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Delany on Paraliterature

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  • David Cozy
    Hi gang: Tooling around on the internet a week or so ago I came across the text below: ______ Introduction to Vol. 1, No. 1 & 2: Editorial Board:
    Message 1 of 1 , May 3 4:38 AM
      Hi gang:

      Tooling around on the internet a week or so ago I came across the text below:


      Introduction to Vol. 1, No. 1 & 2:

      Editorial Board:

      "Paraliterature" and the Mandate of Paradoxa

      Samuel R. Delany
      University of Massachusetts at Amherst

      Many of the questions that must of necessity be central to
      any consideration of paraliterature I have been writing about and
      struggling over for fifteen-going-on-twenty years. In 1985, these
      struggles won me the Pilgrim Award from the SFRA. Much of what I
      wrote was polemical - and called for a three-part program.

      The first part was fundamentally a change of attitude by
      those who were seriously interested in paraliterary work. That
      change could be fundamentally expressed: stop worrying about
      legitimating your object (which means stop worrying about origins,
      art vs. craft, and high-art, low-art), and start critiquing that

      The remaining two parts were a twin-pronged research
      program: the first prong was an insistence on a rigorously
      materialist exploration of the conditions of paraliterary
      production, dissemination, and consumption. The second prong - and
      third (and most important!) part - was a revision in the nature of
      the object of study: all genres, literary or paraliterary, were
      seen as ways of reading. Thus, the import to the materialist
      research was in the way the conditions of production,
      dissemination, and reception affected the way of reading that was
      the particular paraliterary genre under study - science fiction,
      comic books, pornography, etc.

      In terms of promulgating this program... For the first five
      years, I banged tables and shouted. For the next five years, I
      argued coolly and disinterestedly. For the last ten years, I've
      just been standing around, now and then reminding people that the
      wheel need not be reinvented every time one starts in again to
      look at the paraliterary.

      I would love to see Para*doxa take some hard and fast
      editorial positions and stick by them, i.e., no articles that got
      caught in the endless search for legitimating origins. I would
      love it if there were a total ban on all articles in the form
      "Paraliterary work X fulfills literary task P [as defined by
      literary critic Q] even better than acknowledged literary work Y.
      Therefore, X should clearly be considered literary as well." (Such
      essays are insistently blind to the whole power structure that is
      the literary/paraliterary divide.) I would love to see the "Aw
      shucks, this ain't art; it's just a form of craft" attitude banned
      in all its sneaky, ugly forms from all articles about paraliterary
      texts in this journal. But I know I'm not going to see such things
      - because if you did ban them, you wouldn't have enough to fill up
      an issue!

      "Literature", like "art", "civilization", "culture", and
      "society" are slippery terms - and their slipperiness is a
      necessary aspect of their social function.

      "Literature" means all writing that is produced in the
      acknowledged literary genres, all writing that aspires to be
      literature, all writing that can conceivably be used to endorse
      the dominant ideology, either directly or indirectly - that is,
      until the idea of "literature" comes under any sort of attack. At
      that point, it completely revises its meaning, pulls in its
      borders, and becomes "only the best, the very highest quality work
      that has been produced in these various genres" - which is, of
      course, a very different thing.

      It's like a medieval fortress town, where most of the time
      people live happily both inside and outside the walls until an
      attack comes - at which point the gate is sealed. Suddenly, lots
      of peasants and farmers and the general populace find themselves
      locked outside, victims to the advancing hordes, while only those
      inside are safe from the ravages of time, forgetfulness, and
      general attrition under the attack of time. At that point there
      is, of course, a lot of shouting around the portals (usually from
      people both inside and out), about how Farmer Jones or Mistress
      Pickle really ought to be let in - after all, think of all the
      good they did for the Lord and Lady last Rumptickle Eve. (But
      Raymond Williams discussed all this at length and its reasons in

      You will find - if you haven't already found - a tendency
      for people who claim to be writing about paraliterature - i.e.,
      about life among the outlaw hordes in the badlands - to let their
      attention be easily diverted into defending precisely the
      secondary and tertiary canonical works shut out when the hordes
      approach the castle and the gate is dropped, i.e., the farmers who
      live just a bit beyond the wall. (When Kenneth Branagh's film
      "Mary Shelly's Frankenstein" opens [ed note: Nov 11, 1994], be
      prepared for the deluge of essays on "Frankenstein as
      Paraliterature". Oh, Brian Aldiss, what hath thou wrought!

      Another idiocy I'd like to see just banned from print: the
      easy and uncritical assertion that Frankenstein is somehow the
      "origin" of science fiction.) But the fact is, most people don't
      want to write about paraliterature. They want to write about
      secondary and tertiary canonical literature - which is something
      else entirely.

      And the rare critic that does want to write about the
      paraliterary is usually so critically unsophisticated, he or she
      can do nothing but make the same noises they have heard literary
      critics making about their own much beleaguered object. And that
      is almost as bad. A warrior in the wilderness and a farmer plowing
      just beyond the walls are not the same thing - and cannot be
      critiqued as if they were, even if there's lots of commerce
      between them; which there often is in more peaceful times. Oh
      well. You have my sympathy and good wishes for a long hard uphill


      David Cozy
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