Fantasia on a theme by Samuel Delaney

This year, my long-time friend Derek Muir attended the Clarion writer’s workshop. One thing he brought back was [an essay called ‘Thickening the Plot’][ttp] by Samuel R Delaney, who had been an instructor at Clarion in the 70s. I bought the larger book that contains it — ‘About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews.’


It’s a wonderful book. In the essay that follows, I have taken some of his ideas, mixed in my own interpretations and thoughts, and generally corrupted and polluted his work to create my own synthesis. What follows, then, should not be taken as his views, but my own.

In the introduction to the book, Samuel R Delaney makes a distinction between three levels of literary skill: those who can’t write, good writers, and talented writers. The first group is basically most people; not illiterate, but people who have neither inclination nor aptitude nor necessity. The next group — good writers — are those who can write grammatically, want to put down fiction, and may have done so. We can imagine that maybe they have done well during English lessons at school and were told they were better than their peers, or had been encouraged by parents. They are probably avid readers. The talented group are people with something extra beyond competence and desire.

It’s the middle group — the good writers — who produce generally poor fiction. How could they not? Who else produces it? Certainly not the non-writers, because they aren’t producing anything, and not the talented, because their stuff is the really good fiction. For me, it was counterintuitive that competent writers are — must be — responsible for bad fiction. Now that that idea is in my head, I can’t seem to shake it.

Delaney writes:

“However paradoxical it sounds, _good writing_ as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finaly what turns most writes away from writing. _Talented writing_ is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.”

If you can string a sentence together, but you know you’re not writing to the same standard as the authors of the great classics — authors like Milton, Austen, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Orwell — then you are a Good Writer. And you are probably producing dross.

This comparison with the greatest authors of all time should loom over you and oppress your soul. You must be crushed down by the weight of a thousand masterpieces, each one pressing upon your soul and leaving you awestruck. Then, you must take these great works and absorb them, read them to find their secrets, learning from them what you need to first do as well as them, and then surpass them. Without the visceral, breathless need to reach the very pinnacle of excellence, and without the knowledge of what constitutes that pinnacle, chances are you will not succeed.

Why must you strive to reach so high? Isn’t it enough to be merely good? No. Here’s why.

Let’s imagine you’re a science fiction writer, and you want to write novels, have them published, and see them sell. What you want specifically is this; you want your novel shelved alongside _Neuromancer_ and _1984_ and _The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy_ and _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. You want me to flick through all these books, and yours, and for me to put those books back on the shelf and take yours to the tills. Well, then you’d better write better cyberpunk than Bill Gibson, or better distopias that George Orwell, or I’ll just buy their books instead. You must aspire to beat the best authors in history at their own game; you are in competition with them. It is not viable to attempt anything less.

For myself, I imagine some avid reader, entering a bookshop and glancing, by chance, at the spine of my book, shelved there under ‘Cooper’. Just to the left are books by C.J Cherryh and Orson Scott Card. To the right, Samuel Delaney and Philip K. Dick. _Even while staring at my book,_ his peripheral vision hits four Hugo-award winning novels. When he reaches out his hand to pick up my book, with the smallest twitch his fingers brush _Ender’s Game_ and _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?_.

My book has to be very good indeed to make that sale.


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