On Samuel R. Delany’s “Dark Reflections”
By Matthew CheneyOctober 9, 2016
Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany
What makes the story of the book’s initial publication more than a bit of bookchat trivia is that those circumstances and the novel’s reception support many of the ideas explored within the story itself. Dark Reflections is among the most detailed, thoughtful, and heartbreaking portrayals of a writer’s life — a writer seeking not only to write well, but to earn prestige and build a literary reputation. It was Delany’s own prestige and reputation that allowed the book any notice when it was more or less dumped into the marketplace. Had it been his first publication, or had he had a different sort of career, its fate would have been different.
In many ways, Dark Reflections is a narrative companion to Delany’s 2006 collection of essays, letters, and interviews, About Writing. In the introduction to that book, Delany says that its varied texts share common ideas, primary among them ideas about the art of writing fiction, the structure of the writer’s socio-aesthetic world both in the present and past, and “the way literary reputations grow — and how, today, they don’t grow.” The book is mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at aspiring writers. It provides some advice on craft, but it circles back most insistently to questions of value, and especially to questions of the difference between good writing and talented writing — and what it means, practically and materially, for a writer to shape a life around an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. While About Writing poses and explores these questions, Dark Reflections dramatizes them.
The movement of ideas between the two books indicates a truth that has been visible at least since the publication of Delany’s first essay collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, in 1977: narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differ in the ways they propose and explore concepts, but Delany’s philosophy and ideas move from one to the other in a synergistic process. The full manifestation of Delany’s philosophy, in fact, crosses all the texts he has published, including novels, short stories, essays, interviews, and letters.
In a 2007 interview with Steven G. Fullwood, Delany said of Dark Reflections:
I wanted to write a novel that young people seriously interested in writing might read, which would sketch something of the life awaiting them. Within that, I also wanted to make an aesthetic object that, in itself, would attempt to reflect some of the beauty one commits oneself to by going into the literary arts.
Dark Reflections presents the story of a moderately successful black, gay poet, Arnold Hawley, during numerous periods of his life from 1958 (when Arnold is 22) to circa 2004. We do not have access to any of Arnold’s poetry, and so we cannot judge its quality for ourselves. Whatever evaluation we might make of Arnold’s work and its merits for inclusion in a literary pantheon is deferred, because Dark Reflections does not ask us to stand in judgment over it; such judgment would fatally distract us from what is important. What we have access to is the story of Arnold’s poetry in the marketplace, and the story of the efforts to generate literary prestige for it and thus have it enter some sort of canon.
Delany is remarkably specific about the fate of Arnold’s books and the material circumstances of his life. We learn how little money he makes as an adjunct professor, we learn what his rent costs, and we learn what sort of income he gets from royalties on his books. (“One way or the other,” Delany says in the introduction to About Writing, “directly or indirectly, good fiction tends to be about money.”) The successes and failures of Arnold’s books are presented in considerable detail. We learn quite a bit, for instance, about his most successful poetry collection, Beleaguered Fields, which won the Alfred Proctor Prize for Poetry, and was nominated for the Drew-Phalen Award (both awards are fictional, but similar to real ones). Of Beleaguered Fields, Arnold’s editor says, “Between three hardcover printings and a trade paperback, eight and a half thousand copies is nothing to sneeze at, even for a novel […]”
Delany does not let the success of Beleaguered Fields remain mysterious. First, the collection was acquired by a young editor, Vikki, who had great passion for Arnold’s writing and thus put considerable personal effort into getting the book known — most effectively by, first, submitting galleys of the book to the Proctor competition, and then, when it won, heading off with Arnold to the publisher’s warehouse in New Jersey to put stickers announcing the award on the covers of the 852 remaining books from an initial 1,000-copy printing. Then, when the first printing is close to selling out, she orders a second printing of 3,000 hardcovers.
Arnold’s one real success in publishing is shown, then, to be the result of specific interventions rather than some inherent genius in the text itself — though, of course, it was something in the text that appealed to his editor enough to make her put forth extra effort for him, and it was something in the text that appealed to the Proctor judges enough to make them give the book the award. But that something alone would not have been enough to bring attention to the book on its own.
In the “Letter to R—” in About Writing, Delany says, “Basically the problem of the writer’s reputation is, How, during your lifetime, do you generate as many and as effective literary markers as possible?” The award stickers that Vikki and Arnold slap on the covers of Beleaguered Fields in the warehouse in New Jersey are literal markers that help the book remain within the literary discourse of its day. Arnold struggles in vain to create or attract more such markers, and so we are left to think that though his work is of at least more-than-average merit, his fate is to be, at best, a footnote in literary history.
Samuel R. Delany himself has been considerably more successful than Arnold Hawley in nearly every sense of the word, and he has gained a substantial set of literary markers for his work — decades of excellent word-of-mouth discussion of his books, glowing reviews in a wide variety of venues, numerous awards, and scholarly attention from critics in multiple fields. Sometimes, this has led to excellent sales (his most famous novel, Dhalgren, has sold over a million copies), but his work over the last 25 years or so has had a more mixed fate and more varied receptions.
It may be tempting to read Dark Reflections as a kind of alternate world autobiography, a “what if?” version of Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water, an inverse of his own life. In the Fullwood interview, Delany himself points out how much Arnold is his opposite:
Given that we are both committed to our work, he’s lived a life about as different from mine as it would be possible to imagine. He’s never been partnered. (Since I was teenager, I’ve almost always had a life partner.) He’s a poet who, over the forty years the book depicts, has written eight collections of poetry. (I’ve never written poetry, though I’ve written some twenty-five novels.) Although the sixth of his books won a prize and was moderately successful, he’s not a well-known writer — which is to say, his life is much like that of many writers — serious, hard working, deeply committed writers — working in the United States today.
But if Dark Reflections is a topsy-turvy autobiography, it is only so in an extremely limited sense. It is more meaningful to see the novel as an extrapolation from the premise of “we are both committed to our work,” an extrapolation that allows Delany to explore other sorts of commitments than his own, and to do so in a dialectical way. Delany and Arnold Hawley are differently committed, and Dark Reflections develops a plausible but fictional life from that difference. Being a novel, it provides the amount of detail necessary for a reader to speculate on the instances of Arnold’s life much as the anecdotes from Delany’s own life allow us to evaluate the ideas he presents in About Writing: How do circumstances affect events? How do choices shape results? What material conditions and relations lead to aspirations, desires, fears, and opportunities?
Arnold Hawley is presented as limited in his experience of the world, frightened and made anxious by much of everyday life, including sex, with which he has only slight experience. This repressed, narrow living is reflected (and occasionally refracted) in the narrowness of Arnold’s writerly life. He is devoted to poetry, but not much else, and his celibacy is not only a limitation in his living, but a trap with consequences for his writing. In his mid-20s, Arnold wrote “his one extended prose work, that embarrassing gay pornographic novel about the adventures of some Sicilian youth in the reign of the emperor Hadrian,” a book outlined for him by Bobby Horner, a friend who convinced him to write it for money; a book that took him four months to write rather than the planned three weeks; a book that he considered horrible and shameful. Though Arnold expresses nothing but hatred for the novel, Bobby Horner says the text made it seem that he’d had fun writing it, and Horner proposes that “the reasons your sex scenes are so passionate is because you’re a virgin.” Arnold keeps his one copy of the book hidden on his bookshelf, and he suffers nightmares that his Aunt Bea might learn of its existence — a fear even greater than his fear that they might speak openly of his homosexuality. Prose, it seems, is dangerous for Arnold: like sex, it leaves him exposed, revealed. Poetry as he practices it allows him a comfortable distance and an acceptable mask.
Arnold’s life as a reader parallels his personal life and his writing life. He has awareness of the most autobiographical and self-revealing sorts of contemporary poetry, and not just passing awareness of such writing, either, but “downright encyclopedic knowledge of the Beats, Bukowski, Black Mountain, the Berkeley and San Francisco Renaissance, and the confessionals — all of which he’d done nothing in particular to absorb, save a little reading […] [and] a little gossip.” Circumstances of geography and era make this the literary community he has inhabited (however marginally), but that community’s writing has not been the work that has invigorated him. The list of “work he actually loved from that era” is similar to lists of writers and books in About Writing that Delany values, but with a difference. Arnold’s list is narrow:
the rough poems and angular stories of Paul Goodman, even Goodman’s dry, dry Empire City and Don Juan, the soaring intellect of his literary, psychological, and educational essays, Orlovitz’s Milkbottle-H, the pyrotechnics of Davenport and Gass, Sontag’s offhand excellence, the poems of Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, James Schuyler, Richard Howard, and Mona Van Duyn […]
Goodman, Davenport, Gass, and Schuyler are each mentioned in About Writing, but the difference between Delany and his character of Arnold Hawley is that Delany’s range of reading is broader. It’s not that Delany spends a lot of time discussing the Beats, Bukowski, and confessional poets (he doesn’t), but that his references throughout About Writing are so wide-ranging as to be dizzying to the reader. The power of these lists is not merely that they point readers toward valuable writers and texts, but also that they create certain effects.
Delany has written about the effect of lists in fiction. In Starboard Wine, he discusses Thomas Disch’s short story “Descending,” pointing to:
its pyrotechnic method of character evocation, largely through the use of lists — at the beginning, a list of items in an almost empty refrigerator and cupboard and, a little later, a list of items purchased on credit in a department store. These lists tell a lot, very quickly, about our unemployed, though otherwise anonymous, protagonist.
Similarly, Arnold’s list of the poets he most enjoys tells us a lot about him, and not only about his aesthetic commitments: the absence of so much else points to the narrowness of his interests and suggests a narrowness to his imaginative empathy, or even a petrifaction of his emotional life.
The first list we encounter in About Writing is immense (116 names) and its effects many. Its organization is intuitive rather than alphabetical or chronological (“[…] Nathanael West (1903 – 40), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 94), and Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964) […]”), as Delany shows that “multiple qualities and multiple achievements are valued — and have been valued throughout the history of the conflicting practices of writing making up the larger field called the literary.” First, the list demonstrates the wide range of Delany’s knowledge and reading, and the groupings of writers are heterodox, with contemporary writers placed alongside writers from older eras (Chris Offutt is next to André Gide), popular writers alongside lesser-known ones (Roger Zelazny is between Darryl Pinckney and Randall Kenan), Americans next to Europeans next to Africans next to Asians. More important, though, is the list’s visual effect. It’s exhausting, covering over a full page of the book’s text — and then Delany says that the list is incomplete, even small. While he uses the list to make a point about what a serious writer should strive toward (if one wants to command a reader’s attention, one must strive to be better than the writers on such a list, even while recognizing that that is likely impossible), the breadth of the list is a challenge for writers and readers to expand their sense of the literary field.
Delany is closest to Arnold Hawley later in About Writing (in an interview originally published by American Literary History), when he says, “for the pleasure that occasionally can dupe us into calling it ‘pure,’ I read and reread Guy Davenport, Ethan Canin, Frank O’Hara, Hart Crane”; but, crucially, and unlike Arnold, he does not stop there. The sentence continues: “… Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman among comics writers; Martin Scorsese and Katherine Bigelow among movie directors.” Additionally, he cites different kinds of reading pleasures:
I enjoy Whitman, Simone Weil, Pascal, René Dumal … but more for their intellect, rage, and passion, their commitment to their struggle with belief — than for any particular belief any one of them holds. […] I enjoy Fanon, Césaire, the writers associated with the Black Arts movement, Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka … and, on another front, Paul Goodman. The writers I read as mystics, that I feel I can trust, are probably Robert Duncan and Helen Adam, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, and the rough, tumultuous mountain of Charles Olson’s Maximus and, even more, his poetics. My political writers are likely to be my fellow science fiction writers.
At the end of these lists he provides an important sentence: “And all this changes.” The various lists throughout About Writing (and the rest of Delany’s nonfiction) stand as testament to this fact, for while certain names and texts appear frequently, none of Delany’s reading lists are the same. They are personal, idiosyncratic, ever-shifting.
Multiplicity of experience is key to Delany’s project: in the experience of reading, of writing, and of living, variety and openness are preferred. An experience of multiplicity encourages chance encounters, new knowledge, and better social and political systems. This idea has been prevalent in Delany’s thinking at least since Babel-17 and Empire Star, two related works he finished in September 1965. Babel-17 links poetry, sexuality, and identity to urban (and interstellar) cosmopolitanism, while Empire Star proposes the idea of personalities that are “simplex,” “complex,” and “multiplex,” with multiplex being the highest achievement, one that Empire Star links to the omniscient literary point of view and proposes is the ability to see from multiple perspectives. Similar ideas find some of their most explicit socio-political development in 1999’s nonfiction book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, particularly as Delany discusses what he calls interclass contact:
The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.
Though not a perfect path to utopia, interclass contact is shown to be more productive and valuable than a mode that is more determined, predictable, and/or competitive. “Urban contact,” Delany says, “is often at its most spectacularly beneficial when it occurs between members of different communities. That is why I maintain that interclass contact is even more important than intraclass contact.”
Some of the most powerful, significant moments in Arnold Hawley’s life are ones of interclass contact, but it’s a kind of sociality Arnold pulls away from, repressing his attraction to its benefits in the same way he represses his sexuality, letting terror push him toward a narrow, closed life, one he can only repair by resorting to poetry.
The last pages of Dark Reflections suggest that we should not condemn Arnold too strongly, and that perhaps some of our conclusions about him have been hasty. His has been a life lived for literature, a kind of life Delany lauds in About Writing. But Dark Reflections is a cautionary tale, one suggesting that the sorts of sacrifices Delany says the serious writer must make in the “Letter to R—” (sacrifices of time and comfort, sacrifices that put writing ahead of nearly everything else) can spread into sacrifices that not only narrow a life, but narrow a writer.
Nonetheless, there is an honor and purity to Arnold, particularly in those final pages of the novel. His book-filled apartment is described as “like living in the storage cellar of a bookstore,” and the apartment is a comfort to him, a space where memory and poetry live together. He may have fled from the interclass contact of his younger years, but he has ruminated on that contact endlessly, turning it to art. The connections in his world are the connections of books, and there is a life in those connections: “Books kept connecting with books. That is what made them live…”
Arnold Hawley retreats from society, choosing to participate less and less in the activities that allow a person or a writer to be known. This contrasts significantly with Delany’s participations, particularly in the realm of literary and social criticism, but even within his fiction, where epigraphs and mentions within the pages create a kind of personal, always-changing canon of references. The lists of writers in Dark Reflections serve not only to tell us about Arnold’s tastes and personality, but also to create markers, however small or momentary those markers might be. (Most markers work accumulatively; it is a rare marker — a major award, a movie adaptation, a mention in a popular magazine like Rolling Stone — that can achieve much on its own.) Writers who seek to accumulate markers for their work must participate within the social systems that generate such markers. The effect of their participation is not, though, easily predictable, and a reputation, once it is established, may become hemmed in by the markers that originally established it.
Samuel R. Delany’s strongest and most lauded position is as a science fiction writer. He has won the career-honoring Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2002, and was awarded the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America in 2014. He is still frequently referred to as a science fiction writer, even though from 1987 to 2007 he published no new work that could generally be called science fiction or fantasy. All but one of his published novels are currently available in ebook editions, and only a few of his novels (none of the science fiction ones) are out of print.
The strength of the markers Delany established early on in the science fiction field provided a strong foundation for his later reputation, and those markers serve, for better and worse, as a kind of gravitational force that shapes, warps, and propels his reputation even outside the science fiction community. Despite Dark Reflections not fitting within the genre of science fiction, and having no mention anywhere on the first edition of Delany as a science fiction writer, it received reviews in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and the well-regarded online science fiction magazine Strange Horizons — indeed, these reviews are more substantial than most of those in the gay press, where it received only brief mentions in The Advocate and Out and a review of roughly 600 words in the Lambda Book Report. In the mainstream press, it was reviewed (mostly positively) in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, the American Book Review, and, most notably, The New York Times.
(Delany’s most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, proceeds into the future in its latter half, and so could be classified as science fiction, but the novel’s considerable focus on sex has limited its readership — though it gained a few reviews in science fiction publications [by Jo Walton at Tor.com and Paul Di Filippo at Locus’s website], it did not receive the sort of attention it would have had Delany published a new science fiction novel that was not as concerned with sex.)
In March 2014, Locus, the trade magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, published a roundtable discussion on their website in which various writers and critics explored Delany’s career. The limitations of discussing Delany only as a science fiction writer become clear in that roundtable, where most of the participants were relatively well read in his work, some having followed his career from nearly the beginning, though most expressed at least no interest in or at worst utter revulsion with the later writings. The highly esteemed science fiction editor and writer Gardner Dozois wrote:
Dhalgren stopped me cold two or three times, and I never did finish it. There were things I liked about his later SF novels, like Triton, but I can’t honestly say I appreciated them as much as I appreciated some of his earlier stuff, and if I’d hit Dhalgren or even Triton first, without having read the early stuff, I don’t know how much of a Delany fan I would have become. (I never got into the Neveryon books either.)
This was only the clearest statement of a palpable sense among many of the participants of disappointment in Delany’s work, especially since the 1980s, but sometimes, as with Dozois, even from as far back as 1968, when Delany published Nova, his last science fiction novel before Dhalgren was published in 1975. The one person to clearly disagree with the framing of Delany as having once been a good writer and then become, as critic Michael Dirda proposed, “problematic,” was Brian Evenson, whose work is sometimes science fictional, but who has also won O. Henry Awards for short fiction and has taught in prominent creative writing programs: “I tend to feel that each side of his work informs the other in a way that gives it more intensity and depth, and that the more widely you read in Delany’s body of work, the harder it is not to admire him.”
While the Locus roundtable makes clear the ways that Delany’s early publications, acclaim, and awards help maintain the canonicity of his early work within the discourse community of science fiction, it also shows the difficulty of moving markers once they have been strongly established. It’s especially worth noting that the word AIDS never appeared in the discussion, and yet Delany’s writing since around 1984 has dealt repeatedly, explicitly, and complexly with the AIDS epidemic that killed so many of his peers and friends, and which brought a constant threat of painful illness and death to loom over his own life.
The great nostalgia within a certain segment of the science fiction community for the pre-Dhalgren Delany is a nostalgia for a pre-Stonewall Delany. All of the fiction for which he ever received a science fiction award was written before the Stonewall riots. Delany’s work becomes more aesthetically adventurous not only as he develops a greater knowledge of literary and cultural theory, but also as the gay liberation movement opens up some more positive space for gay men in American society.
The stakes of reading Delany as a science fiction writer without gay liberation and then AIDS are delineated by comparison with Dark Reflections: for Arnold Hawley there has been very little gay liberation. He was a patron at the Stonewall bar before the riots, but felt alienated from the riots’ repercussions:
His conviction was that this “gay liberation” business, which so clearly was just an imitation of “Women’s Liberation,” itself only a spin-off of civil rights, had to be a social aberration that would dissolve when people grew tired of it.
But it hadn’t.
Arnold was always vaguely bewildered as to why.
Though he is a gay man who lives amid a gay community, Arnold is not able to bring himself to become part of that community. Even an epidemic won’t bring him out of his narrow world. The primary force within most urban gay men’s lives in the 1980s is, for Arnold, something distant. However, it has an effect on his behavior: “The advent of AIDS in the ’80s had been among the factors bringing Arnold’s own tentative sexual experiments to an end.” He can never escape a sense of shame at his sexual desires, and his shame traps him in a kind of pre-Stonewall personality, a personality that is comfortable using AIDS as an excuse for celibacy. (Interestingly, Arnold’s most adventurous writing, a long poem titled High-Toned Homilies with Their Gunwales All Submerged, is given a publication date of 1984, the year after HIV was discovered, and a year important enough in Delany’s own life to have allowed the publication of 1984: Selected Letters. Arnold’s book doesn’t get any positive reviews, hardly any copies sell, and he soon returns, unlike Delany, to more conventional writing.)
Toward the end of the novel, the narrator offers an interpretation after Arnold turns away from the moment of his greatest sexual yearning and temptation as a young man:
The psychological dismantling and rendering inactive of a passion such as Arnold’s is one of the most painful things the self can undergo. Only poets and a few saints can accomplish it with any ease, because it entails a revision in one’s conception of paradise as well as any entitlement the self may have to it. […] Because his firsthand experience of sex had convinced him of Aunt Bea’s rightness — that what you had never partaken of, you could not really miss (an ethical conviction that, even when, a decade later, for the company, Arnold began to go to gay bars with a few witty black male friends, he never really revised) — twenty-three-year-old Arnold Hawley returned to school and threw himself far more seriously into both his studies and his poetry.
The most traditional science fiction audience, the one that wishes Delany would write the way he did in his 20s, is one that, knowingly or not, wishes for him to be like Arnold Hawley. Such an audience wants to dismantle and render inactive the aesthetic, social, and sexual challenges of Delany’s mature work. Dark Reflections stands as a warning against such a wish.
Like About Writing, then, Dark Reflections serves a pedagogical function, and not only for aspiring writers. The novel begins by repeatedly encouraging us to wonder what caused Arnold’s (and his books’) fate, and the progress of the narrative shows us some of the events that led there, to the place where memories of literature and life have been stored away in the narrow dark.
We are left to assess Arnold’s life and choices ourselves. There is enough tension between Arnold’s reflections and the evidence the text provides that readers must build their own understanding and cannot rely on Arnold’s interpretations alone. Dark Reflections dramatizes the idea threaded through About Writing that serious, committed, diligent writers have no guarantee that their work will last beyond the moment of its writing or that their work will find an appreciative audience.
In the “Letter to R—” in About Writing, Delany says that if he had not sacrificed so much of his life to his writing, making everything else come second to it, he would “probably have published only half the novels I have and none of the nonfiction.” The lesson he draws from this is “that every artist […] must begin by saying: Is there any more I could have done? Is there anymore I must do now, in terms of the work itself?”
In Dark Reflections, we are provided the evidence of what Arnold did — not what he wrote, but how. Whether he could have done more, or whether he should have sacrificed less, is left to each reader to decide.
Matthew Cheney’s first collection, Blood: Stories, won the Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press. He has published fiction and nonfiction with One Story, Conjunctions, Literary Hub, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere.
Matthew Cheney’s first collection, Blood: Stories, won the Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press. He has published fiction and nonfiction with One Story, Conjunctions, Literary Hub, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Science fiction’s quest for otherness has gone global....
"Green Planets" takes as its starting point the fact that we and everything else that lives on/in/through planet Earth are in a lot of trouble....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.