Samuel R. "Chip" Delany published his first novel, The
Jewels of Aptor, in 1962 at the age of 20. Since then he has gone
on to become one of the most widely influential science fiction
writers in America. He has won the Nebula award four times, for
his novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, and for his
short pieces "Aye, and Gomorrah" and "Time Considered as a Helix
of Semi-Precious Stones." The latter also won the Hugo award for
best novelette, and Delany also earned a Hugo for his non-fiction
book, The Motion of Light in Water. For the better part of the
past decade, Delany has focused more on non-fiction and academia,
and currently serves as a professor in the department of English
at the University at Buffalo, Buffalo, N.Y.
Like so many other authors over the last couple of decades,
you have suffered through the extinction of the midlist. Now,
however, it appears you're coming back in a significant way with
Vintage Books' re-release of Dhalgren. Why now? And why Dhalgren
The factors controlling a writer's popularity are as
mysterious and ultimately as unknowable as the number of stars in
the sky or (to quote Sir Thomas Browne) the name that Achilles
used when he hid himself among the women.
But, as Browne also suggested, even such unknowable
questions are not beyond all speculation. When a significant
number of reasonable answers have been marshaled, however (the
topics of the books still, to certain readers, seem of interest;
still others may remember the writing as having a vitality they
liked; the book was commercially successful twenty-five years
ago; and Vintage's marketing department feels they may be able to
reduplicate that), the greatest and the most humbling one
remains: I've been very lucky.
When it was first released in January 1975, Dhalgren caused
quite a stir with its racial and sexual content. Stylistically,
it was daring as well, and today is among a handful of works
considered "landmarks." Does the book hold up today? Has it aged
I'm the last one who would be able to answer that, of
course. You'll have to ask a reader far less involved with the
book than I am.
After Dhalgren, a large portion of your back catalogue is
scheduled for reissue as well -- Babel-17, Empire Star, Nova, and
Driftglass. How involved have you been in the reissue process?
No more, I'd guess, than any other writer having a book
reissued. I've suggested what editions Vintage should use to set
from, given them lists of typographical errors to correct that,
over the years, various readers have brought to my attention.
Like many writers, I keep files of old reviews and articles that
have appeared -- and I gather Vintage's publicity folk have found
some of that documentation helpful.
I don't believe, however, I've been any more involved in
the process than any other writer having a book reissued by a
Midlist problems aside, how is it possible for a writer as
influential as yourself, with as many critically acclaimed books
as you've produced, to fall so badly out of print?
Again, you'd have to ask the people who worked at my
previous publishers. Sometime in 1987, Bantam Books -- then my
major publisher -- started putting my books out of print, basically
one every two weeks. That term I was a Senior Fellow at the
Society for the Humanities at Cornell University's Andrew D.
White House. Every couple of weeks I'd get a call at my office:
"Just wanted to let you know, we're putting The Fall of the
Towers out of print. Sales just don't warrant keeping it alive...
Hey, we just called to let you know that, because of sales
figures, we're putting Nova out of print..."
And I'd say, "Um... Uh... yeah. Okay..."
Over a few months, my baker's dozen Bantam titles, some of
which had been in print for as long as ten, fifteen, even twenty
years, disappeared from the shelves. At the time, I thought:
Well, my hour in the public eye is over. It's happened to writers
before. It'll happen to writers again.
I did think it was strange how the sales of title after
title had fallen off like clockwork. Later, of course, I learned
that, under all sorts of economic pressure -- from rising paper
costs to new tax laws to the myriad mergers that transformed the
publishing industry over that decade from some eighty or so
competing businesses to five corporate monoliths -- Bantam had
instituted a new policy, where everything from publishing slots
to advertising budgets to catalogue space was being taken away
from midlist writers like me and given to far fewer projects with
a shot at becoming low-literary quality bestsellers, along with
a few slots reserved for brand new writers, who were to be given
-- exactly -- three chances each to make it as a bestseller. They
were paid low advances, though often a fair amount of promotion
went with their books.
If, however, after three tries, these new writers didn't
produce something that could be fed into the bestseller
machinery, they were dumped -- and were often very surprised (and
unhappy) men and women: Up till then they'd assumed that, as
writers, they'd actually had a supportive publisher behind them.
Nobody ever told them they had only three chances. Presumably
they'd look around and figure it out for themselves. Some -- the
John Sauls, the Dean Koontzes, the Clive Barkers -- actually did. A
lot, however, didn't.
You say "mid-list problems aside," but that's what the
problems were. Nor was I the only victim. Not just from science
fiction and mysteries, but dozens of writers fell out of the
mainstream as well. Science fiction -- however -- has a particularly
vociferous and relatively organized fandom, so that calls for
reissues and attempts to throw some attention back on worthy
writers from the past can come with a bit more force -- another way
of saying I've been lucky.
Are you now coming back into favor?
You make it sound as if I'd been dismissed from the palace
in disgrace for a tasteless joke I'd let slip about a powerful
courtier; then, because she missed my quips and dinner table
repartee, only now has the Empress passed on an approving nod at
a mention of my name that's allowed me to return.
Would that it were like that!
Of course I'd like to think a few people remembered the
reading experience my work represented for them, readers who felt
that experience was worth making available again to others.
Probably, though, that's too utopian. More likely someone I've
never met and whose name I'll never know decided that there was
money to be made -- either from nostalgia or whatever. Thus the
decision to bring Delany back into print.
So are you now getting the credit due to you?
But what credit is due anyone? The only sane thing any
writer can say to such questions Thomas Mann said, many years
ago: "As to the worth of my own work, I cannot know, and you
cannot tell me."
Half a dozen years after Dhalgren appeared, someone sent me
a recently written grammar book, for people learning English, in
which -- among the various examples of American writing scattered
throughout -- two or three paragraphs of Dhalgren were quoted as an
example of economical and informative prose. The writer talked a
bit about the structure of the sentences, made one or two points
about their arrangement and internal form. At the time, I
remember, I was overwhelmed.
Works by many classical poets and writers have survived from
Greece and Rome -- in fragmentary form -- because some grammarian
used a quotation from the work as a particularly effective
example of one grammatical figure or rhetorical trope. The
hundred-twenty-four-odd fragments surviving from the pre-Socratic
philosopher Heraclitus come to us pretty much this way. So does
most of what survives of Sappho and the even more fragmentary
work of Achilocus.
After that book showed up in my mailbox, I recall thinking:
There's nothing more a writer can ask. That someone might choose
a sentence or six of mine to teach others how to read, write, and
think in this extraordinary language, American English -- well,
when set beside questions of "attention due," I feel that honor
simply dissolves those questions.
With so many reissues coming up, what original projects do
you have in the works?
A lot of my energies of late have gone into non-fiction:
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the essays in Longer Views
and Shorter Views. At this point, I've always got two or three
non-fiction projects going. They relax me and allow me to get
away from the toils of teaching, the worry of workshops, and the
general agita of academic administration.
Fiction -- at least for me -- requires long, relatively
uninterrupted time stretches in which to bring it to fruition.
I've never been a two-hour-in-the-morning writer, who could put
in another six hours on Sunday afternoon. For me, a novel requires
weeks of living in a largely mental and wholly internal
landscape. Everything else has to be relegated to the odd hour
here, the bit of time there. Sadly, however, uninterrupted time
blocks are not what life doles out today to any of us with
Have you made any progress on the long-awaited follow-up to
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand?
I have real hopes of getting back to it someday -- though, no,
currently it's not on the front burner.
You first made a name for yourself in the 60s, when science
fiction was in the midst of the "New Wave" renaissance. Has the
genre fulfilled the promise and potential of that era?
In the arts, people are always waiting for someone or some
movement to "fulfill her/its/his promise." Then, half-a-dozen or
a dozen years on, others begin to realize that, really, something
extraordinary was actually happening: That's what all the talk of
promise was about.
From the teens and twenties, there's a whole sub-genre of
embarrassing reviews, which explain, in effect, that poets like
T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Hart
Crane or Wallace Stevens really do have quite a bit of talent. As
soon as they learn how to write "real poetry" and stop all their
experimenting, they just might fulfill their promise and produce
The New Wave had some extraordinary writers: Disch, Zolines,
Ballard. And, yes, they wrote what they wrote back then. Well,
Camp Concentration, 334, On Wings of Song, Neighboring Lives
(this last, Disch's collaboration with Charles Naylor),... these
were -- and remain -- extraordinary. I'm hoping soon people will
begin to rediscover the range of Joanna Russ's work -- and the work
of the late Roger Zelazny, through Bridge of Ashes and Doorways
in the Sand, before he became trapped in the downward commercial
spiral of his Amber series.
Currently, what writers impress you?
What writers do I like? Richard Powers, certainly. Guy
Davenport, and William Gass, surely. In science fiction, Lucius
Shepherd, Bill Gibson, Karen Joy Fowler. Ethan Canaan (to return
to the mainstream) -- though I'm not sure what happened to his
control of the sentence in his most recent novel For Kings and
Planets -- is a spectacular writer. I like the work of Robert Glück
and Edmund White -- as well as David Markson of Reader's Block.
Several years back, on an episode of Deep Space Nine, Avery
Brooks portrayed a black science fiction author for a
Campbell-esque magazine in the 50s, whose race was concealed
from the readers. The episode has distinct Delany overtones,
although the circumstances of this character appeared quite
different from yours.
I never saw it -- though people have been mentioning it to me
on and off for years. Once, even before that, I got a call from
an old high school friend of mine, whom we used to call Chuck. He
was at a sports event out in Seattle, I believe, and calling on a
cell phone -- before everybody and his brother had one. "Just a
second," he told me, "I want you to say hello to someone."
Sitting next to him, apparently, was Brooks -- who, I learned, to
my surprise, was something of a Delany fan. Chuck and he had
ended up on the same national committee to promote libraries --
and, at one of their Seattle conferences, had all gone to a
baseball game together. My name had come up, so Chuck had decided
to give me a call and introduce us. A few years later in 1998, at a
publication party for Octavia Butler, I actually met Brooks -- and
we had our mutual friend to gossip about for a while. Brooks is a
very pleasant, if somewhat shy, man. Since that time, I've
managed to catch half a dozen of his Deep Space Nine episodes in
rerun. He's an impressive actor.
But, no, I've missed the one you mentioned.
Certainly, though, the situation of that character was
different from mine! My race was never concealed. From 1968 on, I
was pretty much "the black gay SF writer."
You've quoted Joanna Russ before, that the science fiction
clubhouse door has a sign upon it saying, "Girls stay out.
Minorities stay out" as an explanation of why white males
dominate the field of science fiction and fantasy. While that's
changed significantly for women, three decades after you broke
through the barrier, progress has been negligible for minorities.
Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson (both women, interestingly
enough) generate a flurry of attention whenever they release a
new book, but after them... Is that sign still up on the
clubhouse door? Or is there something else at play?
Things, when they get better, often get better in spurts -- and get better for different sub groups at different times.
Because we're going through a period of social solidarity among
women, and black women especially, there's been a much-needed
surge of improvement in the visibility of black women writers
that's even reached into the science fiction precincts. Octavia
Butler was my student at Clarion back in the late 60s. Nalo
Hopkinson was my student at Clarion only a handful of years back.
I had the honor of recommending Hopkinson's first published story
to editor Ellen Datlow -- something I can be proud of for the rest
of my life. But I hope things will get even better -- as they need
to, for women black and white; and for black men; and for Asians;
and for the range of Amerinds; and for Hispanics -- writers,
readers, and just plain folk.
Science fiction/fantasy generally prides itself on being
broad-minded and all-inclusive. Do you feel your race or
sexuality hurt your success?
No. I think a much better argument might be made that both
have added to what success I've had. I don't mean through any
reverse prejudice (the cherished fiction of the politically
conservative). But both have provided me with a great number of
life experiences, many of which do not often make it into
fiction. While publishers are convinced fiction readers are only
interested in reading about what they've read about before, the
reality is, I suspect, more sanguine: People want new stories and
new materials to explore and interrogate and have adventures in.
The world -- particularly the academic world -- has been
changing with a rapidity that, while astonishing, is still just
slow enough to escape the eye of, say, the university student who
has only been in school for four years, or even the graduate
student who stays for eight or ten.
Today, there are Gay Studies Programs in every University
worth the name. Forty years ago, not only was there no such
thing, there were no Women's Studies, no African American
Studies, no Film Studies. Moreover, if you'd proposed any such
ideas, for most of them you'd have been laughed out of the
department meeting, and for one or two, you might have ended up
In 1996, I gave a talk at a conference at Yale on
post-colonialism, in which I discussed ideas and experiences I'd
had that reflected on the postcolonial situation, but which had
come to me largely because I was a gay man traveling about in the
The Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist Nadaal El Sadawi was
also at the conference, and when a bunch of us went out for pizza
between conference sessions, she remarked: "You know, Chip, if
you had given that talk at my University in Cairo at noon the way
you did here, by four o'clock you'd probably have been in jail."
It was a sobering thought.
It has only been these changes in the academic culture of
the United States that have, of course, allowed my personal
situation to function in a positive manner.
Do you feel your writing has ever been overshadowed by your
persona? Whenever your name is mentioned, it's almost always in
the context of "SF's first major black writer" or "SF's first
openly gay writer," or both. Do those tags unfairly, or fairly,
distort the perception of your work?
Whenever a writer begins to garner a reputation, various
"biographemes" (Roland Barthes' term, I believe) begin to
sediment out. They're all ridiculously restrictive. But they give
us something to hang the reading experience from. Robert Frost is
that New England rural poet. Gertrude Stein went to France and
wrote silly sentences, such as "Suppose to suppose suppose a rose
is a rose is a rose is a rose." Edmund White is that radical gay
novelist. Chester Himes is that black literary writer who ended
up writing detective fiction. Jackson Pollock was a loud drunk
who did drip paintings. What ridiculous summations for any
artist's work! Nor do I think it's an accident that of the
writers I've mentioned, the one who's had the greatest influence
on the development of the course of American literature -- Stein,
without whom there would have been no Hemingway or anyone else
who ever aspired to an accuracy beyond the standard sentence -- gets the silliest.
Most people only know my "persona," as you call it, though
my writing. I already do a fair amount of lecturing, but even
there I'm reading from lectures I've written down. So I wonder,
indeed, if your idea above -- that my "persona" overshadows my
work -- isn't something of an illusion, produced by the work
itself. The fact is, the fat, forgetful old man, who walks with a
cane and stutters a lot when not reading from a prepared text,
just isn't that interesting.
Running a search for "Samuel R. Delany" through several
online booksellers turns up as many -- if not more -- books about you
and your writings as by you. What does that say?
Alas, I've never run such a web search. I can't really
comment. Having said that, I mention that, a couple of years ago,
my daughter told me she was going to sweep the web for me and
print out a bunch of stuff -- and sent me some thirty pages of
bibliographic material various people had gathered. As I recall,
there was about one error every fifth entry in most of it -- which
seems par for the ratio of information to misinformation on the
web. Still later, I stood at the shoulder of a professor in his
study up at SUNY Buffalo, while he showed me this and that
reference to me on the internet. I admit, I didn't think they
were terribly exciting -- though, somewhere up in Vermont, a fellow
named Jay Schuster has put together a careful and accurate few
pages on his website. Such attention is very warming. But since I
simply haven't seen it all -- or even most of it, if there's really
as much of it out there as you suggest -- I can't tell you what it
Since the late 80s, much of your writing has been for
academia. Essays, articles and papers are obviously a different
thing to write than short fiction or novels. Do you, as a writer,
find fulfillment in that form?
Yes. I think the writing of other writers about writing can
produce a kind of stabilization process -- and, as a window into
various traditions, it's helpful to other young writers. Books
like Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, How to Write,
and Lectures in America were wonderfully inspiring to me when I
read them as a seventeen- and eighteen-year-old. So was Forster's
Aspects of the Novel, as was Pound's ABC of Reading.
Stand close around, ye Stygian set
I memorized that Walter Savage Landor quatrain ("Dirce") out of
Pound's cantankerous and contentious meditations ("In his time
Samuel Johnson was the best mind in England -- except for those
months Voltaire was visiting London.") on what was good and what
was bad poetry, back when I first read it. When I can't remember
the year Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood's or in
which library the earlier manuscript version of The Times Machine
is on store, that still stays.
With Dirce on one barque convey'd,
Or Charon seeing, may forget
That he is old, and she a shade.
Jorge Luis Borges's lectures from the famous Charles Eliot
Norton series at Harvard for 1967, This Craft of Verse, form
another of those extraordinary books -- Borges is as humble in his
suggestions about literature as Pound is arrogant and
iconoclastic. Yet both are wonderful turn-ons for the young
writer contemplating the range of enterprises that (as they might
say in current critical jargon) constitute the literary.
Has your joining academia changed perceptions of your
Other people's or my own? Perhaps a few people find me more
of a curiosity now and so are willing to give some of my work a
look. If anything, though, I find my encounter with academia only
confirms me in my own sense of what literature (and literary
activity) is. First of all, it's not and never has been a
Concepts of what constitute good writing form a conflictual
field -- highly so and they always have. That is the only reason
why, say, simplicity and concision are just as much esthetic
virtues as ornamentation and rich ambiguity. It's also why either
one, out of control, can become an aesthetic failing -- dullness
and banality in the one case, and overwrought clutter in the
Do you feel your most significant contributions to the field
have/will come from a university setting, or as an author of
Writers write what the world compels them to write; and the
University nudges you strongly toward writing non-fiction.
Significance is not a factor in that -- because it's the one thing
the writer him- or herself has no access to. The eighteenth
century playwright Thomas Ottway very probably died more or less
sure he would go down in literary history as the greatest English
playwright of all time. During his lifetime, his work was
regularly compared to that of Shakespeare, and it was a critical
given of the time that his play Venice Preserved was a better
play than Hamlet.
But today how many people remember Ottway? Or have ever read
a line by him? If he survives at all, it's as a canonical example
of just how wrong-headed an era or a local and provisional set of
literary opinions can be.
As a writer, what are you capable of now that you weren't 30
Your question puts me in mind of Goethe's quip: "A man of
fifty knows no more than a man of twenty. They just know
different things." Indeed, I'm far more aware of the mad things I
did at twenty, things that, today, I simply wouldn't have the
gall to try -- I mean, even if, through whatever dumb luck, I came
close to pulling them off or a few readers were kind enough to
refrain from pointing out the number of times I just fell on my
Really, though: A writer's talking about what he or she is
capable of, like a writer's talking about the worth of his or her
own work, is a pretty good way for that writer to start sounding
like a pompous poseur.
Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is -- and is
only -- what its words make happen in the reader's mind. And all
readers are not the same.
Any reader has the right to say of any text: "But I didn't
think it was that good."
Only this morning, I talked to one of my graduate writing
students, whom I'd suggested read Flaubert's Un coeur simple -- one
of the greatest pieces of French prose by one of the giants of
early modernism. It's a tale that, the first time I read it,
struck up tears in my eyes; as well, I felt that I had been
exposed to -- no, I'd been struck to the center of my writerly
being with -- illuminations of the structure and texture from this
single woman's life in the French provinces a hundred-fifty-odd
years back. It's as close as work from a human hand can bring you
to that imagined moment where the Judeo-Christian God pulls back
His hem to reveal, beneath it, a moment of starkest suffering and
the human redemption into which the heart can recreate it.
"So what did you think?" I asked.
Frowning behind his glasses, my student told me: "It was an
okay story. But there was just so much description...."
The most carefully observed and meticulously organized
account of lived provincial working-class life in any language in
the world, I'm thinking: and to him, it's "just so much
description." While he went on to ask me: "Was all that
description supposed to be symbolic or something...?"
It was enough to make you start quoting Heidegger on "the
forgetting of Being" in our day.
But the point is, when the writer turns to address the
reader, he or she must not only speak to me -- naively dazzled and
wholly enchanted by the complexities of the trickery, and thus
all but incapable of any criticism, so that, indeed, he can
claim, if he likes, priestly contact with the greater powers
that, hurled at him by the muse, travel the parsecs from the
Universe's furthest shoals, cleaving stars on the way, to shatter
the specific moment and sizzle his brains in their pan, rattle
his teeth in their sockets, make his muscles howl against his
bones, and to galvanize his pen so the ink bubbles and blisters
on the nib (nor would I hear her claim to such as other than a
metaphor for the most profound truths of skill, craft, or
mathematical and historical conjuration) -- but she or he must also
speak to my student, for whom it was an okay story, with just so
This second -- and far more important -- task requires, however,
Copyright © 2001 Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in
journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several
in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction
articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia.
His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html