The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Matthew Cheney Interviews Samuel R. Delany

Jeff VanderMeer on August 23, 2009

  (Samuel R. Delany, as photographed by Kyle Cassidy, whose books are also available on Amazon.)

I had one of the truly revelatory experiences of my teen years when I read Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. In terms of the ways you can consciously work on your style and alter your approach to writing fiction, that book has had as much influence on my fiction as anything else I read as a beginning writer--and it surely permeated my subscious as well. For one thing, Delany's essays were the first I'd read that approached non-realist fiction (genre fiction, if you prefer) in a serious fashion and confirmed that I wasn't wrong in thinking of what I was doing as part of a continuum of literature. For another, his views on how we read seemed to me like an articulation, amplification, and extension of what I'd always thought in my heart but never been able to express.

Now Wesleyan University Press has released a new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, complete with words of praise from Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz, revisions and expansions of the original essays, and a new introduction by Matthew Cheney. Cheney is a columnist for Strange Horizons, a widely published fiction writer, and a former World Fantasy Award finalist for his cross-genre literary blog The Mumpsimus. Given Cheney's involvement in this new edition, I thought it appropriate for him to not only give Omnivoracious readers more context on Delany, but also to interview Delany. You'll find the fascinating results below the cut. - Jeff


Matthew Cheney Interviews Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany (whom his friends and students call “Chip”) is a novelist and critic who lives in New York and teaches English at Temple University in Philadelphia. His fiction includes The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, The Mad Man, Atlantis: Three Tales, Phallos, and Dark Reflections. His nonfiction includes Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paralitery; Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews; and an autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. His work has won him multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, the Pilgrim Award for outstanding scholarship in science fiction studies, the Lambda Literary Foundation's Pioneer Award, and the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a lifetime’s contribution to Lesbian and Gay Literature.

I first met Chip when he was looking for someone to write an introduction to a revised edition of his first essay collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. A mutual friend suggested to him that I might be able to handle it, and so one day I came home to a phone call from one of my literary heroes asking me to write about a book that had had a profound effect on my life.

The new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw has recently been released by Wesleyan University Press. For this interview, I emailed Chip some questions that I thought new readers to the book might have, and here are his replies:

Matthew Cheney for What led you to want to write nonfiction about science fiction?

Samuel R. Delany: As a child I was an omnivorous reader. I read War and Peace when I was thirteen and Ulysses when I was seventeen. Between them I devoured Faulkner and Proust. It’s not bragging, nor would I recommend it to any bright kid. Vast amounts of everything I tried to take in went wildly over my head. Still, for most of the book Tolstoy’s heroine, Natasha, is between thirteen and sixteen—so easily you could read its hundreds and hundreds of pages as if it were a young adult novel gone to seed. And that’s what I did. (By the novel’s end, after seven more or less off-stage years of marriage with Pierre, she’s a fat, sluggish, older woman of twenty-three, who’s lost all her charm and vivacity!) Not the way to read War and Peace, let me tell you!

Nevertheless, I had some astonishing experiences, and I quickly learned that reading fiction produced in me two highly distinct pleasures. One was the pleasure of story. But far more intense was an extremely vivid, all-but-transcendentally intense experience from some of the words themselves. One I still recall—yes, from the opening pages of Ulysses—was Joyce’s description of Buck Mulligan’s hair like pale, grained oak...and suddenly Mulligan, fleshy, jovial, course, and blond, was momentarily in my third-floor bedroom with me in Harlem on 7th Avenue at 132 Street.

It was amazing!

Another came from the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, in his story “Granny Won’t Knit,” I believe, where a young boy experiences a moment of sadness, and Sturgeon wrote something like, “A hand rose up inside his head and scratched down the inside of his face, making his eyes water,” and my own face got chills as my own eyes teared.

I found language doing this in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and the other three novels of the Alexandria Quartet. I found it doing this in James Agee’s A Death in the Family and in science fiction writer Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. I found it in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse and The Waves; and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Spillway stories; Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica and In Hazard; and Nabokov's Lolita.

I noticed, too, that I found almost none of this in novels translated from other languages, even when the introductions suggested that, in the original, this is precisely what made the books great. Now why was that...?

I also noticed that, in a writer like Ray Bradbury (and many others, inside and outside science fiction, with the reputation for writing “poetically”), sentence after sentence came close to doing this, but somehow it was as if the writer blinked at just the wrong moment or let his attention wander, so that some slight verbal awkwardness slipped in and the effect didn’t quite came off with the intensity it had with these other writers, writers who went on to include William Gass and Guy Davenport, Thomas Brown and Thomas de Quincy, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare (yes, say it once more), Shakespeare, Joanna Russ, Baron Corvo, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Herman Melville, and Stephen Crane . . .

By now you’ll have noticed how many of them—Sturgeon, Russ, Bester—are science fiction writers.

Basically I wanted to produce such effects. Then, I wanted to write about how language produced them. Really, that’s what’s behind an essay like “About 5,750 Words.” The ideas about “levels of subjunctivity” are there only to justify the initial analysis of how and when, in the phrase that the first half of the piece analyses, that wonderful spark—for some readers—leaps the gap and manages to illuminate another world.

Cheney: Of your essays, “About 5,750 Words” is probably the one I’ve seen most frequently cited by science fiction fans and critics, particularly its ideas of “levels of subjunctivity” within written texts. This essay, though, dates from very early in your career, and I imagine you would not want a reader to stop there among your critical writings. How do you feel about that essay now? What should a reader who found “About 5,750 Words” insightful continue on to read?

Delany: Recommending your own work is always a dicey game. That is to say, once I’d written a handful of science fiction novels, by the late sixties I was noticing things that made the language of the SF-story unique. So, in a series of essays over the next decade—“Science Fiction and Literature,” “Dichtung und Science Fiction” (essays you’ll find in next year’s rerelease of Starboard Wine)—I began to write about these differences. Certainly the one where I pulled out most of the stops, as it were, was the first one, “To Read The Dispossessed,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. (The title of the book is a phrase I took from Thomas Disch’s wonderful SF novel Camp Concentration. Disch and Zelazny are two other writers that should be on that list.) Yes, I had begun to realize that there was a tenuous connection between the way language was used in the tales that did this and that odd story pleasure—but a connection subtle enough to fill volumes. I also noted how many of the ones who did this in things written after 1870 seemed to revere Gustave Flaubert, in French, as if he’d taught them something important. And I had begun to note how they worked to keep their language as clean as possible so that nothing got in the way of these effects when they came about—as though, yes, the verbal context around them was everything...or close to it.

Cheney: In the central essay of the new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, “To Read The Dispossessed,” you offer some strong criticisms of Le Guin’s novel—a novel that won major awards and is often cited as a classic of science fiction. Are such accolades misplaced, do you think?

Delany: Not at all. Le Guin’s novel is wonderfully ambitious, and, as I write towards the end of that essay, what Le Guin’s novel tries and fails to accomplish, very little American fiction even makes a stab at. I say: Read it. Revel in it. Learn from it.

Cheney: What is the origin of the last essay in the book before the appendices, “A Fictional Architecture That Only Manages with Great Difficulty Not Once to Mention Harlan Ellison”? Was Harlan Ellison annoyed that you went to such effort not once to mention him?

Delany: Harlan has never expressed any annoyance about that essay at all. I would be very surprised if he did. His name in the title is a mark of what an extraordinary presence he was in the field when I wrote the piece. That was the time he was putting together and publishing his genre-changing anthology Dangerous Visions.
I think it would be rather difficult for someone—someone a part of the SF community of writers, readers, and fans—who didn’t live through that period, from ’sixty-five through ’seventy-one, to have a sense of how ubiquitous Elison’s name—and the energy associated with it—was.
The essay is basically an experiment in autobiographical impressionism. That’s all. It functions as a contextual sketch of what the life I was living at the time felt like, especially those first trips to Europe—for all the people who had awarded the Nebula to The Einstein Intersection and enjoyed the journal entries scattered through it.

Cheney:  The new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw includes two appendices, one an open letter to Leslie Fiedler that was originally part of the main text of the book, and the other a piece called “Midcentury: An Essay in Contextualization.” What led you to create the appendices in the new edition? What does “Midcentury” contextualize?

Delany: In the first edition, the letter—not exactly an open letter to Fiedler—was the book’s introduction, under the title “Letter to a Critic.” It was full of specifics about publishing at the time with names and figures. Today the companies themselves no longer exist. The numbers are entirely other. So it’s now been relegated to a historical appendix.

“Midcentury” is a back-look at the nineteen-fifties—originally written for the volume I helped (ever so slightly!) Josh Luken edit, Fifties Fictions—out of which the ferment of the 1960s blossomed. Perhaps more important, it’s an attempt to talk about how whole sets of ideas move into—and out of—a culture, so that for a while certain things are much easier to understand—and certain others become much harder. In what’s getting close to seventy years, I’ve seen this happen three or four times. The current retreat from science in this country—I’ve already seen several books on the topic—that the “information explosion” is prompting, coupled with the overload of the usual “epistemological filters” (my own term), is one of the most important and potentially damaging. It manifests itself in everything from denials of global warming and its effects, denials of evolution, the—by the same process—denials of the Holocaust, and the rise of fundamentalisms—as well as the superceding of science fiction by fantasy fiction. I believe all are facets of a single trend, in which increased population and the failure of social benefits to keep up with them on several levels are the greatest drivers.

Cheney: The last sentence of the very first paragraph of text in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is “This book is not an introduction to its subject.” Aside from having a general interest in science fiction, what does a reader need to appreciate these essays? (My mother wanted to get a better grasp of it all, so I pointed her toward Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. She said it helped.)

Delany: One of the things that hamstrung early SF criticism is that every book was a general reader introduction. (These are both Blish and Knight, despite their brilliance and originality.) Well, I wasn’t a fourteen year old newcomer getting ready to read my third SF novel, looking for a definition I could give to some high school teacher who’d challenged me for wasting my time. When I was into my twenties and had been a publishing writer for half a dozen years, that’s not whom I saw roaming the halls of convention hotels by the hundreds. We knew its history. We’d read hundreds upon hundreds of examples. We’d published—and read—thousands and thousands of pages of fanzine articles and reviews, and—as a group—had read them since the 1930’s, the ’twenties. I wanted a book I—that is to say, we—could read and enjoy. So I wrote it.
I hope the book, especially in this edition, is self contained. That’s one of the reasons for not including the mega-essay “Shadows.” (30 thousand words; “Midcentury” replaces it as an appendix.) As you say in your own introduction, “Shadows” is available as an appendix to my Wesleyan collection Longer Views, where interested readers can find it. Also, “Shadows” is a kind of show-offy piece that requires you to have at least some familiarity with much of the burgeoning intellectual work of the ’sixties and early ’seventies—or at least to recognize names that were “hot” back then—from intellectual pop figures like Korzybski, to Ryle, Charbonier, and Edmund Leach, but who are no longer particularly current; or current in the same way. Moving it to another book also removes the greatest barrier to general understanding in the collection.

Cheney:  Finally, the question all good book bloggers are required to ask: Read any good books lately?

Delany: My last ten months have been taken up entirely with my current novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I haven’t had time to read my name on the mailbox as I come in my apartment!

During that time I taught some interesting classes, however, and for them I had to read and reread some intriguing works—some of which I’ve mentioned. Longus’s Daphnis and Chloë was one. Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves was another. We read Cyril Connolly’s stunningly fine Enemies of Promise—a book all writers need to read—and Melville’s “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno,” Russ’s “Souls,” Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” a short novel that can’t be read too frequently; Cather’s “My Mortal Enemy,” ditto; Barnes’s Nightwood, double ditto (I’ve been through it more than 35 times at this point, and it metamorphoses completely for me each time I do); and Joyce’s “The Dead,” and, yes, Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica.
Then there’s the novel I send everyone to read who asks me such a question: Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.

As either reading or rereading, with time to think about them, that’s should keep anyone busy for a few months. - New York City, August 12, 2009

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