A note on genre from Samuel R. Delany

220px-Delany_encycOne of the most intelligent writers of science fiction is a New Yorker named Samuel R. Delany who has spent his life pushing the boundaries of genre fiction. His work is disturbing, highly sexual, ground-breaking, lyrical, frequently brilliant, and has won multiple important awards. (If you think cyberpunk was invented in the 1990s, you need to read his 1968 novel Nova.) None of it is easy to take, but almost all of it is important. One of his books was the only thing I’ve ever read that actually made me vomit; I’ve read that book twice. And I’ve learned more new words from reading Delany than any other fiction writer.

Today I found a piece in the New Yorker that contained an observation about how genre fiction works that I thought was worth sharing — and because I don’t want to lose it in a file of clippings, I share it here.

“[H]e does not believe that science fiction is the right genre for his concerns any more or less than another genre would be. “Nothing about the sonnet is perfect for the love poem, either,” he said. “Genre simply provides a way for the reader to look for things that have been done. A form is a useful thing to use. It has history and resonance. It informs you as to the way things have been done in the past.” In the preface to [his latest publication], Delany writes that, “though the genre can suggest what you might need, it can never do the work for you.”

These are simple words but they have a lot of profound meaning, given that this writer understands genre fiction on a profound level. And he has four Nebula Awards to prove it.

One of the interesting things to me is that this quotation applies to detective fiction — and any other type of genre fiction you can imagine. It’s only rarely that genre fiction manages to transcend itself and show everyone how writing is done, but I’ll suggest that paying attention to Delany is more likely to make that happen than anything else I can think of.

6 thoughts on “A note on genre from Samuel R. Delany

  1. Good call Noah – been a long while since I read the admirable Delaney, who I wish were less deliberately impenetrable. but that doesn’t always stop me (love Faulkner for instance).

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Up until a few years ago I could say I’d read everything he ever wrote — I made a point of tracking down his journal essays and the like — but I’ve rather fallen behind in the last while. I think “Triton” is an amazing novel, I’ve read it many times — subtle but not impenetrable like, say, “Dhalgren”.

      • I don’t have TRITON on my shelves, so thanks for that. And speaking of early begetters of steam punk and whatnot, do you not think Zelazny got there first with regard to THE DREAM MASTER / HE WHO SHAPES in compairson to say NEUROMANCER?

      • Noah Stewart says:

        There you’ve got me; I’ve never particularly enjoyed Zelazny and haven’t read that volume. I’m a bit prejudiced about William Gibson — he and I used to run into each other in the same Vancouver thrift shop just down the street from my former bookstore, and I didn’t know him as a writer, just a keen-eyed rival for bargains. Imagine my surprise when I showed up at a signing one day and recognized him!

      • Cool anecdote Noah – one is very impressed – best I can muster is the lovely Ben AAronovich

  2. Noah Stewart says:

    (smiling) I wish I had a more interesting anecdote about Delany himself. To the best of my knowledge I interacted with him twice in New York in the late 1970s but although I was very familiar with his work at that point, I had no idea he was black and never connected the “Chip” I’d met with the Delany I’d read. It was only a few years later when I saw a picture of him that the light bulb formed over my head. I really really regret not realizing at the time. We certainly never talked about writing, to my eternal chagrin.

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