Monday, December 19, 2022

Samuel R. Delany on Thomas M. Disch



My interview with Samuel R. Delany on Thomas M. Disch, who was for many years this friend and then, abruptly, not, appears in the current issue of Foundation.  

Here's how it came about. Chip was at a party at Marianne's and my house after Philcon, and started telling stories about Tom Disch, his brilliance, and his difficult personality. He had his listeners rapt. Gee, I thought. Somebody should get this stuff down on the record.

In my family, we have a saying, swiped from an R. A. Lafferty story--"You see your duty quickly, citizen." Whoever observes that "somebody" should do something is that somebody.

So Marianne and I invited Chip back for lunch and an interview. It covered a lot of interesting ground and a lightly edited version appears in Foundation under the title, 'Bitter, Fun and Bright': Samuel R. Delany on Thomas M. Disch. Here's one small taste:

The last time I went to Europe, I had gotten all the way to Istanbul. I found Istanbul a really great city. I told Tom what a wonderful, rich city it was. Of course it has a literary history. Things like in Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” all the city sections take place in Istanbul—not to mention the opening of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Although that was not the social level of Istanbul I saw, I still always felt that that was something going on around me. (And, yes, the food was much, much better: Greek food, yes, but served in tiny amounts, like dim sum, so that it made culinary sense.) I had met people and I'd had fun while I was there. I'd had a great time.


Tom had a miserable time, I later found out.

The result was one of his best stories, called “The Asian Shore.” It's all about a totally isolated guy. Tom ended up spending like six weeks there during which he was not able to meet anyone. It produced things like “The Roaches.” Which is one of his best stories, about what happens when the bomb falls and you're thousands of miles away from anything you know. Also “The Asian Shore,” which is very basically a study of racism. Although that's not what you think when you first read it. John Benedict Harris, this architect, is being absorbed by the city and finally becomes indistinguishable from one of the Asians. This woman keeps calling him by the name Yavuz and his name is not Yavuz, but John Benedict Harris. You couldn’t have a more American name than that.


Tom thought his stay in Asia in Istanbul was the loneliest and most isolated time he ever had. On the one hand I feel good because it produced a great story. But Tom himself said he hated the experience. 


You can find more information about Foundation here.  If you want to subscribe or buy a single issue, you can do so here.






Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Thanks for this!

Michael Swanwick said...

It was my pleasure.

ukjarry said...

Many many many years ago I used to have a website about Tom Disch, and over the years I've accumulated most of what he's written. My copies of his nonfiction encompass old magazine pages, photocopies, print-outs, text files and I don't what other formats. All of which are now getting very old, faded or technologically outdated. I've spent the last few months collating them into a couple of large files, which means I happen to have the following immediately to hand. To tie in with Delany's interview - which I didn't know about, so thanks for the info, and I look forward to obtaining it - here's a fun essay Disch wrote for the Borders website (long since eaten by time):


My files are deep. If I count the papers archived at Yale's Beinecke Library, they include term papers I wrote before I dropped out of N.Y.U. in 1962. Even so, my first critical writing on SF dates from even earlier - to book reports from seventh grade, when I began to read science fiction.

Those book reports are unpublished and unarchived, but the books I wrote about were unforgettable. Proof of that can be found in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, my history of and mash note to the neighborhood where I grew up. I will confess that a few of the judgments I rendered in the 1998 book were based on opinions that I formed in 1952, when I was 12 and had just begun to read Astounding Science Fiction. Twelve is proverbially the "golden age of science fiction," and though that's a truism that's no longer true (I explain why in Dreams), it was true for me. My twig was bent, and I grew up to be a science fiction writer and, as a sideline to that, a critic of science fiction.

As a writer of SF I can lay claim to my fair share of laurels, including the John W. Campbell Award, named for the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, which later became Analog (as Campbell himself became one of my pet peeves and betes noires). However, no story or novel of mine ever won a Nebula or a Hugo, the SF equivalent of being elected class president. ln the albatross-like words of my college chum John Clute, in his article for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Disch is "the most respected, least trusted most envied and least read of all modern first-rank SF writers." I don't see how one could be least read and most envied at the same time (what's to envy if you're not read?), but let that be. It was "least trusted" that rankled - to the degree that I overcame my natural stoic reserve and asked John what he meant by it. He explained that I was too little sparing of other people's tender feelings - especially their feelings of self-esteem. All critics (including Clute) share this guilt, but SF writers have been protected from most cruel critical truths by the indifference of those outside their ghetto and the code of silence among those within.

I can live with Clute's "least trusted" if it's a synonym for "most candid," though from a professional point of view, it may have been a great folly. Not only do the writers you speak ill of as a critic resent what you write in proportion to how well-founded it is, but writers you haven't written about will resent you almost as much because they assume you have been silent to avoid hurting their feelings (which is often the case). Further, the editors of those you've most offended will certainly never be your editors, for you have impugned their taste and judgment. Honesty is certainly not the best policy in these cases. Silence is.

ukjarry said...


Be that as it may, I would write this or that critical piece about SF - sometimes for toney places like The New York Times, sometimes for more downscale venues (for awhile I had a column in Twilight Zone and, later on, in Playboy). One or two essays created teapot tempests, and twice I got to clobber Whitley Strieber's alien-abduction fantasies in The Nation. Nothing of mine has ever been so often reprinted, since Whitley became an international celebrity, and no one else would bother to take the mickey out of him. The criticism piled up until, by 1990, there was enough to make a hefty book. I titled the manuscript after my Strieber piece, The Village Alien, and sent it off to Johns Hopkins University Press, which had just accepted my second book of poetry for them, Dark Verses and Light, and was reprinting the historical novel I'd written with Charles Naylor, Neighboring Lives.

I waited for a response.

For over two years I waited for a response, becoming ever more testy and incredulous when told that the individual to whom the book had been sent for a scholarly evaluation had not returned the manuscript despite the editor in chiefs increasingly earnest insistence. I said, "Fine, return the manuscript, I'll send it elsewhere." They asked for the manuscript's return. No success. "Then let me ask," I suggested. At first this too was not possible, because it had been sent in confidence to the individual who would not return it. But had not their confidence been betrayed? I urged. And shouldn't I know who was sitting on my manuscript so that I might forestall another publisher sending it to the same person for a new evaluation? At last, after the editor in chief had thoroughly washed his hands of any blame, he told me who had my manuscript

O my prophetic soul: it was my old friend X, once a famous SF writer and now a tenured academic with a line in deconstruction. X, who had written about me so often and in such glowing terms. X, who, when he was informed that I knew who had my manuscript and would he please return it, sent me a six-page letter explaining in exhaustive detail how the dog had eaten his homework. Considered as an exercise in Nabokovian irony, it surpasses any of his fiction that I've read. I especially relish his hand-wringing Uriah-Heep-like close: "I have been inconsiderate - and I apologize. Two years is an unconscionable time for anyone to keep any manuscript for any reason. And if I've endangered the project, I'm mortally sorry, Tom. Really I am."

Reader, I murdered him.

No, that's just a joke. But I have had my own small tooth for a tooth. Many years ago, X published a book based on Roland Barthes's S\Z. In that book, Barthes analyzes a story by Balzac, "Sarrasine," virtually word for word; X did the same with a story of mine. Balzac's story appears as an appendix to Barthes's exegesis, and, with my permission, X made similar use of my story, which is not in the public domain, like Balzac's. If any publisher wants to reprint X's book, he will have to wait till I have been dead for 50 years and my work is similarly in the public domain. (Unless he brings out The Village Alien first.)

This long account of retributive justice is a preface to The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, for I would never have written Dreams, nor seen it win my first Hugo Award, if X had not gone to such lengths to prevent The Village Alien from seeing print. He was the motivator I needed. He created the silence I needed to fill.

Michael Swanwick said...

Wow. That's amazing. Thank you for sharing it.

I can add to the story the facts that a) the manuscript was strikingly unsightly, including tear-sheets and thus it was not obvious that b) it was the only copy. Knowing the latter explains why Thomas Disch was so furious about matter. But it was unprofessional of him to have only one copy, so of course he couldn't mention the fact in his essay.

Your project preserving Disch's non-fiction sounds fascinating. I hope it sees print someday. I, at least, would be happy to buy a copy.