About Writing

by Samuel R. Delany

Cover image

Publisher: Wesleyan
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 0-8195-6716-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 419

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Subtitled "7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews," this is a collection of Delany's writing on the topic of writing. The essays and interviews have all been previously published, but in scattered places that the average reader likely doesn't have access to. The subtitle also sells the book a bit short; there is, in addition, a rambling 58-page introduction and a 42-page appendix with more concrete hints and tips. Contrary to the way it's marketed, this is not a book only for writers. It is not full of writing advice; it's full of analysis and critique of why writing works and why it doesn't, remarks on what Delany looks for in writing, some insight into how writing works in the head of the writer (at least the head of Delany), and even some personal history and commentary.

The introduction is exceptional and worth the price of the book by itself. I bought this book after reading the introduction in The New York Review of Science Fiction and enjoyed it no less the second time. Delany talks about the difference between good and talented writing, the inadequacy of mere polish, the state of reading and writing, books and authors who influenced him, novelists most worth reading, what he looks for in writing, and numerous other topics. He drifts from one train of thought to another, but what the introduction lacks in structure it makes up for in approachable, knowledgable insight.

The essays read a bit like more sections of the introduction, but are more focused and in a few cases more didactic. All of them are short, twelve pages at the most, and are good to read between other things. Delany gets straight to the point and packs a lot of observation into his comments; I found it useful to mull an essay over for a bit before diving into the next one. It's this section of About Writing (apart from the appendix) that comes the closest to advice specifically aimed at writers, but even when Delany is dissecting a particular short story or advising intermediate and advanced students on narrative structure, I got quite a bit out of this as a reader. Knowing more about how a story is put together allows more appreciation of technical skill and more understanding of why a particular piece of writing doesn't work.

The letters and interviews range more broadly. One of the letters is a critical examination of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (a not particularly flattering one at that) that contains some fascinating analysis of racial themes and the nature of the novel. Two of the letters are to aspiring writers, one about artistic reputation and how it's established, and the other a beautiful response to unsolicited work asking why one writes, what one wants to get out of writing, and what it means to be a writer. The interviews include an extended discussion of experimental writing; a somewhat pointed response to questions about the interaction between writing, politics, editing, reviewing, and criticism; an excellent discussion of Delany's own writing, themes, chronology, and intentions; and a detailed examination of how the literary canon comes into being and how it changes. I liked the discussion of Delany's own work and history the best; now I have new-found desire to tackle more of his fiction.

Finally, the appendix is the most practical and prosaic section of the book, but even here Delany feels fresh and insightful even when talking about punctuation. The section on dramatic structure is excellent and would have fit in quite well with the earlier essays; the rest of the appendix is, at worst, a recap of some of the more interesting bits of high-school grammar.

Delany is a professor of English and creative writing and one of the most experimental of the well-known SF authors. This book is not always an easy read. The two Para•doxa interviews in particular are in the language of academic discussion and criticism, and while I'm sure the terms used allow more specificity and precision when discussing difficult concepts, I found them hard going. The interview on experimental fiction was mostly lost on me since both the language was difficult and the material was unfamiliar; the interview on the literary canon was more penetrable and quite worth reading, but I still found myself puzzling over or skipping past some paragraphs. Thankfully, most of the book is more approachable. Delany doesn't go out of his way to use difficult language or convoluted phrasings; rather, the depth of analysis he's trying to do sometimes requires technical language.

I expect a practicing writer will get more out of this book than I did (and indeed, many SF writers have been raving about it). It is not a how-to-write book, though, and I recommend it to perceptive readers who want to become better informed about what they're reading. Plus, it's simply entertaining, both for sharp observations about the craft and Delany's engaging enthusiasm for writing of every stripe. And if you want a barrage of recommendations for good reading material, About Writing will certainly oblige. I've added the rest of Delany's non-fiction collections to my to-purchase list.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-26

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21