On “Occasional Views, Volume 2” by Samuel Delany

SAMUEL R. DELANY Occasional Views has a decidedly minor title, and the book is filled with similarly minor-sounding pieces like “A Note on Ashbery”, “A Note on William Gaddis”, and “Two Introductions to Junot Díaz”. I want to cling to the smallness, smallness and humility of these titles. But at the same time, the book in an incredibly large and promotional material for Casual Views, Volume 2 speaks of Delany’s “awe-inspiring literary intelligence” and “one of the great writers of our time”. How to square the circle between such monumentality and the characteristic smallness of the volume? And hasn’t Delany always answered this question, always criss-crossing such circles in his approach to major and minor? Some of his major achievements seem too big to carry – Stars in my pocket like grains of sand (1984) takes such scalar incongruity as its very title.

Casual Views, Volume 2 is huge and exciting in its scope, with a wide variety of scriptures. There’s an essay about AIDS, sexual health, and how we navigate the messy interplay of hearsay and hard science in life (“The Gamble”). There’s a fascinating and thorough dismantling of the novels by Nicole Krauss, Lionel Shriver and Peter Carey that reads like a judge trying to dissuade other judges from awarding these works in an internal memorandum (“On Three Novels”). A letter to a college friend, later delivered as a lecture, discusses Delany’s sense that heterosexuals “are going to destroy the planet” because of patriarchy and their belief in their privileged access to procreation (“Brudner Prize Lecture , I”). There is a masterful account of the writing and editing of certain novels, with a story of the development of consilience between organisms and their environment, and sound, and nature, and fiction (“A, B, C…: Preface and Afterword to three short novels”). There is also a piece of writing about a group of older acquaintances visiting to have an orgy (“Ash Wednesday”).

I could characterize the collection by noting that it’s filled with gentle advice – “Be kind – to people, animals and strangers – because that’s how pieces of paradise can be spread” – and blunt warnings – “The way you cross borders – especially discursive borders – is to cross them. But I want to find a direct line by zooming in on a room in Casual Views, Volume 2, “Temple University Acceptance Speech” by Delany. He begins in the usual way, thanking fellow academics. But soon it extends not just to lowly administrators, but to cleaner Bob Graves; to Ritchie Jamalli senior and junior, who serve the coffee; and to Linda Tran, who serves pho. It’s only two pages, filled with the proper names of people I’ll never meet, but it could be the central essay of this book or the entire collection.

Since I read it, I imagined a book on thanks. I’m sure it’s written. It begins with prayers and spells and invocations of the muse, moves on to brief dedications to patrons and their loved ones, then discusses the passage to paragraphs and lists, and all the ways in which the legal fiction of intellectual property moves through authors. ‘ thanks. Acknowledgments are a space where personal and professional boundaries blur, and where it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a sense of what might be missing. They can be thank yous, signs of debts, purely functional, or networked with business card undertones. Emerging writers look to acknowledgment pages to understand the dynamics of groups of writers, agents, editors, publishers, to determine who is friends with whom. And if networks offer a potential way of thinking about them, we can invoke a distinction between Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), and suggest that reconnaissances are potentially also sites where contact can become visible. In the book I imagine on acknowledgments, a substantial section would be devoted to Delany’s work. The work we store under his name offers a wonderful laboratory for exploring recognitions. (Casual Views, Volume 1 has a refrain: it describes certain reactions within the networks of social relations as a “laboratory” to study something. The reactions to the Return to Nevèrÿon series become a laboratory for studying the genre, etc.)

This section on Delany would begin by discussing all the ways Delany must have worked under the label of genius or prodigy or enfant terrible and always repeat the ages at which he accomplished various incredible things – for example, as critical alter ego K. Leslie Steiner puts it: “In December 1962, when he was twenty years old, Ace published [The Jewels of Aptor].” And:

On March 11, 1967, Delany’s 1966 novel Babel-17 earned him his first Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America as the best SF novel of its year.

He was two weeks away from his twenty-fifth birthday.

It’s a classic Delany paragraph break, with a dramatic break. Shortly after, in the same song:[Nova] had been completed within two months after Delany turned twenty-five. He was now twenty-six, though many people, including Budrys, thought he was several years older. Being young while you finish a book or get published is clearly important for this critical alter ego to make others realize that Delany’s work deserves attention. When asked in an interview how important it was to him to be a prodigy, he also noted how more important it was to him to keep writing and editing than precocity or talent. K. Leslie Steiner’s article will also not let us forget that we only have this book thanks to the “editorial director of Wesleyan University Press, Terry Cochran” who “spearheaded a major movement” for bringing Delany back to print circa the early 1990s.

The book on acknowledgments I imagine would head towards his later work, in which these acknowledgments come out of their typical header and invade the body of the text. Delany’s work is deeply communal, and I think the collection of essays I’m reviewing make this clear. A few of these pieces were originally Facebook posts, such as “Notes on heart of darknessFacebook and Email Thread” and “Sympathy and Power: A Facebook Post” and “Absence and Fiction: More Recent Thoughts on The American coast.” In these pieces, responses from Delany’s friends are included. Much of his recent work has amplified his multivocality and highlighted the interrelationships upon which the works are based – the editor’s sidenotes in Of solids and deaf (2021) is included even in the audiobook. This dialogism can be part and parcel of a process where Delany continues to transition to someone who used to write rather than someone who writes. I think it also relates to how Fiction: A Brief Note responds to an academic call for papers and ends with a startlingly direct statement that an individual work of art can never be politically significant. It manages to hold a political position “only at the level of groups of works”. It is difficult to find a verb which would sufficiently mix Delany and multiplicity. But I don’t mean that Delany’s work is more multivocal than other texts, or that his reliance on other texts makes it more important, or that there’s a politics to showing all of this. All texts are multivocal even when trying to delete it; everyone’s writing depends on the writing of others even if the writing doesn’t prove it – having a good thank you page doesn’t always make good politics.

“Ikky, Kong, Frederic, Kurtz,” a lecture that began as a postscript to a letter, offers another discussion of Joseph Conrad’s work. heart of darknessthen approaches that of Peter Jackson King Kong (2005), an important film for Delany and an important intertext for Through the Valley of the Spider’s Nest (2012). Delany has this to say about a scene where Naomi Watts falls into a canyon alongside several dinosaurs:

The genius that one appreciates is in no way generated by the sequence itself, but simply in who or how anyone, even Peter Jackson, could imagine and organize such a set of individual actions, shots, grabs with missing jaws, sweeps with claws that connect now and now not with vines that hold for one, two, three hits, then break with the fourth, so a dinosaur, or Watts, falls, only to be caught again, either on a dinosaur arm or in a net of hanging vines, which a moment later sway because another of the dinosaurs reached out to him, almost caught him, but he got escaped from its clutches.

We have to read Delany against the grain here, in the spirit of his “Temple University Acceptance Speech.” Peter Jackson is probably not the only architect of the ridiculous scene described by Delany and is therefore not a singular genius in the usual sense. Probably one of the most common uses of the term genius today is shorthand for the popular site Genius.com, which began as a collective wiki to determine, in dialogue with other users, the content and meaning of rap lyrics. This website is an area where the creativity of many individuals is captured and valued, but there is a latent shift in genius as an individual to genius as a community.

Nisi Shawl, who provides a blurb for Casual View, Volume 1written in the acknowledgments of Everfair (2016): “Writing is a solitary act that expresses the genius of a community. Delany’s work is completely connected to other people, and not just in its production, but in its practice and the way it is made. It is friendly, it is rooted in community building just as it is often on that, and like so much else, it depends deeply on the work of editors, reviewers and his personal assistant. [1] Casual Views, Volume 2 is, ultimately, a collection less interested in the virtuosity of a singular and commanding intelligence than in sharing as much as one can in any way one can. And in every way you can imagine, it’s not meant to be read on its own.

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Robert Kiely is the author of quivering of a declarative void (2020), Incomparable Poetry, an essay on the 2007-8 financial crisis and Irish literature (2020), and Gelpack Allegory (2021). Born in Ireland, he currently lives in London.

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[1] Delany mentioned the work his sister undertook to care for her mother, and thus “enabled me to continue writing during this time”.

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