Diary: Samuel R. Delany on Crisis and Experiment (Part One)

Samuel R. Delany in the 1980s, with books (portrait from the City of Vancouver archives, photographer unknown)

Only two of my novels started out as specifically experimental and specifically responses to crises. One was a social crisis, and the other was a personal one.

The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals began quite baldly as a response to the AIDS crisis back in 1983—that is, it grew out of a sense of that crisis. Because of the topicality and urgency of my own undertaking, I felt it was worth the risk to hoist up on my own shaky shoulders the burden of the experimental when I decided to take on AIDS, life, and death in a novel started in 1983 and finished in June of ’84.

The judgment of the crisis was not that I must reach as many people as possible; rather it was: the people I reach I must reach as intensely as possible. I wanted to create a reading experience at least as intense as the most intense novelistic reading experiences I had had—the ones given me by Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird,” Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (a.k.a. Tiger, Tiger!).

My publisher was bewildered by the manuscript—and through a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), which contained the novel The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, over two printings only sold 85,000 copies. At the time, my other books were selling in the 150,000–250,000 range. I’m still convinced that if my publishers had dared to print the book in the same numbers in which they had printed my others, it would have sold equally well, if not better, but I’m also convinced that among those readers who read it, it got the effect I wanted: AIDS was fixed in their attention as something important, so that when new information arrived it could and would be dealt with, rather than sloughed off and ignored. That was 85,000 readers back when there were only some 8,000 cases of the disease. However local the accomplishment, I felt I had done what I set out to, but to write that book, I said, even if I don’t use all of it, I’ve got to have the full range of the contemporary aesthetic armamentarium from which to choose. The strongest motivation behind the experiment was simple: “I’ve got things to say, and they are too important to fit them within the structures of narrative fiction as usually presented.” For such motivation to produce other than chaos, however, it presumes in the writer a history of reading and seeing what can be done outside those structures, of what’s to be won by going outside.

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In June 1993, I completed a short novel, Atlantis: Model 1924, which has the distinction of being the most heavily researched novel I ever wrote. That short novel began almost entirely as a critical consideration of James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Joyce’s novel is organized around Homer’s Odyssey. In much the same way, I decided to organize my novel around Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930). Before I started (and while I was actually) writing, I filled pages and pages with phrases, most of them from books about Crane and studies of the period, to work them into my text.

When a piece is conceived so cerebrally, at a certain point something has to ground it. I was sure the work would be biographical—but where in my own life I would find the particular passage to interrogate, I didn’t know.
(Read Part Two of this post here!)

Samuel R. Delany is the author of over forty published works of fiction, memoir, literary criticism, and comics, including the pioneering works of science fiction Dahlgren, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand. This post is drawn from his new book Of Solids and Surds, the fourth in the Yale University Press series, “Why I Write.”

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