Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on About Writing by Samuel R. Delany

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at About Writing by Samuel R. Delany

I may have said this before, but I think I’m starting to develop an attitude about the books I’ve been reading for this project. To be fair, I’ve read about ten of them now in a relatively short space of time (with about five more to go), so I think I’ve earned the right. But I try my best to approach each new book with an open mind and to keep it open as long as possible before I inevitably start to rebel against the lessons the author is trying to teach. This is easier to do with some of the books than others. It was particularly difficult in the case of Delany.

In his preface, Delany acknowledges that this book might not be for everyone and that the insights and advice he gives are based on his own experiences and preferences. Which is a pretty standard way to open a book like this and is more than fair. As Delany puts it, his mission is to help aspiring writers write the sort of book that he would like to read.

I immediately bristled at this. Why does Delany assume that the person reading the book wants to cater to his tastes?

Well, for one thing because they’re reading a book that he wrote about writing. I imagine that many of the book’s intended readers are admirers and fans of Delany’s work, hence why they picked it up in the first place. Also the letters in the book appear to be written in response to such admirers, so of course these people would be interested in learning about the type of writing that pleases Delany.

More than that, though, I think Delany makes this assumption in large part because he teaches writing and also reviews manuscripts for publication. These are roles that put him in position of judging the work of others, in which case it clearly matters whether they are writing something that he would like to read.

In fact, I think this is the key to understanding the pervasive tendency toward prescriptiveness that I’ve found in so many of these books. Many of them are written by people who not only write but also teach writing. These are people who evaluate the work of aspiring writers on a regular basis and probably see the same mistakes over and over again: overreliance on clichés, bad use of flashback, stories that start with an alarm clock ringing (which, according to one essay in Bringing the Devil to His Knees, is a much more common sin than you might think). It’s no wonder why, when given the opportunity to write about writing, their instinct is to write a polemic against the stuff they’re tired of seeing in the work of amateurs.

I can certainly relate to that. I’ve never taught writing, but I was a writing tutor for eight years and I got so tired of typing the same feedback over and over that I eventually created a document with my most common comments and simply copy and pasted where needed. I also see a lot of the same mistakes over and over in students’ research and the projects they submit for class. If I had to write a book on how to create an annotated bibliography, it would probably be just as full of the stuff I was tired of seeing as these writing books are. Luckily for me, none of the students in my class fancy themselves future bestselling authors of annotated bibliographies, so at least I don’t run up against egotistical delusions as often as I imagine creative writing teachers do.

So Delany has every right to rant a bit. He has the credentials. It’s his book. Have at it.

But JFC.

Delany might say at the beginning that the purpose of the book is to help the reader understand how to write the kind of story that he might like to read but it’s entirely possible to walk away from this book thinking he must not actually like anything except his own work and the works that inspired it. I mean, one of the letters he includes is a thorough and somewhat vicious takedown of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Not, it seems, because the letter writer asked him his opinion of the book (though it’s impossible to say, since the letters Delaney seems to be responding to—assuming they’re real and not just a device—are not included in the text). But just because this book seems to be an example of everything he doesn’t like to read in a book.

I mean, at one point he calls her apparent love for her “more repellent” characters “morally imbecile.” He also suggests that she failed to do the proper research on the time period about which she’s writing (the only mention of research in the main book). And seems to think that one of the main problems with The Bluest Eye is that it attempts to follow the main character into adulthood, suggesting that stories about female characters that attempt to show the transition from childhood to postpubescence are doomed to fail. Because menstruation or something.

Honestly, I wasn’t even listening at that point. I was too appalled.

On the one hand, writing books tend to be filled with a lot of blind worship of Great Writers and the Great Literature they write. So you’d think it would be a nice change to read such a thorough takedown and to remember that Great Writers are not immune to committing literary sins, especially in their early work.

But Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, y’all. Even if I misunderstood some of the arguments he was trying to make about The Bluest Eye, it’s still clear that he thinks this book is a piece of crap. And if he thinks something by Toni Morrison is a piece of crap, what chance does anyone else have of pleasing him?

Unfortunately, Delany doesn’t really make that clear. Or if he does, it’s hard to hear over all of the ranting he does against the use of flashbacks. By the time I walked away from this book, my ears were ringing with all of the things Delany hates to see in the writing of others. Which is fine—as he acknowledges at the beginning, these are his opinions and not everyone will share them. But if the purpose of the book is to help the reader understand how to write the sort of book Delaney likes, well. As I said before, my impression is that he doesn’t like much of anything.

But the aim of my own project isn’t to figure out what authors who write books about writing like and don’t like. It’s to find out what, if anything, they have to say about research.

As I said before, the only time Delany mentions research in the main book is to accuse Morrison of not doing any (or not doing enough to get her facts right). But in the last page or so of the appendices, he does offer some thoughts on the old “write what you know” adage. He basically says that you should use what you know to write about things you don’t know more believably and that if you get your research through an authoritative enough source, you now know it and can write about it even if you don’t have direct experience of it yourself. Which is an interesting thought to consider when compared to many writers’ insistence, via the interviews and blog posts I’ve read, on the importance of hands-on research to understanding something well enough to write about it. Delany, it seems, allows for more flexibility here.

So clearly About Writing was not my favorite book but at least it does have a little information on research, even if that information is put in the back of the back of book (which, after all, is where Stephen King suggests research belongs anyway). Another mark in the “yes” column.

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