In “Ash Wednesday,” the final text in Occasional Views, two volumes of essays, interviews, introductions, and Facebook posts, Samuel Delany describes his reputation as a writer: “sex radical, Afrofuturist, and grand master of science fiction.” This tripartite self-description is a good entry point for the newcomer to Delany’s prolific, diverse, and sometimes dizzying body of work. Sex radical: cult classic Times Square Red, Times Square Blue was an eloquent defense of public sex and cruising culture at the moment of New York’s Disneyfication, and his volume of letters, 1984, remains one of the most powerful documents of the early days of the AIDS crisis.
Afrofuturist: The term was coined by Mark Dery in a 1993 interview focused on Delany’s work. And grand master of science fiction: Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection received the Nebula Award for best work of science fiction in the United States when Delany was in his 20s, and he’s also won the prestigious Hugo Award twice. These accomplishments only begin to suggest the depth and breadth of the author’s contribution to literature.
For that reason, connoisseurs of his work can be thankful that, over the past few decades, Wesleyan University Press has been publishing new editions of out-of-print works like the four-volume Return to Nevèrÿon series (one of my faves), as well as presenting Delany’s criticism and interviews in collections such as Longer Views, Shorter Views, and now the two volumes of Occasional Views. In Volume 1, “More About Writing” and Other Essays, the writers about whom Delany is passionate form a through line that is likely to send anyone who hasn’t read, say, Theodore Sturgeon or Joanna Russ to the library. But his enthusiasms are not restricted to science-fiction authors — he also loves John Ashbery, Gustave Flaubert (particularly Sentimental Education), Willa Cather, and William Gaddis. One of the best essays here is Delany’s tour de force “Atlantis Rose …: Some Notes on Hart Crane.”
As the author explains elsewhere, this substantial piece of criticism forms a pendant to the studies he conducted in composing his intricately researched tale “Atlantis: Model 1924” (collected in Atlantis: Three Tales, also republished by Wesleyan). In addition to offering a capsule biography of Crane, a close reading of his poetry, and personal reflections on his love of the work, Delany explicates a theory of “homosexual genre,” which is more or less a queer hermeneutic for all works written before Stonewall, not just Crane’s. As Delany writes, “the aspect that might be cited as most characteristic of this genre or genres is that they are structured so that straight, gay, male, or female readers and critics can read the homosexuality out of them, for whatever reason, whenever it becomes necessary or convenient.” I’ve never been the biggest fan of Crane’s poetry, but Delany’s perceptive encomia were enough to send me back to The Bridge.
Delany’s critical insight has always been intersectional, as the previously unpublished and deeply provocative essay “Some Queer Notions on Race” makes plain. (“Race exists through potential pollution/procreation” is a characteristic formulation.) It’s clustered in the volume with the already-classic “Racism and Science Fiction,” as well as an interview with Octavia Butler, a former student. This is the kind of sequence that helpfully illuminates Delany’s recurring preoccupations, even as they occur across diverse texts over many years.
One reason these specimens of literary criticism, set next to interviews from science-fiction fanzines, read so well is that Delany has cultivated such a genial voice in his prose. Whatever he is writing about, the tone is perceptive, curious, and hospitable. However, this doesn’t restrain him from speaking with severity on occasion (check out his devastating takes on Nicole Krauss’s Great House or Paul Mariani’s biography of Hart Crane).
The title work of Volume 2, “The Gamble” and Other Essays, outlines the author’s risk calculus with respect to his sexual practices and the possibility of AIDS infection, which sets the tone for a somewhat more personal collection. Along with the interviews, both previously published and collected for the first time, texts like “A, B, C…: Preface and Afterword to Three Short Novels” furnish the in-depth biographical context for Delany’s literary production.
Which brings me back to the final text of the collection. Ostensibly his account of a trip from Philadelphia to New York to take part in a sex party, “Ash Wednesday” is quintessential late work – apparently wayward and desultory, and concerning a subject that many readers would find shocking, “Ash Wednesday” meditates on aging, sickness, death, and loss in a way I haven’t encountered before, in Delany’s work or anyone else’s. As Theodor Adorno writes in an essay on Beethoven’s final compositions, the author’s subjectivity “breaks [the bonds of art itself], not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art.”
Collections like Occasional Views suffer from the tension between honoring an author through maximum inclusion and defining a shape through careful curation. Although I’m grateful for these volumes, they include texts so slight that they could have been left out. Also, there are also a lot of typos! I noticed erroneous spellings of the names of scholar Jay Leyda, author Tananarive Due, and biographer Lew Ellingham, just to name three. With an author as precise as Delany, it feels important to get all the details right.
Neither of these finical points takes away from the inspiring pages of Occasional Views. Reading them left me feeling grateful to be alive at the same time as Samuel Delany, and to benefit from his decades of writing and criticism. It seems as though his work is always being rediscovered — I hope the publication of these essays contributes to a greater understanding of his unimpeachable stature.
Occasional Views Volume 1: “More About Writing” and Other Essays; Volume 2: “The Gamble” and Other Essays by Samuel R. Delany (2021) are published by Wesleyan University Press and are available on Bookshop and from independent bookstores.