Silent Interviews

by Samuel R. Delany

Cover image

Publisher: Wesleyan
Copyright: 1994
ISBN: 0-8195-6280-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 311

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A "silent interview" is an interview done in writing rather than in speech. In this collection of ten interviews of Samuel R. Delany (plus one interview by him), some were taped and then revised and expanded later and some were written from the start. Apart from that, they have little in common, ranging in topic from literary criticism through comic books to questions of sexuality and race, with an appendix talking about opera.

Delany offers a persuasive enough advocacy and discussion of the written interview in the introduction and in one of the interviews that I was left wondering why more interviews with writers aren't in this form. The written word is, after all, where a writer expresses themselves the most, with the most practice, and therefore is likely to achieve the most clarity. Unless the purpose of the interview is to somehow surprise from the interviewee some admission or unwise statement, it stands to reason that a written interview would more accurately reflect their thoughts. Spoken interviews just impose constraints, not just of length but of time to think, formulate a good answer, and analyze the question. It's odd that we think of spoken interactions as some how more "real," favoring the immediate reaction over the more thoughtful consideration, when the latter is how most of us would prefer to do our work.

Delany raises several other thoughts in these interviews that stayed with me, but digging in to understand those thoughts was at times rough going. I picked up this book on the strength of About Writing, and Delany's thoughts on science fiction, writing, genre, and race are just as interesting here, but About Writing is far more approachable. More of the interviews here are in the language of criticism and academic discussion, tackle literary theory, and contain subtle distinctions and complex analyses using words whose precise meanings I'm not comfortable with. Sometimes Delany moves outside my reading vocabulary entirely ("tenebrium" or "apothegm") and I usually don't read with a dictionary handy; more frequently, he uses terms whose vague definitions I know and whose meaning I can grasp in contexts where I know all the other terms well (overdetermined contexts, Delany would say), but when they come too frequently I start losing track of the point. "Poststructuralism," "interrogation of text," "praxis," "ontological," "mediates" — I know all the words, but I'm not familiar enough with the connotations and shades of meaning to easily follow a complex argument constructed using those terms.

This difficulty is discussed strikingly in one of the interviews, where Delany makes the argument that difficult discourse, that writing or speaking such that one has to devote a lot of attention to understanding the argument, serves a valuable rhetorical purpose. Plain-spoken language, a common ideal of US culture, is less-frequently questioned. Even if one doesn't agree with a particular idea, when presented in everyday language it carries immediate comfort of familiarity since one has probably heard similar things said before. Difficult, abtruse arguments, on the other hand, are greeted with more natural suspicion. Many people will pass them over entirely (better than receiving them without challenge); those who are willing to dig deep to find the meaning are more willing to then question, argue, and debate the point. Difficult language is harder to abuse because it doesn't fall as easily into well-worn mental patterns and received wisdom.

That's one of several intriguing points Delany raises, where I was able to follow his discussion through the language. Another is his discussion of SF as a genre. He argues there cannot be a true definition of SF because there are no characteristics that are both necessary and sufficient to make a work SF, but that there can still be a description. He talks at some length about SF as the literature of the object rather than the subject, literature about things or ideas rather than about people. I've heard this distinction before, but I think Delany does a particularly good job discussing it and defends SF on its own grounds as a different way of looking at (and, more centrally, reading about) the world rather than making it meet the same measure of quality as literature with a different native reading style. He also discusses some of the constructed history around the genre and how it differs from the factual history, as well as some of the myths that have grown around SF movements and how they started. I particularly liked his comment on movements that were supposedly antagonistic to the prevailing SF style of the time, a very common historical myth inconsistent with the significant immediate popularity of those movements with the audience they were supposedly reacting against.

As with About Writing, I enjoyed Delany's personal anecdotes when they came up during interviews. His life, background, and experiences are very different from mine; reading those experiences gives me a window into a different perspective. There isn't as much commentary on the process of writing and publishing as there is in About Writing — most of the anecdotes are more personal, often related to race — but one of the interviews is an extended analysis of what Delany was trying to accomplish with Howard Chaykin in the graphic novel Empire. Much of that story is enjoyable in a train wreck fashion (the editing was apparently a rather thorough botch). But that interview also brings out Delany's appreciation for comic books as a medium and some thoughtful observations on how they differ from books and how narrative flow and panel structure work in a comic book. In general, throughout the interviews, I liked it best when Delany could demonstrate his point with a specific anecdote.

This was hard going compared to what I normally read, and I fear there are large sections that I would have to go back and re-read carefully with a dictionary on-hand to truly understand. The interviews towards the end of the book I found easier going than the ones at the start, but I'm not certain whether that was because the language became clearer or whether I started to get used to it. This book will be the most interesting to someone who has done some reading in the history and theory of SF, who is interested in literary criticism in general, and who is willing to put some time and effort into understanding and absorbing the ideas of someone who has put a lot of thought into the field for many years. Read About Writing first; it's more approachable and its harder sections will give you an idea of whether you want to tackle this.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21