:

Best advice: “It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began your own. Thus, you must read excellent novels regularly.”

Funniest footnote (on a sentence in which Delany has used the construction “any writer faced with explanations to be gotten across in dialogue may find themselves in the midst of something like [the following]”): “The official term for the lack of agreement between the singular ‘writer’ and the plural ‘themselves’ is ‘the sexually aspecific demotic exemplary’—if anyone ever asks.”

Best description of writing one of his early novels: “Getting it down on paper was like pulling three of your own abscessed teeth at four on a February morning with nothing but a pair of pliers, a hammer, an ice pick, and a flashlight, using a shard or [sic] mirror nailed to an outhouse wall behind a barn.”

Most outrageous (but also apt) opinion: “All civilized people write poetry from time to time. Both its reading and its writing are necessary to a civilized mind. But, in most cases, we should be civilized enough to keep it—at least the writing part—to ourselves.”

Best critique: an absolutely scathing (but also very fair) account of why Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is “a bad book.” It includes all sorts of extremely-useful-to-the-novelist tips about detail and accuracy as well as an amazing and no doubt extremely controversial statement about identity politics:

Morrison’s novel aligns itself with the Fantasy Police. Reading it, I find myself asking: What’s wrong with wanting to be different from what you are? The assumption that wanting to be other than you are means that you hate yourself is pathological and patently absurd. A much clearer and more articulate argument might be posed that to desire effectively to be different, actually to expend energy to bring that difference about (to become surgically a woman if you are born a man; to become surgically a man if you are born a woman; to reconstruct your foreskin if you were circumcised before you could consent to it; to straighten your hair if you don’t like it kinky; to wear blue contact lenses if you have brown eyes and dark skin; to wear dreadlocks if you were born with straight blond hair; to pierce, or tattoo, or decorate your body in any way at all; to exercise or diet or contour your body toward whatever ideal you set yourself) requires much more self-confidence and a clear sense of who you are than those who never question or wish to adjust their bodily reality at all.

(On a related note he elsewhere offers a powerful demonstration of the problems with Helen Vendler’s reading of Rita Dove.)

The thing of which I am most immediately persuaded is that I must get hold of whatever’s the best translation of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale and reread it; I read it in French a long time ago, but perhaps for that reason it hasn’t stayed with me and Delany convinces me that it is absolutely essential.

And the other thing he’s persuaded me of is that I have been a complete idiot always to have thought so poorly of Walter Pater without having read him properly; Plato and Platonism sounds like an absolutely delightful book that I must also get and read at once.

Finally, it’s many years since I read one of Delany’s own novels; I was a great fan of his as a teenager, but haven’t picked one up since then. That must be remedied at once.

In sum, an extremely stimulating read. Highly recommended.


  1. I've been reading - or perhaps dipping into - Delany's About Writing in the last few weeks, and find him in equal measure brilliant and exasperating. I agree entirely that his best case is made for reading widely (though it depends on what you mean by reading - I'm increasingly sceptical of reading-as-consuming for a writer), but I dislike intensely his tendency towards global statements and near prescriptions. Often he seems to reach only a half-truth. For example, on the internalising of writerly models, which you cite: on the one hand, some texts remain vivid, even down to the very wording; on the other, far more interesting, I think, would be analysis of the process of internal amalgamation that takes place. Or on rewriting: just how do you judge if a particular visualisation of plot, character etc. is better than another?

    And I find his claim that 'it is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began your own' sublimely ridiculous!

    But there is no doubt that this is a fascinating and stimulating and highly useful read, and I will certainly return to it again and again.

  2. I just wandered on in, and wow is this over my head, almost every bit of it.

    I liked his advice about reading excellent novels continuously very much. It is so difficult to get a plot going even when one has great ideas, unless one is under the spell of several different books that know how to narrate relevant events.

    Too often I want to get lost in the world I create...

  3. I'm not a writer, but I thought for a while that I wanted to be one, and I'm still fascinated by books on craft. And, like you, I loved Samuel R. Delaney as a teen. This makes me want to revisit his work.

  4. Dear Jenny Davidson, thank you so much for the kind and thoughtful words you posted about my book, *About Writing*--particularly the typographical errors. I'm making a list (and checking it twice . . . appropriate in all this snow, don't you think?) in case there's a second printing. If you noted any more, I'd be eternally beholden to you if you'd let me know what and where they are by e-mail.
    Your grateful reader--
    Chip Delany