A Distant, Grudging, Even Uncomprehending Respect for Chiclets

All the Samuel R. Delany letters quoted in this post are from the collection 1984. In a letter to John P. Mueller dated August 21st, 1984, Delany writes --

“Yesterday, I got hold of a book of short stories by Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. They're very nice, very short, and Carver has a very precise eye for the way people in a state of despair try to pretend they're feeling something else entirely. And he lets the language flop about and clunk a bit, not just in the way that real people talk (which clever writers have been doing since back in Rome with Patronius Arbiter), but in the way real people might even, now and again, write about their own situations if someone asked them to put down what happened. And that's kind of interesting. But even so, you'd really have to work to write a duller bunch of tales.”

“Like I say, it's the problem of being a professional. You end up reading lots of stuff that you respect, but very little you honestly enjoy.”

Yet two months later Delany appears to be hooked on Carver. Here he is writing to Robert S. Bravard on October 16th 1984 about a science fiction convention --

“For the most part, indeed, I stayed in my hotel room whenever I could get way with it and read Raymond Carver short story after short story. (I brought three volumes of them with me.) Carver is not a writer whom I like; but I respect him more and more. And his tales go down like chiclets – the point being, of course, that you are not supposed to swallow your chiclet; just chew it. Yet sometimes you do.”

Delany has more thoughts on “respect” in a letter to Camilla Decarnin dated September 1st, 1984 --

“Writing of Camus, Susan Sontag once said that the most dangerous emotions a writer's texts can evoke from the reader is love. That's because, she went on, when we fall out of love with a writer, we feel betrayed; we feel that, indeed, we were fools ever to have been taken in by them in the first place. A writer is much more likely to endure if he (Sontag wrote 'his' and 'he') earns from us a distant, grudging, even uncomprehending respect. That's the writer who, years later, we take down again, read more carefully this time – suddenly to have our begrudging respect open up into a far deeper aesthetic appreciation.”

Not an easy idea to convey to one's publicist or blurb writer. Advance praise: this book will earn your distant, begrudging respect. But as usual Delany's onto something. He continues --

“(That's another reason why 'greatness' may be a more socially valuable 'aura' in the end than the subjective experience of either 'sophisticated' or 'unsophisticated' enjoyment.) But once we are through with a writer whose work we once honestly and directly loved, we really are through. If we do go back to those texts, it's only to explore the more or less painful (or, indeed, sometimes charming; but always, ultimately, unsatisfactory) traces of our earlier vulnerability, naïveté, and immaturity. And that writer's new works, to the extent they have not grown as fast (or in the same direction) as we have, return us to all the torture of our own earlier failings and blindnesses.”

I don't know if I've ever fallen completely out of love with a writer I once loved... Here's a link to a Sontag essay on Camus that may be the one Delany is thinking of. If so she doesn't exactly say what Delany remembers her saying, but she does say this --

“Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.”

“Perhaps it is always dangerous for a writer to inspire gratitude in his readers...”

IMHO, Kafka does too arouse love...

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