Delany's Dirt

by Ray Davis

(Published in Ash of Stars, ed. James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi)
Introduction Digression Equinox Hogg The Mad Man Postscript

I. We Want to Take You, Cholly, When We Go

But it's always intriguing to discover the ways in which desire fuels the systems of the world.
-- The Mad Man, p. 257
I want to talk about Samuel R. Delany's pornography. I want to talk about it much as I talk about his other fiction, but I know that this desire won't be satisfied easily, since its consummation requires an unlikely level of cooperation from interlocutor or reader. Even in fantasy, I can only go so far before imagining your objections on the basis of genre -- unless fantasy becomes so divorced from experience that it goes unsatisfactorily flat, or unless I imagine a very limited (but so beautifully tailored!) audience of like minds.

Don't get me wrong; I like talking to an audience of like minds. But I also want to make some attempt, however misguided or inadequate, to talk to the rest of you. (Members of the choir may wish to turn to the next section of the hymnal.[1])

Those who read science fiction: Imagine that I'm writing about Theodore Sturgeon's work for a group of academics in the late 1950s. Whatever virtues I point out will be undercut by the perfectly obvious fact that it is science fiction, and that it is therefore adolescent wish-fulfillment: "Telepathy, mutants; I just don't read that stuff." Indeed, the science-fictional or fantastic content is so embarrassingly obvious that I might be tempted to de-emphasize it in Sturgeon's defense, to, in effect, admit that content to be a flaw in itself, and therefore admit that Sturgeon can only be understood as a failed artist.

My point is that genre-specific content is not a sign of weakness. Only a sign of genre. And I don't think it's particularly difficult to assimilate -- rather than judge -- those signs which mark a work as genre. Genres may assume reading protocols which are not those of a particular ideal of literature. But a given piece of fiction can fit more than one set of protocols, and the set of "literary" protocols is notable for its flexibility. True, a fan of a genre, who responds positively to genre-specific content for its own sake, might appreciate work within the genre more quickly (and feel more betrayed when genre conventions are sabotaged). But fannishness is not required. Sufficient to begin with is a willingness to let down one's guard, to admit that a book devoted to telepathy and mutants can tell us things a mainstream book can't.

So can a book devoted to careful descriptions of sexual acts, although porn is especially subject to dismissal-by-genre-content. One rarely hears biographies turned away with "I prefer having a life to reading about one." Few people rush to assure one that they're "not an elf" or "not a detective" or "not a serial killer" when the title of a fantasy or a mystery or a thriller arises in conversation. John Le Carré's target audience may be fellow spies, but readers who aren't spies seem willing to apply the experiences of a spy's life to their own. Why is it so difficult to play the same game of similarity-through-difference with sexual material?

That's a rhetorical question, since I'm not willing to take the time to answer it adequately. I can answer it rhetorically, however: We do play this game, but under carefully circumscribed rules. Perforce, we must pretend to find ourselves in the mainstream lies of bestselling novels, Hollywood films, and advertising, although even the most vanilla encounter has infinitely more in common with the porn of Pat Califia and Marco Vassi than with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Society expends a great deal of energy on not very convincing simulacra to keep us from thinking or talking about the reality of sex.

The only way to approach that reality is through sexually explicit material -- emphasis on "explicit"; I'm not talking Playboy here. And masturbation is not the only possible approach to such material.

Delany hardly clarifies that point by his whimsical citation of Auden's "pornography is that which gives me an erection"[2] -- which is about as useful as defining science fiction by sense of wonder. For all practical purposes, porn is defined by its focus on sex. Tumescence and lubrication may help the writer maintain that focus, but what the reader does with that focus is up to the reader.

True, an aphrodisiac effect is as worthy an artistic goal as any other physiological effect; true, porn's greatest benefits may be to confirm, comfort, and trouble those with matching proclivities. When porn isn't aphrodisiac? Then it can still offer the benefits of other forms of fiction: analysis of the workings of the world; disabusal of solipsism; laughter, horror, surprise; those excessive intrinsic pleasures which we call aesthetic.... You probably have your own ideas of what fiction is good for, and, when the pornographer fetishizes literature as well as more traditionally sexual pursuits, chances are you'll find those virtues in porn.

Along with porn's own peculiar, problematic virtues: Desire, like art, is privileged to cut across (although not erase!) those wavering boundaries which define the power systems of the world. As such, it can, like art, be used to shore up those systems. Or, as such, its expression can be a courageous, humanizing reminder of the limits of those systems. Porn, as the art which most directly expresses desire, thus has a great deal of power at its disposal -- which may be why it's so circumscribed.

By any reasonable standard, these are important (and courageous) books: three novels in three very different modes by Samuel R. Delany from three periods of his career.

In fact, the three are so different in style and mood that one might wonder why they should be treated together at all. Their most clearly shared elements -- besides the "explicit sex" which establishes their genre -- are abiding interests in racial epithets and the consumption of bodily products. Which, it turns out, is surprisingly little to have in common, though enough to keep all three out of public sight, to put off the idly curious, and to distract most critics from other aspects.

What can I say? "After a while, you don't hardly notice the smell." For me, having read all three books, those abiding interests have faded from the primacy of "content" to almost the invisibility of "reading protocol." Which is probably far from the author's intent -- especially for The Mad Man, which could truthfully be called a book about the consumption of bodily products -- but, I think, permissable as a temporary reading strategy, as a step in appreciating those abiding interests rather than simply being struck by them. At any rate, it's the position from which I write the remainder of this essay.

I'm not asking that you change what you find sexually attractive; only that you experimentally discard the requirement for compatible fantasy when reading about sex. Remember, it's just a book. And if you do occasionally find yourself responding -- well, that's educational, too.

I started to say, Tony, please! Spare me! Then I thought: But who knows when I'll need to know stuff like that.
-- The Mad Man, p. 386

[1]Or even to the "Postscript".

[2]"The Scorpion Garden," The Straits of Messina,p.1.

Introduction Digression Equinox Hogg The Mad Man Postscript

Copyright 1996 Ray Davis