A Conversation with Samuel Delany By K. Leslie Steiner

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1996, Vol. 16.3

K. LESLIE STEINER: Recently you’ve discouraged personal interviews, urging those who would interview you to write out their questions; and you respond in writing. Your recent book, Silent Interviews, is restricted to such written interviews. Ours here is another through the mails-some dozenplus letters, two brief phone calls—but no face-to-face contact. Is this to maintain privacy, to control what goes into print—or what?

Samuel R. DELANY: The answer requires a counter question: What’s the purpose of an interview in the first place’?

If the interviewee is some sort of criminal and the idea is to spring the embarrassing and unsuspected question—”What was in that maroon attache case you were seen passing to the security guard outside the building the night of July 16th?”—so that you can report the stutter, the confusion, the embarrassment that signals guilt, complicity, and malfeasance, perhaps then the live interview has a place.

But if the interview is investigative in a deeper sense and the purpose is to find out what the interviewee actually thinks about matters, the written interview is more concise and efficient.

A temperamental reason why I prefer the written interview may be even more important: I’m a writer. My thoughts are formed by writing. When I want to think with any seriousness about a topic, I write about it. Writing slows the thought processes 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.

KLS: What kinds of questions do you like, then, in an interview? What kind of questions don’t you like’?

SRD: I suppose the questions I dont like include: “What makes a good plot?” “What’s your definition of SF?” “Where do you get your ideas?”

When an interviewer asks me such questions, I have to reconstruct why I don’t believe there is such a thing as plot for the writer in the usual sense; or why SF belongs to a category of object, as do all written genres, for which it is impossible to find necessary and sufficient conditions (that is, it belongs to a category of’ object that resists definition in the rigorous sense of the word); or that ideas are not things but—even the simplest of them—complex processes and as such don’t “come from” any “place” but are rather process-responses to any number of complex situations. With such questions, many of the ideas I’m dealing with are counterintuitive. And counter-intuitive ideas can’t be explained quickly to someone who doesn’t have a firm handle on them already.

KLS: Could you give an example of one of your counter-intuitive critical ideas?

SRD: Take the fundamental notion governing most of my SF criticism for the last fifteen years: that science fiction is—as are all practices of writing, as are all genres, literary and paraliterary—a way of reading. This is not a definition of science fiction because it applies as much to poetry, history, pornography, and philosophy as it does to SF. But it really takes a while to settle oneself with the notion that science fiction is nothing more than a way of reading; it is nothing less; it is nothing other.

A critical corollary to this is that the things effecting this way of reading are specific and material: publishing policies, printing conventions, economic situations, sociological and historical events, readerly and writerly responses, educational contexts—as well as, of course, semantic conventions. Alerting people to the manner in which material situations contour the way of reading that is SF is a good deal of what my critical projects—as far as they entail SF—have been about.

In discussions of science fiction, when people who don’t realize that definitions require necessary and sufficient conditions—and thus who have changed the meaning of definition—encounter the work of someone who has proposed a new model, often they find it difficult, or sometimes even dangerous, to give up their old model. Often at first they assume the new model is a new, informal definition. And their accounts of it often take on the syntax, if not the vocabulary, of their old model. When I talk about SF as a way of reading—the way of reading that is science fiction—this becomes for them the way of reading associated with science fiction.

The material conditions that I see as actually forming the way we read that is SF—that contour, constitute, and create science fiction; that constitute the discourse of science fiction—such critics try to understand in terms of material conditions that change the way we read this recognizable thing in the world that, for them, is SF. For them, an essence has been left unchanged. For me, once those material conditions have effected the way we read, science fiction has changed.

For them, SF has a way of reading.

For me, SF is a way of reading.

KLS: What you’re saying suggests that, in much the same way as “writing,” for Derrida, has come to mean something more complicated and broader than sitting down to scrawl a pro forma note to the landlord accompanying the rent check, so “reading” for you has become a more complicated and broader process than running an eye over the list of contents on the back of the cereal box while waiting for the morning coffee to drip through.

SRD: Yes—or rather: for me, reading has expanded to include all we do in such a situation, from taking in the fact that it’s a cereal box at all and not a novel by Coover or Perec; that it’s breakfast time; that we pay a certain kind of attention to what’s written on that cereal box and not another kind; the ways we might put that information to use, in terms of diet or medical situations; how we remember those contents for so long and not longer—indeed, the set of material forces that constitutes, finally, “the contents listed on the back of the box” as we read them.

KLS: So the critic of science fiction has the option of changing either the notion of definition or the notion of reading?

SRD: Yes. Though I’d be more specific; the critic has the option of reducing the notion of definition to that of functional description or of broadening the notion of reading considerably. But yes.

My reasons for wanting to leave the meaning of definition alone and for wanting to broaden the meaning of reading (rather than “to liberate the word,” about which, despite what Professor Samuelson has written elsewhere, I care nothing; like most writers, I’d rather see words used more carefully than more freely) are finally political. By reducing the meaning of definition, the science fiction critic cuts off a lot of people with whom he or she might have a productive dialogue—philosophers, say. If you change the meaning of logical terms, how are you going to benefit from what logic might have to say about what you’re doing? Broadening the meaning of reading strikes me, however, as a critic, a reader, and a writer, as liberating. Honestly, it feels good! And by the same token, it vouchsafes the possibility of dialogue with those critics, in other areas, who have broadened the meaning of writing and reading in other critical fields.

Fifteen years ago, my stress on the differences between science fiction and the other, literary genres was seen as quite threatening—both by writers who had devoted their lives to writing fine science fiction and by critics who had devoted much of their lives to promulgating science fiction’s literary value. That was because the only difference usually spoken of back then was the qualitative difference: literature was good; most science fiction was ghastly. The oppositional stance to that position had always been some form of—no, they’re the same … at least the best science fiction is. But to me they obviously weren’t; and once I began to write about the differences, at first people assumed the differences I was writing about, especially as some of them were fairly rarefied and hard to follow, must mask some form of the old literary argument: literature is good and SF is bad.

The differences between SF and literature I was discussing excited me, however; and I tried to write about them as if they were exciting. Five or six years later, the same critics began to read me as saying: “No, because SF has all these exciting differences from literature, SF as a genre must be better than literature!” Well, that’s patently absurd. Today, now that my critical interests have moved about a bit and I’m paying more attention to literary texts per se, the SF critics are saying: “Oh, look! Now he seems to think that literature is okay after all! Certainly has changed his tune, hasn’t he!”

Well, though my ideas have changed, developed, and refined over the years, that path doesn’t outline the change. And the critics who think it does (not a mistake Professor Samuelson makes, by the by) just aren’t addressing what I’m doing—or have been doing.

KLS: In the midst of all this, what is the place of the aesthetic? Do you have an aesthetic theory?

SRD: Yes. It’s simple and not counter-intuitive at all, though at present it’s not a very popular one. My theory is simply that human beings have an aesthetic register. Like the registers of hunger and sex, the aesthetic register is fundamentally appetitive. It manifests itself as a desire to recognize patterns both spatial and temporal; its particular appetite ranges over spatial and temporal fields of continuity and contrast, of similarities and differences, of presences and absences—the field of texts, of fictions.

Classical aesthetic theories assumed that an appetite for the beautiful and the good lay at the center of the aesthetic register: and while lots of translations can take place between classical theories and my theory, because mine does not center on beauty and goodness but on order, my theory is not a classical theory.

But this theory that the aesthetic is a human register, as autonomous as hunger or sex, explains the vexing situation that Republicans and Democrats both can enjoy Mozart, that midwives and state executioners both can love Artemisia Gentileschi, and that the guard who turned on the gas at Buchenwald and the resistance worker who gave her life to smuggle Jews out of Germany both might have delighted in Dickens.

KLS: Would you perhaps close out our discussion with some more comments on the written interview and the scene of (its) writing?

SRD: It’s certainly a fascinating topic—if only because it’s the first where you’ve asked me directly about what we’ve been wrestling with indirectly till now: the problem of fiction. By that I mean the problem of character and setting—and of their relationships to actuality, to what happens, to experience, if not to language and desire.

KLS: Certainly you believe (counter-intuitively, no doubt) that none of the three—character, setting, and reality-exists…?

SRD: I don’t believe that the first two exist in any hypostatized form that allows them to come apart from the text. As to the third, in no way contradicting what I’ve said already, I believe the real is synonymous with the political. That is, it’s what you have to deal with, one way or the other. But, no, I don’t believe in any transcendent and metaphysically grounded real that is somehow present, either perceptually or mystically.

Were I writing a scene in a novel, say, in which two invented characters were talking to one another—or, indeed, if I were writing a nonfiction account of an overheard conversation between two actual people—I’d have the same problems you and I are having as collaborators, making this interview read “relistically.” In fiction, setting—space, unto the spacing on the page— is what individuates characters. But a character removed from its space is no character at all.

Whole narrative industries function, however, on the intuitively more accessible model of drama- where the terms character and setting originated, before they were appropriated by prose fiction -a model in which, yes, characters and setting can be considered separately and apart.

Movies, television, comic books….

In the early days of the novel some people felt rather the same way.

Chekhov adumbrates the end of that whole approach to narrative, with his explanation of the “telling detail.” You can spend paragraphs describing an old mill under the cloud-streaked moon, Chekhov writes somewhere, how the water rushes over the wheel, how heavy and dank its stones are, and nobody will actually see it; merely mention, however, how the moonlight catches on a bit of broken glass lying on a mossy flag atop the millrace … and the whole structure rises, vivid and visible, before the moon-slashed night mists of the reader’s mind!

The great American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon is the first writer I know who knowingly took the Chekhov technique the step farther necessary to articulate what he, and modernists from Joyce and Woolf through Updike and Barth, were after—at least on the stylistic level. In a letter he wrote to Judith Merril in the early fifties, he explained: the way to write a vivid scene is for the writer first to visualize every aspect of the scene, from the paint drops on the new brass doorknob plate, to the bare wood window frames and the putty-smudged panes with their labels not yet scraped from the corners, to the trowel swipes on the ceiling’s unpainted plaster. Then do not describe it. Rather, the writer should move his or her character—the harried new home buyer, the tired construction worker with his can of beer—through the scene, in whatever emotional state he or she is in, mentioning only those details that impinge on the character’s consciousness.

Those details will become the telling details that make the scene shimmer intensely into life. What’s more, Sturgeon pointed out with great insight, the scene the reader imagines will not be the same as the scene the writer imagines; but the scene the reader envisions will be as immediate, as vivid, and as emotionally charged for the reader as the writer’s scene was for the writer. What Sturgeon is doing of course is mapping out the emotional connection between character and setting that is the precise reason that, in textual fictions, character and setting just will not come apart from each other.

So, finally, where do such interviews—between two voices (two writers, two fictive characters both of which are creations of hand), neither of which has necessarily ever sounded on the air- occur? Where all fiction does: where the unconscious, which decides the undecidable by reading the language of the Other into the silences of the other, is flush with the pre-conscious, which provides us with the range of the recognizable: a juncture for which all lisable surfaces—page under eye and beneath the thumb, movie screen beyond the audience’s darkened heads, the imaged glass of the CRT within its framed nacelle—that is, the text, are today the visible sign.

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