Acknowledgment: On Samuel Delany’s “Occasional Views, Volume 2”

By Robert KielyMarch 5, 2022

Acknowledgment: On Samuel Delany’s “Occasional Views, Volume 2”

Occasional Views, Volume 2: “The Gamble” and Other Essays by Samuel R. Delany

SAMUEL R. DELANY’S Occasional Views has a decided 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 hold on to the minor-ness and smallness and humility of these titles. But at the same time, the book is incredibly capacious, and promotional material for Occasional Views, Volume 2 speaks of Delany’s “towering literary intelligence” and as “one of the great writers of our time.” How can we square the circle between such monumentality and the volume’s characteristic small-ness? And hasn’t Delany always been answering this question, always been squaring such circles in his approach to major and minor? Some of his major achievements feel too big to carry around — Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) takes such scalar incongruity as its very title.

Occasional Views, Volume 2 is immense and thrilling in scope, with a wide variety of writing. 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 thoroughgoing takedown of novels by Nicole Krauss, Lionel Shriver, and Peter Carey that reads like a judge trying to dissuade other judges from giving an accolade to these works in an internal memorandum (“On Three Novels”). A letter to an academic 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’s a magisterial account of the writing and revision of some novels, with a history 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’s also a piece of life-writing about visiting a group of older acquaintances to have an orgy (“Ash Wednesday”).

I could characterize the collection by noting that it is filled with gentle advice — “Be kind — to people and animals and strangers — because that is how bits of paradise can be spread” — and blunt admonitions — “The way you cross boundaries — especially discursive boundaries — is to cross them.” But I want to find a through-line by zooming in on one piece in Occasional Views, Volume 2, Delany’s “Acceptance Speech at Temple University.” It begins in the usual manner, thanking academic colleagues. But soon it expands not only to lowly administrators but to the cleaner Bob Graves; to Ritchie Jamalli senior and junior, who serve coffee; and to Linda Tran, who serves pho. It is only two pages, filled with the proper names of people I will never meet, but it might be the central es­say of this book or the entire collection.

Since reading it, I’ve been imagining a book about acknowledgments. I’m sure it is being written. It begins with prayers and spells and invocations of the muse, moves on to brief dedications to patrons and loved ones, and then discusses the shift to paragraphs and lists, as well as all the ways in which the legal fiction of intellectual property moves through authors’ acknowledgments. 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 network-y with shades of a business card. Emerging writers look at acknowledgment pages to figure out the dynamics of writers’ groups, agents, editors, publishers, to figure out who is friends with who. And if networks offer one potential way to think of them, we can invoke a distinction from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), and suggest that acknowledgments are potentially also sites where interclass contact can become visible. In the book I am imagining on acknowledgments, a substantial section would be devoted to the work of Delany. The work we shelve under his name offers a wonderful lab in which to explore acknowledgments. (Occasional Views, Volume 1 has a refrain: it describes certain reactions inside networks of social relation as a “laboratory” in which to study something. Reactions to the Return to Nevèrÿon series become a lab in which to study genre, etc.)

This section on Delany would start out by discussing all the ways in which Delany had to labor 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 says: “In December 1962, when he was twenty, Ace published [The Jewels of Aptor].” And:

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

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

This is a classic Delany paragraph break, doubling as dramatic pause. Soon after, in the same piece: “[Nova] had been completed in the two months after Delany turned twenty-five. He was now twenty-six, though many people, including Budrys, were under the impression he was several years older.” Being young while you finish a book or get published is clearly important for this critical alter ego in driving home to others that Delany’s work deserves attention. When asked in an interview how important it was to him to be a prodigy, he also notes how much more important continuing to write and edit was to him than precociousness or talent. The K. Leslie Steiner piece also will not let us forget that we only hold this very book due to the “Wesleyan University Press editorial director Terry Cochran” who “spearheaded a major move” to bring Delany back into print around the early 1990s.

The book on acknowledgments I’m imagining would move toward his late work, in which those acknowledgments break out of their typical heading and swarm the body text. Delany’s work is deeply communal, and I think the collection of essays I am reviewing makes this clear. A few of these pieces were originally Facebook posts, such as “Notes on Heart of Darkness: A Facebook and Email Thread” and “Sympathy and Power: A Facebook Post” and “Absence and Fiction: More Recent Thoughts on The American Shore.” In these pieces, the replies of Delany’s friends are included. Much of his recent work has amped up its multivocality and highlighted the interrelationships on which the works rest — the copyeditor’s marginalia in Of Solids and Surds (2021) is included even in the audiobook. This dialogism may 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 relates too to the way in which “Fiction: A Brief Note” responds to an academic call for papers and ends in a startlingly blunt statement that an individual work of art can never be politically significant. It can only manage to hold a political stance “at the level of groups of artworks.” It is difficult to find a verb that would sufficiently entangle Delany and multiplicity. But I don’t want to say that Delany’s work is more multivocal than other texts, nor that its reliance on other texts makes it more important, nor that there is a politics to showing all of that. All texts are multivocal even when they try to suppress it; everyone’s writing is reliant on the writing of others even if the writing doesn’t evince this — having a good acknowledgments page doesn’t always make for good politics.

“Ikky, Kong, Frédéric, Kurtz,” a lecture which started as a postscript to a letter, offers another discussion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, then touches on Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), an important movie for Delany and an important intertext for Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012). Delany has this to say on a scene where Naomi Watts is falling into a canyon alongside several dinosaurs:

The genius that we appreciate is not in any meaning generated by the sequence itself, but simply in who or how anyone, even Peter Jackson, could have thought up and organized such a collection of individual actions, shots, grabs with jaws that miss, swipes with claws that now connect and now don’t with vines that hold for one, two, three swipes, then break with the fourth, so a dinosaur, or Watts, drops down, only to be caught again, either on a dinosaur arm or in a net of hanging vines, which a moment later are swinging because another of the dinosaurs has reached out, almost caught it, but it has slipped free of its talons.

We must read Delany against the grain here, in the spirit of his “Acceptance Speech at Temple University.” Peter Jackson is probably not the only architect of the ridiculous scene Delany describes and so is not a singular genius in the usual sense. One of the most common uses of the term genius nowadays is probably as a shorthand for the popular site, which started out as a collective wiki for figuring out, in dialogue with other users, the content and meaning of rap lyrics. That website is an area where the creativity of many individuals is captured and made profitable, but there is latent in this a shift from genius as individual to genius as community.

Nisi Shawl, who provides a blurb for Occasional View, Volume 1, writes in the acknowledgments of Everfair (2016): “Writing is a solitary act that expresses the genius of a community.” Delany’s body of work is completely entangled with other people, and not just in its output but in its practice and in how it gets made. It is convivial, it is rooted in community-building just as it is frequently about that, and, like so much else, it is deeply dependent on the work of editors, copyeditors, and his personal assistant. [1] Occasional Views, Volume 2 is, finally, a collection less interested in the virtuosity of a singular towering intelligence than in sharing as much as one can in as many ways as one can. And in all the ways you can imagine, it is not meant to be read alone.


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


[1] Delany has mentioned the labor his sister undertook caring for his mother, and thereby “made it possible for me to go on writing during that period.”

LARB Contributor

Robert Kiely is the author of simmering of a declarative void (the87press, 2020), Incomparable Poetry, an essay on the financial crisis of 2007-8 and Irish literature (punctum, 2020), and Gelpack Allegory (Veer2, 2021). Born in Ireland, he currently lives in London.


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