One 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.