I’m teaching part of an AS Level English Literature class this year, including the creative writing component. As I finally got around to reading this, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why didn’t I read this at the beginning of the school year? I could teach practically the whole class using this.” As it is, I ended up photocopying three of the essays for my students to mull over. About Writing, despite its embrace of the traditionally generic title, stands above many other “how to write” books. Samuel R. Delany brings the same skill he has for fiction writing to his non-fiction, making for passionate and intelligent discourse on the art of writing.
And I mean discourse. The letters and interviews portions of the book are Delany responding directly to someone—whether it’s a single person, or the questions posed by an interviewer or panel. Most of his essays, too, are framed as some kind of response. Delany brings to bear his considerable experience not just as a writer but as a critic and a professor of literature. As a result, he delivers advice at a very high level, using concepts and syntax that would definitely daunt the beginning writer (or reader). This is not a book for a beginning writer! For writers looking to deepen their writing, however, and for readers who would like to think more explicitly about what makes writing good, Delany has produced in this a book a valuable voice in that discussion.
I love how authentic Delany sounds. He never professes to have the one true word on what makes writing good; he never says, “These are the rules.” Instead, he leads the reader on a didactic journey in which he models different types of writing—good and bad—and analyzes for us why some writing works and other writing does it. He emphasizes that it all comes down to the effect the writer tries to achieve. Perhaps more importantly, he reminds the writer that it’s the reader doing most of the work—and the reader isn’t always going to assemble the same vision for a story that the writer has in their mind.
This model of the writer–reader interaction is a valuable component to About Writing. Delany takes a very psychological approach to storytelling. It’s not sufficient to put interesting words on a page; the writer needs to anticipate how a reader will react to those words. There is no way to force a certain reaction, no guarantee that the reader is going to see a character or a scene the same way that the writer does. Instead, the best a writer can do is hint and manipulate with all the tools at their disposal.
Delany extends the idea of the model to encompass different methods of constructing novels. This is consistent with that acceptance of a multiplicity of ways of writing. There is no one perfect structure. Rather, what matters most is that the writer acknowledges such structures exist and internalizes those structures by reading them. Then one can recreate the structure one wants to use, or create new variations. And though it’s fine to experiment, Delany emphasizes time and again that the writer needs to anticipate the reader’s reaction—and readers like structures that they can figure out.
Delany’s discussion of the story process, the literary marketplace, and the importance of such entities as the “canon” all take place at a very high level, verging at times upon the academic. This is not a beach read. It’s not even something I would recommend reading all the way through in a few consecutive sittings. Its very nature—seven essays, four letters, five interviews—makes it very easy to read over a few weeks, maybe a month. I didn’t do that, of course, because I am an incorrigible, impatient bibliophile who swallows books whole and burps out the bindings. But you should know better….
About Writing also provides insight into Delany himself, of course. I find this valuable because his fiction is so interesting but also often challenging. Now that he has made explicit some of the choices he made while writing it, I feel like I might understand it more if I go back and re-read it (or tackle another one of his works). Moreover, now I can see that his work is even more intertextual than is initially apparent—and though I am quite well read, I am far behind Delany in that regard, and I have a lot of work ahead of me if I ever want to get most—let alone all—of the allusions and symbolism latent in his text.
Indeed, this is an excellent book for writers who want some guidance on how to think about their craft. (Notice I didn’t say, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”. I wish I read this book before teaching creative writing, and I’m sharing some of the essays, but I would never just toss it in the hands of a new writer and say, “Read it.”) Yet About Writing is more than a book for writers: it has a lot of value for active readers as well. Readers who are interested in the aesthetics of the craft, who want to think about how and why writers make the choices they do, will learn a lot from this book.
Highly recommended for writers and readers alike, About Writing is one of my favourite works of Delany’s that I’ve read to date. And now I feel more prepared to read some more.