I saw Samuel Delany speak at the Science Fiction Museum as part of Clarion West’s reading series. He read from his recent novel, Dark Reflections that has been called an alternate autobiography. (Steven Shaviro has a good review here.) It follows the story of Arnold Hawley, a gay black man and poet, whose ambitions, aspirations, and even sexuality becomes derailed not through any climatic event but through a lifetime of hesitation and observation. In his reading, Delany introduced the book as a kind of story to let the aspiring writers in the creative writing program where he works know what they are in for if they kept at writing and not paying attention to more wordily concerns. Although he made it sound like a kind of cautionary tale — I suspect this kind of advice to writes in a writing program is like standing on the edge of a cliff and warning the lemmings that they are headed in the wrong direction. Lemmings don’t even speak English — the pieces he read portrayed a man at peace with just possessing powers of observation. Unlike the other science fiction writers I heard read at Clarion West’s series, Delany portrays a rich, sensual world that is completely ambiguous in its meaning — there wasn’t a morality track or narrative track keeping the reader cued into the meaning of the work.
I had been mostly interested in just seeing what Samuel Delany was like — like most writers I know him through his books, what other people have said about him, and his various jacket photos. In his jacket photos, he has a massive Melville or S&M style beard. He actually does posses this beard, but instead of being severe in any way he was kindly and handled the questions from the audience gracefully. After talking about his failed poetry career, one woman gushed about his prose, “but it is poetry!”
“I love you,” Delany said.
Delany said a number of things that are probably documented elsewhere, but I thought interesting nonetheless. He said he named his novel Dahlgren by looking in the New York phone book and picking a name that didn’t appear there. He had originally name the book after a friend. The friend had a falling out with his family, and told Delaney he couldn’t name the book after him. So he decided he couldn’t name the book after anyone.
Someone asked him about the difference between science fiction and plain old ordinary fiction, and I didn’t follow exactly what he said. He said that science fiction analyzes the subject. Literary fiction criticizes the subject. In writing this down now I see that this might now be exactly what he said because this risks being a tautology.
The first of these makes sense to me: science fiction is at the root a proof of a proposition by assuming the result and deducing a valid statement by a series of reversible steps. Or, an examination of a complex and its elements and their relations. There is too, a reduction, “resolving complex expressions into simpler or more basic ones.” Unlike say, fantasy, that is at root an allegory, science fiction is at root the proof of a proposition.
Literary fiction, however, he says is a criticism of the subject. In the dictionary, the meaning of criticism is almost completely controlled by the idea of evaluation. This makes sense after thinking about it for a bit — I could never understand Wayne C. Booth’s talk about morality in fiction. Fiction always seemed unconcerned with morality — but in fact — it deals exclusively in choices made by the author and characters and in fact this could be seen as the substance of fiction.
I can see the usefulness of this division, but I don’t really buy it. Literary fiction like any lie is a proposition, too. Let me tell you story. . .
Doug Nufer who saw the reading as well, sent me this corection. He says Delany said this (which makes a lot more sense):
I think Delany said Sci Fi was mostly concerned with the object, while regular lit. fic. was concerned with the subject. In lit. fic., the world of the novel is a given, and the protagonist and other characters deal with it; in sci-fi, the world of the novel is not only open to question, but manipulation, by the author, who might adjust it to fit his characters’ needs.
I do think that was closer to what Delany said. It sounds now to me like what he said. I don’t agree completely with this either. (I don’t have to I think agree.) I think all fiction is concerned with the object. The world of the novel is never really a given, but is something that is constructed. My frustration in fact with a lot of lit-fi (as opposed to sci-fi) is that the author relies on tropes rather creates it in the way that it must be created if the author is writing about the future or a distant galaxy. I think all fiction is essentially a distant galaxy. Are Dra– by Stacey Levine, The Sex Offender by Matthew Stadler, or for that matter, Dublin on June 16th 1904 (Ulysses by James Joyce, are these sci-fi because they are include a word that seems a projection of the book’s concerns rather than a the so-called given of the observed world? I don’t think so. However, again, I can see the usefulness of making this division. Just not sure if really clarifies my understanding of sci-fi or lit-fi.