7 essays, 4 letters & 5 interviews

The reason I’ve been posting so little (not that anyone except comment-spammers reads this yet) is that I’ve been spending most of my writing time working on the comic. Looks like it’s going to be something like a six-issue series. However, to avoid making a total mockery of my desire to write regularly here, I’m going to post a brief book review. If I were a Real Blogger and had an Amazon affiliate network going, I could make five cents a click from: About Writing: 7 Essays, 4 Letters, & 5 Interviews, by Samuel R. Delany.

I picked this up at full price in a shabby little bookstore in Philadelphia, which would be no point of pride except that it is autographed. Delany teaches at Temple now, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want me wandering into his office, but it’s a real temptation. He’s up there with Gene Wolfe and Alan Moore in the pantheon of unabashedly unintelligible geniuses. His work isn’t as compelling as Wolfe’s or Moore’s, at least to me, but he’s also writing with the vigilance of an author who is not only well read, which most worthwhile authors are, but also immersed in teaching and writing criticism about what he reads. This is, naturally, code for saying that his place in the academy sets him apart. So be it; it does, and not only in his erudition, but also in his attitudes, which will probably constitute my focus in this post.

Like any good barely-published non-author, I regularly read books on writing. A few that leap to mind: Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES (borrowed without permission from a campus library and not yet returned), Stephen King’s ON WRITING and DANSE MACABRE, Ann Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, John Gardner’s THE ART OF FICTION and ON MORAL FICTION, Strunk & White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” (These, incidentally, beat Hell out of all blog posts on the subject and should be read in preference to them. Most widely read bloggers write much better than the average Princeton undergraduate, but their focus on conversational style often degenerates into breeziness and chummy affectation. This blog is, of course, not exempt from these criticisms.) The advice from these books overlaps considerably. This is satisfying in a Tolstoyan sort of way (“Every happy family is alike…”), and most people can benefit from another admonition to use the simplest, clearest words and sentences that will accomplish their goal.

But Delany is out for bigger game. He differentiates early and often between good writing and talented writing—not because he’s got some lexical investment in those terms, but because he’s after a distinction too often elided by the estimable books cited above. Good writing, pace Delany, is mostly a matter of avoidance: Avoid excessive use of adverbs, avoid ornamentation, avoid errors of grammar and usage. Talent is another matter:

As far as I can see, talent has two sides. The first side is the absorption of a series of complex models… The second side is the ability to submit to those models.

—”Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student”

Good writing is what makes a piece of writing bearable; talent is what makes it worth reading. Good writing is trained by practice and feedback; talent is trained by reading and thinking. Good writing entails clarity and order in information; talented writing entails density and novelty. This is interesting for more than lexical reasons. It’s not often a manual on writing tries to explain the difference between writing that avoids incompetence and writing that’s a pleasure to read; most either stick to the precepts of good writing or acknowledge the role of talent but leave its provenance a mystery. Delany doesn’t draw out all the links in his idea—clearly the arbitrary deployment of randomly selected literary models is not a recipe for good writing, and he doesn’t offer benchmarks for quality in selecting and implementing models—but his insight is more explicit than anyone else’s I’ve read, and it doesn’t turn on the traditional Calvinist cop-out of assigning authorial success to a mysteriously anointed group that just happened to be born with the spark. (It also doesn’t deny that cop-out, and neither do I, in the final analysis, but at the very least it provides an account of what the spark might be and how, given its presence, it might be fed.)

This book deserves deeper and less partial analysis than I’m prepared to give it. My shallow, biased opinions follow: Each piece is full of erudition, thoughtfulness, and digressions and evasions that only enrich Delany’s thought. He knows an enormous amount about literature and can pick a lengthy and apposite anecdote to elucidate almost any issue; his criticisms are kind and modest even at their most unsparing; his enthusiasms are a joy to share. I’ll definitely be pursuing Joanna Russ’s work and Delany’s own Neveryon books in the near future—after I finish rereading Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN…

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